The epicenter of German tradition in Detroit (and trust me, there has actually been quite a bit of it here over the years) is situated firmly at John R and McNichols – just about a block east of Woodward in the Palmer Park/Germantown area – at the Dakota Inn Rathskeller.
Setting foot inside the Dakota Inn is almost like stepping through a portal – one minute you're in Detroit, the next you're in the land of Bavaria. And it's been that way since 1933. Karl Kurz, a German immigrant working at the Ford Highland Park plant, purchased it with the intent of creating a place reminiscent of the German bier establishments of his homeland. "When my grandfather bought it – he built it right when Prohibition went out, got a liquor license and built the Rathskeller – it only had 50 seats," says current owner Karl E. Kurz. "But within just two years, he had done two additions. And since 1936, it hasn't changed a bit."
As you can see, there's something to be said for tradition. And there's nothing about Oktoberfest that isn't steeped in tradition – especially at the Dakota Inn. For seven weekends, beginning at the end of September (as is customary for the true German Oktoberfest) and running through the entirety of October, you get to experience live German bands (there are four bands this year that rotate every Friday and Saturday), some mighty delicious German grub and tons of celebration. (Do I even need to mention the beer aspect? Is there a culture in the history of the world that puts more emphasis on beer than the Germans?)
One of the biggest draws to the Dakota Inn is, obviously, that they know how to keep their beer properly stocked. This year's crop features Spaten, Paulaner, Hofbrau and Warsteiner – all on tap. The bottom line is that you'll never want for a beer while you're at the Rathskeller. In fact, they have probably the largest selection of German beer anywhere in southeastern Michigan. They've already tapped the ceremonial keg of Warsteiner (which is a remarkable celebration in and of itself), read the Oktoberfest proclamation to got the party started, and they do their damnedest to keep the beer and revelry flowing until 10/27. Additionally, the food offerings couldn't be more delicious – from reuben soup to schnitzel and every type of sausage you could ever want. Just be aware that you'll want to make reservations, as there's already several sold-out nights and this place certainly doesn't slow down.
Speaking of slowing down, we should probably note that Kurz doesn't seem to have any desire to put a stop to all of this fun, or to move the joint from its original location – and how could you with all of that history? So, worry not, your new favorite German restaurant and bar aren't going anywhere. "I've had no serious thoughts of moving it. People have suggested moving it. But when I came into the business, we changed it from kind of a sing-along bar, I kind of started doing more of the Oktoberfest and things. One of these days, I would like to think of retiring, though. But I do plan to keep doing it until that happens," Kurz laughs.
You will truly be hard-pressed to find a spot in the Midwest that celebrates Oktoberfest in as true a fashion as the Dakota Inn. Sure, you can drive an hour north to Frankenmuth, which offers a fantastic celebration, but this is right here in our literal backyard in Detroit. You'd likely have to travel west to Milwaukee to find a major metropolis that has a true Oktoberfest of this magnitude.
Speaking of Milwaukee, let's talk chicken hats!
The Dakota Inn sells embroidered chicken hats (that literally look just like what you'd expect a chicken hat to look like), which truly have become all the rage during their Oktoberfest shindigs. And other than being a true testament to the amount of fun you will have at Oktoberfest, there does happen to be a backstory. "It's not a German thing, actually," explains Kurz. "It's just a fun thing we do. We were at the Milwaukee German Fest at Miller Park, and all these people were wearing these chicken hats. So I bought one and brought it home. My sister is a seamstress, so she took it apart and analyzed it, and she had this new sewing machine that could do embroidery, so she started making them and we would sell them as a marketing tool. Well, we sell a couple hundred of them per Oktoberfest, and we started donating the money to different charities – Karmanos, we do a chili cook-off, different charities."
OK, so...chicken hats, beer, traditional food...and oompah. That's right, there's no singing or dancing at a real Oktoberfest celebration without an oompah band. It's basically traditional German party music, and it includes everyone's favorite party instrument – the accordion. It gets folks up, dancing, singing along (yes, they still do the "zicki zacki zicki zacki oy oy oy!" chant, for those of you who have any inkling what I'm talking about) and just having a hell of a time. You see, the thing that the Dakota excels at is building a sense of community within the establishment. There's just no way you won't have a total blast here. (Unless you just don't like fun. Or good beer. Or great food. You're pretty much out of luck if that's the case, though.)
In addition to the Dakota Inn's fantastic Oktoberfest celebration (you can get more info at dakota-inn.com or by calling 313.867.9722), several other locales will be throwing their own shindigs in honor of the German holiday. Check out a few samples of the others we've listed for your enrichment:
Frankenmuth (Frankenmuth 9/20-9/23)
If Michigan had a Little Bavaria or Germantown, this would be it. Frankenmuth is one of those unique American cities – not so much frozen in time as it is completely themed to reflect its German roots. Therefore, certain festivals and times of the year are very important – and celebrated accordingly. Oktoberfest is a Bavarian tradition that dates back to the early 1800s, and it's safe to say that Frankenmuth has modeled their celebration pretty accurately. From Hofbrauhaus to wiener dog races, there's something for everyone here. More info at frankenmuth.org.
Rochester Mills (Rochester 9/28-9/29)
Oktoberfest at Rochester Mills is always a grand event – drawing thousands of folks, draining dozens of kegs (74 to be precise), serving up tons of great traditional food (potato pancakes, brats, knackwurst, soft pretzels, sauerkraut, apple strudel, etc.) and bringing the community together. The enormous beer tent is open Friday night and Saturday with no cover inside the pub and only $5 to get into the tent outside – plus live music! So, from the ceremonial keg tapping to the traditional music and food, it's safe to say that these guys know how to throw a true Bavarian party. And what better beautiful and quaint community to do it in than downtown Rochester? More info at beercos.com.
Terry's Terrace (Harrison Township 9/21-10/26)
Oktoberfest is a fantastic celebration of all things Bavarian – food, culture and (probably most importantly) beer! And we all know that Terry's happens to be perpetually on the cutting edge of what's hot in the beer industry! So, for over a month, you get experience the Oktoberfest Beer Girls, Michigan-brewed Oktoberfest beers, pumpkin beer and beer cheese (made using Dragonmead Final Absolution). Head on down to 36470 Jefferson in Harrison Township. More info at 586.463.2671 or terrystime.com. | RDW