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Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009

Karl Ratzsch’s: Milwaukee’s Go-To German Restaurant

Old World cuisine in a modern age

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Running a 105-year-old authentic German restaurant cannot be easy in this day and age, but the team behind Karl Ratzsch’s is making a stellar go of it. The restaurant opened in 1904 as Hermann’s Café, before being purchased by the owner’s stepdaughter and her husband, Karl Ratzsch. It remained in the Ratzsch family until 2003, when Josef Ratzsch sold the restaurant to executive chef John Poulos, restaurant manager Tom Andera and dining room manager Judy Hazard, employees who have been working at Ratzsch’s since 1985.

The struggle of owning a German restaurant with a well-rooted legacy is maintaining the balance between tradition and authenticity and the vital need to sell a product that today’s consumers want to buy. The menu at this Milwaukee mainstay has a wealth of wonderfully made Old World classics like sauerbraten, sauerkraut, sptzle, Wiener schnitzel, sausage plates and strudel, but has very few dishes that propose a different view of German food as it is today. There are contemporary recipes that make use of foodstuffs typical of the nation—cabbage, game, pork, potatoes, fish and fruits—but they’re combined to create a somewhat lighter cuisine that reflects international influences and modern tastes.

The ambience at Ratzsch’s speaks of the old country, with a dining room that is a virtual museum of ornate steins, expertly carved dark wooden frames and rare serving ware. Unfortunately, there is such a clutter of antiques and framed photographs that it’s a bit overwhelming and difficult to appreciate them individually. The moody, spacious bar area has a few private booths and small tables. It’s complete with a respectable beer list, including Milwaukee’s own Sprecher, and a sizable German wine menu. Order some of Ratzsch’s hefty hand-breaded onion rings or the rich German-style fondue made with baked beer, cheese and sauerkraut and served with rye bread toast.

With a knowledgeable, friendly wait staff, and the reassuring presence of the owners, the service at Ratzsch’s is top-notch. While there will undoubtedly be a protest, it is time the German restaurant says auf wiedersehen to the folk vests and dirndls (think bodice, blouse, skirt and apron) its servers must wear, before it becomes a parody of itself.

Karl Ratzsch’s has spent more than a century feeding those hungry for hearty German cuisine, from average Milwaukee families to visiting aristocracy. Ratzsch’s can stay true to Deutschland, but to avoid the fate of other traditional Old World restaurants—like John Ernst, which held the title as Milwaukee’s oldest restaurant until it closed in 2001—it must listen to the market.

www.karlratzsch.com/ 414-276-2720/ 320 E. Mason St./ Lunch hours: Wednesday – Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m., Dinner hours: Monday – Saturday 4:30 p.m. – close.

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