Thanksgiving in a Town Built on Lederhosen and Limitless Meals

FRANKENMUTH, Mich. — No matter the season, every all-you-can-eat dinner here draws from the palette of Thanksgiving: creamy drifts of mashed potatoes, golden swirls of buttered egg noodles, army-green forests of thoroughly cooked broccoli and garnet puddles of cranberry sauce.

For more than a century, this city in Central Michigan has made its reputation on family-style chicken dinners, served much the same way they were in 1937, when this newspaper proclaimed Frankenmuth “a mecca for gourmets.”

Chickens are boiled whole, left to chill, then cut into 10 parts that are breaded and lightly fried till the meat is hot and juicy. But roast turkey joins the chicken dinner for the holidays, and this Thursday is expected to be the busiest day of the year for the two “Frankenmuth dinner” restaurants that face each other across South Main Street: Bavarian Inn and Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth. Nearly 30,000 diners are expected during the four-day holiday weekend.

“It’s the food,” said Dorothy Zehnder, a founder of the Bavarian Inn, who will turn 100 on Dec. 1. “They know they get good food, and Thanksgiving and Christmas are really family affairs, family days.”

They also get nostalgia by the acre, served up with the gusto of Lawrence Welk at Champagne-bubble time. Like those who travel to Solvang, Calif., or Leavenworth, Wash., visitors to Frankenmuth experience a simulacrum of another place — or in this case, many places, from old Bavaria to colonial America to the North Pole — filled with polka music, wine tastings, water slides and reminders that the rock band Greta Van Fleet started here.

Frankenmuth’s German heritage is woven through the city, in the Bavarian Inn’s 50-foot Glockenspiel tower, in the hotel rooms named for founding families and in the Fraktur lettering everywhere. The front of the post office sports larger-than-life cutouts of Hummel figurines mailing porcelain letters straight, one imagines, to a visitor’s heart.

This year, hopes are high. Michigan’s restaurants reopened to full capacity just this summer, and this month the border opened to Canadian visitors, who before the pandemic made up a sizable portion of the out-of-town guests. The spacious dining rooms, which can seat 1,200 or more, were dark last Thanksgiving. Takeout was the only option, with only a small fraction of the staff running the show; the number of employees at the Bavarian Inn is still below prepandemic levels, while Zehnder’s has just about returned to normal.

“Takeout, for us, is like telling a car dealer, ‘You can’t sell cars but you can do oil changes,’” said Al Zehnder, the chief executive of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth.

Mention Frankenmuth to a Michigander and she’ll be quick to note whether she comes from a family of Zehnder’s loyalists or Bavarian Inn fans. The two restaurants have clear stylistic differences, starting with the facades. Zehnder’s looks like Mount Vernon, if George Washington advertised with neon….

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