O Schwarzwald, alte Heimat, wie bist du so schön.
O Black Forest, our Home, you are so beautiful.
1923. Wilhelm Metzger leaves home—home, Bavaria’s phantom firs and cider presses—for a new life in Ann Arbor. He brought with him a Teutonic work ethic and a penchant for cooking good, rib-busting food and warm beer. He, too, brought his family, and with them established a restaurant that, 82 years later, embraces the same Bavarian values. Home became Metzger’s German Restaurant, a scrubbed counter, and plates of sauerbraten, rouladen and cucumber salads. But, no matter the place, home always meant family.
It still does. Just ask John.
John Metzger, Wilhelm’s grandson, currently runs what he says is the oldest family restaurant in Ann Arbor, now located on Zeeb Road. He began working at the original restaurant on East Washington when he was 10.
“I have two sisters and a brother, and we all worked in the restaurant when we were growing up,” said Metzger. “We worked as kids, and through high school and college. It was always a family restaurant and a family operation.”
That is how they have always wanted it. In 1928, Wilhelm opened Metzger’s to a primarily German clientele. Business was good despite the long, dry years during Prohibition and the Great Depression. When other restaurants had no choice but to pack up and board up, however, Metzger’s prevailed.
Wilhelm, along with his brothers, Fritz and Gottfried, worked hard to bring the feeling of home to Ann Arbor. Fritz opened the Old German restaurant next door to Metzger’s and right down the street was Gottfried’s Deluxe Bakery. Together, the Metzger family dug out a watering hole for German landsleute to roll up their sleeves, swig on warm pilsners and bat around the old days of the old country.
With time, the word got out. When John began working behind the bar washing glasses in 1969—just as his dad, Walter, had in the 1940s—more people, German and non-German, began to seek out the restaurant’s kraut, brats and beers. The restaurant continued to grow in popularity and eventually developed a following of families and couples, of university students and staff—fiercely loyal to Metzger’s family and food.
John attributes his long-standing customer base to his restaurant’s consistency in staff and food. When your server knows your “usual”—say sauerbraten, light on the gravy, spatzen, and a slice of Black Forest cherry torte—you get to know people.
“We try to keep our employees a long time,” said Metzger. “Customers really notice that because they get to know our servers, our cooks and our bartenders.”
Their loyalty would be tested in 1999. When the parking lot across the street from the Washington Street restaurant was closed for three years, Metzger’s business declined and John had to make one of the hardest choices of his adult life.
“We weren’t sure if we were going to reopen or not. But, I had it in the back of mind that we had to do something,” he said. “It was a tough decision to make. But, we had to do something.”
In 2000, John and his sister, Heidi, opened the current Zeeb Road location. It was, John admitted, a risky business decision.
And, it was worth it. The Metzger’s received scores of emails and letters upon the restaurant’s reopening and, being more centrally located to Dexter, Jackson, Chelsea and Manchester, Metzger’s began attracting new customers.
Customers like the Levines. My family, hooked on my grandmother June’s cucumber salad recipe (cucumber and onion pulverized by a mix of cider vinegar and sugar), hoofed it from Canton to give this restaurant a whirl. We weren’t disappointed. For Mom, Metzger’s is familiar. It is her mom, standing in the kitchen over a pressure cooker and cutting board in their Westland ranch.
“Here, everybody feels like family,” said Metzger. “That’s the kind of atmosphere that we want.”
John’s nephew, Ryan, runs the restaurant’s kitchen and is most likely next in line for taking over the family business. But, until then, John is in this for the long haul.
“I’m going to be here until the 100th anniversary,” he said.
Walter’s eating at the bar. Family photos, posters of the Rhine, and shelves of beer steins line the walls. A cuckoo-clock blasts out of its hand-carved doors, chiming in the Friday night dinner rush. You’re filled up with meat, potatoes and vinegar to bursting, and realize, then, warm and comfortable, that this is home. This is the Metzger’s home. And, that is just how Wilhelm would have wanted it.
This article originally appeared in AnnArbor.com.