Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Last Schnitzel

For many years on this blog I have sung the praises of my favorite restaurant in the world, Karl Ratzsch in Milwaukee. It wasn't necessarily my favorite cuisine, although the food was always extremely good, in my biased opinion. You see, my father was from Czechoslovakia and my surrogate grandfather was from Germany, and together they introduced me to the delights of roast duck, liver dumpling soup, red cabbage, wiener schnitzel and other Central European delicacies. They took me to dozens of Czech and German eateries in Chicago and Milwaukee, including Karl Ratzsch, which was, without question, the best of them all.

The decor at Ratzsch, as most of the restaurants of its type, was a bit on the wonky side. Prominently displayed there was a painting of Mrs. Ratzsch (I presume), resplendent in a jacket with a fur collar. In the portrait, she imperiously glares at the viewer with a steely expression, looking as if she could have been the wicked mother of the Claude Rains character in Hitchcock's Notorious. Then there was the framed magazine ad for Blatz beer, featuring the king of kitsch, Liberace, holding up a glass of suds. The copy of the ad read: "It's Milwaukee's favorite beer, I'm from Milwaukee I ought to know."

The split-timber barrel-vaulted ceiling, reminiscent of Bavarian architecture, the year-round Christmas decorations, the white table linens, wood paneling, dirndl clad waitresses, and alcove stage where at dinnertime, musicians would play Strauss waltzes and other light classical fare, evoked a timelessness that defied contemporary styles of taste, and relevance. There was certainly nothing hip or trendy about the place, after all, it had been around for 113 years.

That is, until this week.

Here's the photograph that brokenhearted Karl Ratzsch fans discovered, the few of us left that is, after it was posted last Sunday on the restaurant's Facebook page:

I first saw the notice Monday morning on my way to work. When I received the news, my heart was filled with both sadness and resignation. As I re-posted the notice on my own feed, I remarked that I had been anticipating this sad news for at least thirty years.

The funny thing I noticed as the years went by was that the older I got, the more it became obvious that (with the exception of my wife and kids) I was still always the youngest person in the restaurant. As the hair color of the typical patron turned gray, then blue, the more convinced I was that my favorite restaurant on the planet's days were numbered.

A year ago, I was encouraged as there was a serious attempt to allow Karl Ratzsch to survive for at least another generation. Thomas Hauck, a well regarded local chef bought the restaurant from the previous owners, former employees who themselves bought the place from the Ratzsch family in 2003. Hauck closed the restaurant down for three months to remodel, removing some of the tired, old decor, including the table cloths and the kitschy artwork, and updated the menu, inventing creative new dishes inspired by German cuisine. Unfortunately as the New York Times reported the other day, "it was a hard sell." The old timers balked at the changes while the younger crowd just didn't care.

Hauck's noble attempt to save the Milwaukee institution sadly failed.

The last schnitzel was served and the final stein of lager was raised last Saturday night. Then, Hauck closed the doors to Karl Ratzsch presumably forever, without any warning.

The comments on the Ratzsch Facebook page ranged from sorrow to abject anger, much of it directed at Hauck. Without mentioning the new owner by name, this woman speaks for much of the latter group, the emphasis is hers:
I am sickened that Karl Ratzsch's is shutting down. How dare you let this iconic restaurant go under!!!! There are people who have many pleasant memories at your restaurant and have gone to you restaurant as a long, family tradition! I don't know WHO made this decision to close Karl Ratzsch's, but I can tell you, IT WAS A BIG MISTAKE!!! Thank God Maders is still operating! John Ernst Cafe was bad enough but Karl Ratzsch's??? People came to eat there when they visit Milwaukee!!! Shame on whoever made the decision to close. I am very upset about this.
No kidding.

It's hard to argue with her point that institutions such as Ratzsch play a vital role in their cities' economies. Personally I've made the ninety mile trek up to Milwaukee several times for the sole purpose of dining at Karl Ratzsch. While there, my family and I went on to spend money at other local establishments, This letter proves I am not alone. There is also the less tangible but equally damaging psychological effect that the ending of a 113 year old tradition has on a city and its residents. It is not exaggerating in the least to say that with the closing of Karl Ratzsch, part of the identity of Milwaukee has been lost. It is a void that can never be filled.

That having been said, what the writer of the comment and so many others fail to realize is that, beloved local tradition or not, restaurants, retailers and other businesses catering to the general public, are owned and operated by private individuals who must put a considerable amount of time and risk their own capital into businesses just to keep them afloat, let alone make a profit. As you can see in the photograph above, made during Thanksgiving weekend in 2015, a time when the restaurant should have been hopping, there are only a handful of diners. If all the fans of Karl Ratzsch, myself included, had put more of our money where our mouths were and supported the restaurant better, it might have lived to see another day.

Above, I mentioned the many Central European restaurants my dad and grandpa took me to as a child. Let's see, there was Old Prague and Moravia on Cermak Road in Cicero, Little Czechoslovakia, on 26th Street, Cafe Bohemia in the West Loop, William Tell on North Avenue, The Golden Ox on Clybourn, The Black Forest, and Held's Brown Bear on Clark Street, Schwaben Stube, and Gluntz's on Lincoln Avenue, Matt Igler (Home of the Singing Waiters) on Melrose, just off Lincoln, and Zum Deutschen Eck on Southport, just to name a few. I spent many happy hours in all of them. They're all gone. The Berghoff in the Loop is a mere shadow of its former self and just a couple weeks ago, the Chicago Brauhaus in Lincoln Square, one of the last remaining German restaurants in Chicago, announced it will close its doors soon.

In both Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities with very strong Germanic identities, it is easier to find Ethiopian food than German food. It's probably not too hard to figure out why.

The fact is that for the last several decades, restaurants serving heaping helpings of carbohydrate-laden food, where you have to be helped out of your seat after a meal, have lost their popularity. What can I say, people are more health and weight conscious these days. Even for food lovers who don't obsess over everything they put into their mouths for health reasons, the trend is to discover new and, for them anyway, unusual cuisines, rather than paying top dollar for the tried and true, simple, old fashioned comfort food, their parents and grandparents ate.

Diners are a fickle crowd and the restaurant business is particularly tough. I heard the other day that the five year survival rate for a new restaurant is ridiculously low, somewhere in the single digits. Given that, 113 years in any business is a remarkable accomplishment. Those of us who loved Karl Ratzsch should thank our lucky stars that its owners and employees over those last lean years, who committed themselves to keeping the restaurant open despite all the odds and heartbreak, deserve our commendation and eternal gratitude.

The memory of all the wonderful meals and Gem├╝tlichkeit I experienced at my favorite restaurant in the world, with the people whom I loved the most in my life, will stay with me as long as I live.

Vielen herzlichen Dank to you all. You will be missed.

No comments: