Last July, Don and I put Frankenmuth on our Michigan road trip route.
For over 45 years, I have wanted to return to "Michigan's Little Bavaria". I have fond memories of eating in some kind of German restaurant with my family. I narrowed it down to two places that were around in 1973. Was it Zehnder's or Bavarian Inn Restaurant?
July 5, 2020
Don and I drove into town on a beautiful summer day. It was Friday, the day after July 4th. Main Street was surprisingly uncrowded.
Right away, we spotted the two restaurants, across the street from each other. Neither one actually rang a bell with my teen memory. But both had me very curious.
Lunch at Zehnder's
We decided to go for lunch at Zehnder's, even though the fine neon sign announced chicken dinners, not German food.
The sign was quite the lure. I believe it's been there since the 1930's. William and Emilie Zehnder's restaurant goes back to 1929.
The Zehnders started their biz in a building that had been the New Exchange Hotel. (originally built in 1856) Instead of focussing on German food and decor, they added some colonial columns and started serving chicken dinners.
I was curious to step inside and see what the place was all about. I heard there were 10 dining rooms! It all seemed a little like a theme park.
It was about noon, when Don and I arrived. We spotted a couple of hostesses, who looked like they were wearing uniforms left over from the restaurant's grand opening, 90 years ago.
Lots of People
The tourists inside the restaurant, weren't dressed at all like those diners from long ago. The dining and waiting areas were filled with people in shorts and ball caps, flip flops and tank tops.
We were welcomed at the door and our name was taken. Then we were directed to one of the waiting lines.
Quick Look Around
Don held our spot and I peeked around. Some rooms looked like banquet halls. I wasn't thrilled about that idea. The Original Dining Room was much smaller. It was built in 1856 and rebuilt about a century later.
The Original Room had a very 1950's feel. So did the waiting area, just outside the room. There was a fireplace and a big console TV and a small crowd of tired looking folks. Were they lounging after feasting? Were they letting someone hold their spot in line? Where were all these people from. Frankenmuth only has about 5,000 residents.
Cowpath Dining Room!
I headed back to join Don, just before our name was called. A gracious young woman asked us to follow her into one of the enormous dining rooms. I tried to find a tone that was the opposite of annoyed tourist and I asked,
"Is it at all possible to put us on a waiting list, for a smaller dining room? We would love that."
She didn't act a bit bothered. She peeked inside a nearby doorway, then said it would be just a minute. Pretty soon, she was escorting us to a little wooden booth in the "Cowpath Dining Room".
I should have asked about that odd name. But, I was thrilled with our sweet little room. It felt like we'd stepped right out of Old Colonial America, into a Bavarian cafe.
There were only five booths, each with carved and painted detail. We sat down and Don ordered a beer to honor the Zehnder's German roots. It was not nearly as gigantic as my photo suggests. Or maybe it was?
I made Don pose again, to show off our cozy spot with our own chandelier!
Dana, our very sweet and young server, greeted us in her little white cap and apron. She was delighted that this was our first visit.
She got us started, with some Creamy Cabbage Salad, along with some homemade bread and jam. The stollen-type bread, was served in an odd covered dish. It was yummy, with little bits of dried cherry and pistaccio. Dana seemed delighted that we liked it. She talked about growing up in the area and her cooking with her grandmother. I pictured Dana with her dear old granny, in a flour-dusted apron... and then realized I was probably older than her grandma.
German and American Food
I love family-style dining, but Don wanted German food and I wanted chicken. Plus, we weren't hungry enough for all-you-can-eat family-style chicken, for $25. each. Luckily there were plate options.
Don and I were happy with our choices. I got a $15. plate with 2 pieces of chicken, mashed taters and dressing. Don got a corned beef Reuben, on swirl rye, with homemade chips. All good!
Bavarian Inn Restaurant
Since we were spending the night, we were able to check out the Bavarian Inn, later.
There was a bit of a Disney World atmosphere, as we approached the complex of storybook buildings.
Today, the Bavarian Inn Restaurant and Zehnder's, are both owned by descendants of William and Emilie. After a little internet search, it became clear that the two are in competition. Both serve fried chicken, but the Bavarian Inn obviously is the one that embraces the German culture.
The entrance on Main Street was pretty festive with colorful flowers, shutters and German figures, popping out of windows. We headed over to learn more.
The Bavarian Inn, like Zehnder's, had once been a hotel. The Fischer Hotel was the first establishment in Frankenmuth to offer up platters of fried chicken. What is it with all this chicken?
The Zehnder's bought Fischer's, in 1950 and had their son "Tiny" manage the restaurant. By 1959, they expanded and embraced a new Bavarian look.
Don and I explored in the early afternoon. We compared the exterior to some old photos.
In the first old photo, you can see the 1959 addition, next to the old hotel. The addition has spiffed up quite a bit since then, with a glockenspiel tower and a festive biergarten.
Don and I entered a door, near the tower and got a little lost with our wandering.
We traveled down some halls and up and down stairs. There were plenty of amusing surprises. A mighty grand Pied Piper mural decorated the walls, on the way down to a giant basement gift shop.
There were halls and walls, covered with photos and plaques. Lots of family photos and history.
Around 7:00, Don and I headed to the main restaurant entrance. We weren't hungry for dinner yet, but we checked out the options. There were supposedly 12 dining rooms.
There were two rooms off the main entrance. Tiny's Room would have been my pick, but it wasn't open. Tiny died in 2006, but his wife can still be spotted on the property. Almost 98 years old!
The Family Crest Room was fairly full. The waiters in lederhosen and felt hats, bustled around. I found numerous rooms that looked more inviting, but they weren't open. It made me wonder when the dining rooms ever get used... if not on a Friday in July.
Michigan on Main, Bar & Grill
Don and I decided to step into the adjoining bar/grill for some fine photo ops and beer.
We just weren't quite ready to take on all the families in the big dining room. I found a more interesting fellow to befriend, at the bar. My dashing mannequin in lederhosen, seemed to be moping. I failed to cheer him up.
We cheered ourselves up by sharing a giant pretzel at the bar. We also listened to lots of local gossip, since we seemed to be at the go-to spot for the young, afterwork crowd.
By the time Don and I finished our pretzel we both agreed we just didn't have the appetite or energy to face the family-filled dining room.
We headed back to Bavarian Inn Lodge, as the sun was going down.
When we reached the lodge, we made a spontaneous stop at Oma's Restaurant. We enjoyed some live music and continued our poor eating habits, with bottomless bowls of popcorn.
I didn't get to do any polka dancing, but we did participate in the nightly Schnitzelbank singalong. Our server Holly handed out napkins with the verses and we fumbled along with the words and motions. What a way to end the evening!
I'm afraid Don and I did not do a very complete job of exploring the dining options of Frankenmuth. We need bigger appetites and budgets. But we loved wandering and nibbling here and there! We had chicken and a German Rueben in Frankenmuth. That will do it for us, this time!
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.