Taking a trek with the family to Frankenmuth, Michigan, for a family-style chicken dinner is something we did at least once every several years when I was growing up.
We recently picked a rainy weekday to for a nostalgic revisit to the area to check out the chicken and soak up a little of the Bavarian-style cutesy-kitsch that is so quintessentially Frankenmuth.
Michigan's "Little Bavaria" owes its identity to its beginnings as a community of German immigrants seeking good farm land and escape from political unrest in their home country in the mid-1840s.
The Zehnder family emigrated from Germany in 1846, and today, two branches of the family own restaurants that sit directly across the street from each other and specialize in similar all-you-can-eat, family-style chicken dinners.
Zehnder's of Frankenmuth lays claim to being "America's Largest Family Owned Restaurant" with ten dining rooms that can seat more than 1,500 diners. Zehnder's history dates back to an inn called the Exchange Hotel, built in 1856. William Zehnder purchased the Exchange, well known early on for its chicken dinners, in 1927. The Exchange had been vacant for four years when Zehnder acquired it, and he set about an ambitious remodeling to create a building resembling President George Washington's Mount Vernon home. He opened in 1928 and immediately began serving family-style chicken dinners again to hungry diners.
William (Tiny) Zehnder, Jr. and his wife Dorothy purchased a restaurant across the street from Zehnder's in 1950. The Michigan historical marker in front of this restaurant, now the Bavarian Inn, tells me that Theodore Fischer, a former bartender at the Exchange Hotel, established an inn at the site in 1888. Fischer's family reportedly began the tradition of all-you-can-eat family-style chicken dinners at the inn, something that Tiny and Dorothy Zehnder continued when they purchased Fischer's inn.
Tiny and Dorothy Zehnder visited Bavaria with their family in the late 1950s, which led them to remodel their restaurant into a fairy-tale Bavarian style.
The Bavarian Inn lays claim to being one of the ten largest restaurants in the United States, at least according to the historical marker out front. The marker goes on to say that a record of 5,470 meals were served on October 9, 1982, and over 20 million meals were served at the inn between its opening as Fischer's place in 1888 until 1988.
With both inns claiming titles as large and popular dining destinations, and the town itself usually listed among Michigan's top tourist attractions, scooting up there for dinner on a quiet weekday in spring meant we didn't have to wait in a long line for our meal or contend with a crowded and noisy dining room.
We opted for the more fantasy-themed Bavarian Inn for an all-we-could-eat late lunch/early dinner during our most recent visit.
The chicken is decent fried chicken, but the accompaniments really made the meal for us. My favorites included the chicken noodle soup (chock full of skinny little noodles), dressing, buttered German-style egg noodles, squash, and the crisp tart-yet-sweet cranberry relish. Homemade ice cream finished the meal, and I also loved the cranberry ice cream featured that month (a cranberry soft-serve with a hint of vanilla).
The menu also boasts an extensive German beer selection, and a draft Hofbräu was the perfect thing for me to have with my chicken dinner.
One of the biggest attractions at the Bavarian Inn for me is the fifty-foot-high Glockenspiel tower with a 35-bell carillon. The bell tower merits a full page at the Bavarian Inn's site, which tells about the history of the structure and significance of its tunes and figures.
The bells regularly chime the 5-bell Westminster chime every quarter hour, and I can remember seeing the extended glockenspiel program of other songs and a revolving set of German figurines depicting the not-so-cheery tale of the Pied Piper of Hameln. The piper, who managed to rid the German town of Hameln of the rats plaguing it during the 13th century, entranced the town's children with his tunes and led them away forever after the townspeople cheated him of the fee they agreed to pay for his rat removal (I said it was a less than cheery tale!).
During our most recent visit, even though we happened to be in the parking lot at the appointed hour for the four-times-a-day show, the figures remained behind closed doors. Perhaps they didn't want to get wet, as it was raining fairly hard at the time.
Still, we had a great time revisiting this favorite childhood destination of mine!
Want to learn more about Frankenmuth's history? Check out Frankenmuth (Image of America) by the Frankenmuth Historical Association.
Check out the story Bronner's keeps the lights on for Santa in Frankenmuth, Michigan here at Midwest Guest to learn how one Frankenmuth business keeps the spirit of Christmas alive year round.
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved