The Passing of the Old German
Author: Grace Shackman
It was a favorite of townsfolk for 67 years
"I feel real bad that I've celebrated my last birthday there," says Gottlob Schumacher, a former owner of the Old German, who turned ninety-one on January 29. After almost fifty years of working seven-day weeks, the restaurant's current owner, Bud (Robert) Metzger, is closing the business and retiring.
Although Metzger's rest is well deserved, his customers are in mourning, many of them coming in for a last chance to savor a menu that embodies the cuisine of Ann Arbor's Swabian population: southern German specialties such as spatzen, warm potato salad, stuffed noodles, Koenigsberger klops (veal meatballs in a caper sauce), and liver dumplings. One item, "German meat patties," is an Old German original. In the 1940's, the restaurant was fined for selling "adulterated" hamburgers because they added breading and seasoning. But the item was so popular, explains Metzger, they resumed selling it--"We just hung on a new label."
The Old German started in 1928 as a small eatery on Ashley with a horseshoe counter and a few tables. Original owner William Schwarz was a German-trained butcher who specialized in sausage making. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Schwarz couldn't get a liquor license because he was still a German citizen. He sold the restaurant to the Haab brothers, Oscar and Otto, but they found it too hard to run restaurants in both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, so after a few years they offered to sell it back. Still not a citizen, Schwarz asked Gottlob Schumacher, a tailor at Wild's Men's Clothing, to become his partner and apply for the liquor license. By the time Schumacher joined the restaurant in 1936, it had expanded into its current L-shaped layout by taking over a grocery store facing Washington Street.
Carolina Schumacher and Anny Schwarz cooked traditional German fare, with daily specials such as spareribs, sauerkraut, and pig hocks, and chicken dinners on Sunday. At lunchtime they served workers from the three factories in the area--King Seeley, American Broach, and the International Radio factory (later Argus).
Bud Metzger's father, Fritz, bought the restaurant from Schumacher in 1946. Trained as a baker in Germany, he left in 1926 to escape the rampant inflation, only to run into the Depression here. He first ran a restaurant in Ypsilanti, then moved to Ann Arbor and ran the German Inn at what had been a Coney Island on Huron Street across from the bus station. Metzger had two brothers in Ann Arbor, William and Gottfried, who were also trained as bakers. (Their father owned a bakery in their hometown of Wilhelmsdorf.) Just a few months after the Old German opened, William started a similar German restaurant, Metzger's, right next door (where the Del Rio is now). Gottfried ran the DeLuxe Bakery on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Washington, and for many years furnished the black bread for his brothers' restaurants.
Bud returned from the navy in 1946 and immediately went to work for his father. "We never talked about it," he recalls. "It was just understood that I would work there." In 1952, when Fritz became too ill to work, Bud took over. While keeping the original customer base of factory workers and people of German descent, the Old German began attracting a much wider clientele, becoming the special-occasion restaurant for many townspeople and university students. During the 1960's and 1970's, the lines of people waiting to be served often extended outside and down the block.
A fire on April 1, 1975, destroyed the Old German. It was out of business for two years, but customers flocked back after it was remodeled and expanded. Competition from scores of newer restaurants has put an end to the long waiting lines, but the Old German is still very busy at mealtimes. Some regulars come every day, including a group, mainly lawyers, who gather at the traditional round table for lunch. Many university alumni feel that a visit to the Old German is a must when they return to Ann Arbor to relive their first dates or their first beers at age twenty-one. What was missing at a lunch visit in early February was the under-forty crowd.
The Old German will close the first or second week in March. They have to be out for the new owners, the Grizzly Peak Brew Pub, by the first of April, but Bud doesn't want a big deal made out of the actual final day. "I couldn't handle it," he says. He thinks his twenty-four employees, many of them long-term (cook Bill Dettling has been there since Schumacher's day), will have no trouble finding other employment. Some already have plans. He isn't sure what he'll do in retirement, but he won't be leaving town. "Ann Arbor has so much to offer," he says.
Bud Metzger's beer stein collection, which is almost as famous as the food, will be auctioned off in May.