September 29, 2013 at 1:00 am

Donna's Detroit

At Detroit's Dakota Inn anyone can be German for a day

Dakota Inn Rathskeller
Dakota Inn Rathskeller: Dakota Inn Rathskeller

In a truly out-of-the-way, no-name neighborhood, once home to Detroit's German and Italian immigrants, stands a cultural monument to the days when working class people left the "Old Country" to remake their lives in America. The Dakota Inn Rathskeller has been serving up German food, music and culture for 80 years.

Oktoberfest at the Rathskeller is in full swing, and if you've never worn a chicken hat while singing the Schnitzelbank song in an authentic German gasthaus, you owe it to yourself to join the fun at the Dakota Inn.

Every weekend through Nov. 2 bands will be playing, potato pancakes will be flipping and "biers right off the boat from Germany" will be flowing.

Those beers are the real deal. No German-style beer from a micro-brewery. Not even beers from German companies who brew their ale here in the States qualify as Oktoberfest quality in the eyes —or should I say tastebuds — of third-generation owner Karl Kurz. German brewers have special recipes for their fall brews and that's what Kurz serves.

A piece of history

Nestled in the middle of a residential neighborhood on John R St. north of Six Mile, The Dakota Inn is the definition of a destination restaurant.

Back in 1933 when Kurz’s grandfather (also named Karl) opened the door to his 35-seat pub, it was a social center for the enclave of European immigrants like himself who settled on Detroit's northeast side. Now most of the old regulars live in the suburbs, but make the drive to Detroit to get a helping of the Kurz family’s traditional German hospitality.

The original 1933 tavern is now the bar. The dining room, added a few years later is filled with arches reminiscent of giant beer casks. In fact, the piano player sits on a tiny raised stage that seems to be perched on the lip of one of those barrels.

The place is in amazing shape for its age, and spotless. And everything in it just looks like it has a history. The original custom-made chairs are right out of Hansel and Gretel. The deer head trophies mounted high on the walls would be at home in a Grim Brothers tale. Even the original dark wood phone booth is still there.

The food, of course. is everything you'd expect: schnitzel, sauerbraten, potato pancakes and the best wursts this side of Woodward. But for me, the Dakota is much more than food. It’s a cultural icon where anyone can be German for a day.

Ist Das nicht ein Schnitzelbank?

Was the last time you joined a sing-along years ago at summer camp? At the Dakota every Friday and Saturday night the piano player —and sometimes Kurz himself — leads the crowd in singing tunes from “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to “Edelweiss.”

On Saturday nights you might get to hear the rich soprano voice of Karen Redwood, who's waited tables at the Dakota for 20 years and lived a couple years in Germany.

"I love the camaraderie that you get between all of us working here and the customers," Redwood said. "There's a saying on the piano that says 'there are no strangers here, just friends you haven't met yet.' And that is what you see when we seat people that don't know each other and by the end of the night they're the best of friends."

But the highlight of every song fest is the call and response Schnitzelbank song used by German-Americans in the old days to teach their children German vocabulary.

The song leader points to items painted on the wall and asks melodically, "Ist das nicht ein ____ fill in the blank with the appropriate word like schnitzelbank (a wood carver's workbench), or schnickelfritz (a mischievous boy). Then like the "Twelve Day of Christmas" every item must be repeated until you get back to the schnitzelbank.

Traditions for all seasons

What is a third-generation family restaurant about if not tradition?

The "Just Right Club" of regulars Grandfather Kurz started in the 1930's is still on site every weekend and festival and the third Thursday of the month they show up for the Anything Goes sing along.

The whole month of February is for Fasching, the German Karneval, just like our Mardi Gras. Mayfest is the first three weekends in May and features maibock (strong spring) beers. A new tradition started by the current owner takes place in August: the annual chili cook off. They take this very seriously, with cooks required to do all preparations on the premises. And most perform in teams.

But the granddaddy of all festivals is Oktoberfest. And the Dakota Inn Rathskeller has a chicken hat —and a chicken dance —waiting for you.

Karen Redwood has waitressed at the Dakota Inn Rathskeller for 20 years. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Owner Karl Kurz is a hands-owner, bartending when the place gets busy. (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)