15 December 2011

Lost City: Milwaukee Version: Karl Ratzsch's

Karl Ratzsch's Restaurant loomed large in my Milwaukee childhood. The old German downtown restaurant was where you went for special occasions. It's name evoked the kind of awe in a kid's mind that perhaps The Four Seasons and the "21" Club still do in New York. I remember going only seldomly, and being jealous when I heard of others going. In particular, my wealthy aunt and uncle's family's habit of going to Ratzsch's every Christmas day before coming to our house—and not inviting us to join them—was an annual source of frustration and anger to my mother.

Ratzsch's is a lasting testimony to the once dominant influence of Milwaukee's German population. The Germans flocked to Milwaukee in the mid-1800s, bringing with them singing societies, breweries, beer halls, fine bakeries and pastry shops, great German food and grand Socialistic traditions. Much of Milwaukee's population is still of German stock (including my mother). But the businesses have faded away. There are just a few stalwarts left. Mader's, another traditional German restaurant, is one. Usinger's, a sausage maker of national reputation, is another. And, of course's, the Miller brewery.

Ratzsch's was established in 1904 under the name "Hermann's Cafe." Hermann was Otto Hermann, the chef. A few years later, Otto's stepdaughter Helen emigrated from Germany to help him in the restaurant. Karl August Ratzsch Sr. entered the scene some time before World War I. (When the war broke out, he chose smartly to stay in Milwaukee rather than return to the Fatherland.) He began working with Helen and, after a ten-year courtship, married her. They bought the restaurant from Otto and renamed it. One can see from the photo before that the eatery once had a different facade and a grand vertical neon sign.

Karl and Helen ran the restaurant until 1962, when Karl Jr. took over. Son Josef then bought it in 1996 and remodeled the bar. Finally, Josef sold the place in 2003 to the management team that has been in place since 1985: dining room manager Judy Hazard, executive chef John Poulos and restaurant manager Tom Andera. Thus, the restaurant passed out of family hands after a century. But the new trio appears to be carrying on the traditions set down by the Ratzschs. Judy herself waited on my table.

Like many old German restaurants, Ratzsch's is a heavy-dark-timbered world of giant steins, rosemaling and antlers, a place where it always seems to be Christmas in Bavaria, or thereabouts. The waitresses are of hearty stock and dressed in traditional costumes.

The food is what you'd expect: wursts (by Usinger's!), sauerbraten, weiner schnitzel, consumme with liver dumplings (very good!), potato pancakes, whitefish, red cabbage and meat, meat, meat. I have included no pictures here, because I don't think German food is captured very well in photographs. But I'd like to stress that the food here, while heavy indeed, is very good and well prepared. I'd go during lunch. The menu is more affordable; dinner prices get quite high.

The backbar is unusual in that it's not filled with glasses that can actually be used to drink from. Rather, it's a sort of museum or antique glassware. These were all part of the collection of Helen Ratzsch. I'd also like to point out that Ratzsch's has not transformed itself into a kitschy tourist attraction. You can't buy t-shirts or caps or a Ratzsch's cookbook. The only souvenir for sale is a glass beer mug.

After work, the bar area can be quite convivial. Order a Brandy Old-Fashioned (seen below), as I did. It's what Milwaukeeans drink.


TinaL said...

Great post. Both my parents are from Bavaria and we would always go to Zum Stammtish on Myrtle Ave in Glendale for our special occasions.
When on vacation my dad would always try and find German eating establishments for us to have dinner at. At the time it was annoying for us kids because we always just wanted to eat at Howard Johnson's. We didn't realize just how lucky we were...

Francis Morrone said...

Even though I grew up in Chicago, not Milwaukee, I, too, have fond childhood memories of trips to Karl Ratzsch's. By the way, it was Frank Lloyd Wright's favorite restaurant. He even dined there once with Mies van der Rohe.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

You're kidding! I'd never heard that. I would have thought that a building like Ratzsch's would have been just the sort of decor and style Wright would hated.

Nice to hear from you, btw, Francis.

Francis Morrone said...

I used to work for the architect Edgar Tafel, who had worked for Wright for many years. He told me he drove Wright and Mies from Taliesin to dinner at Ratzsch's. Apparently Wright really went in for the whole gemütlich thing. His other favorite restaurant was the Oak Room at the Plaza--a sort of upscale variation on the theme. (FLlW always ordered the planked whitefish at KR's-a favorite of mine, too!)

Brooks of Sheffield said...

This is fascinating. I bet the restaurant doesn't even know.

Proud NIMBY said...

Here we go again, Brooks. Do we live in parallel culinary universes, or what?

When I visited Wisconsin in 2010, I went purposely to Ratzsch's to soak up some of the German culture there. Quite a trip indeed. Not many restaurants in NY have carpets like Ratzsch's has.

This year I went to Marder's at happy hour for a beer, but it seemed remodeled or something, a bit faux compared to Ratzsch's. And with a half-liter of beer at $7, it was more expensive than NY!!

There were other, newer German-style brau joints on that street, which I also hit and were a bit more affordable.

Of course, a trip across the street to Usinger's is mandatory. In fact, today I just finished off the last of Usinger's summer sausage that I brought back. Trouble with doing that is that Homeland Security at Mitchell Airport swabs all the wursts down for explosives every time I try to bring them back, delaying check-in 5-10 minutes. They must think its gelignite or something.

That cheese shop near Usinger's with every conceivable badger cheese is a trip unto itself.

Auf wiederhoren!

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Just wait, Proud NIMBY. In a couple weeks, I'm going to that Italian restaurant in Racine—on your recommendation!

WOPettit said...

I lived in milwaukee in the early 80's - jack Ernst cafe was for me my fav of the big three Maders ratzsch Ernst. Sadly it is gone. Sunday brunch at Maders was my place for out of town guests! Thanks for the post

Henry Krinkle said...

That's awesome. I completely forgot about that place. All the years that I lived in Chicago, I rarely travelled to Milwaukee. Not too impressed, but Karl Ratzsch's, well, that's a different story!


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