Although it’s hard to picture it in January, maybe you’ve had this moment, too. It’s early in the evening on a warm summer Friday, and you’re surrounded by friends at a picnic table in the Rathskeller biergarten. You can barely keep up conversation over the din of laughter, disco-style polka, and dancing feet crunching on gravel. Your head is swimming because you’re halfway through your second 36-ounce cup of Spaten lager, and you notice that everyone else has a huge beer, too—hundreds of huge beers everywhere—and the servers are filling those tubs of suds (the equivalent of three 12-ounce cans, people) as fast as their hands can pull the taps. Then you catch a glimpse of the spectacular German Gothic Revival architecture framing the lot, and you can’t escape the idea that this place has been here for centuries.
That’s what makes The Rathskeller (German for “restaurant in a basement”) the best beer hall in the city. Although the Athenaeum is more than 100 years old, the bar as we now know it—with the Bavarian flags, bands, and big crowds—has been around for less than two decades. Credit the pleasurable illusion to Dan McMichael, who bought the place in 1995 after flagging business had chewed up three different owners in five years. Before McMichael saved it, the kitchen was infested, and a feral cat colony lived in the band shell. When he toured the soaring, stonewalled hall now known as the Kellerbar, it was lights-out at 9 p.m., and the biergarten was used once a year, for Oktoberfest. McMichael added American bar fare to the traditional wurst-and-schnitzel menu (pizza? Danke!) and booked bands like Polka Boy, and things took off. “We restored an icon for the city,” he says. “And the city has responded.”
401 E. Michigan St., 636-0396
Photo by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the January 2013 issue.