Old-School Detroit Recipes: Part 1

Nov 8, 2013 at 1:04 pm

It seems like other cities celebrate their culinary heritage with a bit more enthusiasm than we do. Think of San Francisco food and sourdough and cioppino will come to mind. Think of New Orleans fare and gumbos, rouxs and bananas Foster can’t be far behind. But think of Detroit food and you’ll think coney dogs and Boston coolers, hardly high-toned stuff when you consider the sumptuous creations of other cities.

But Detroit actually does have a more decadent history than franks and ginger ale. We tend to forget today, but from the 1920s to almost the 1950s, Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the United States, and a center of tremendous wealth, with accompanying fine dining establishments. Many of them are gone (Carl’s Chop House, Joey’s Stables, Machus Red Fox, the Golden Mushroom) and some have perished only to be reborn and reinvigorated (the London Chop House and Joe Muer’s, for instance).

It’s a fact that a lot of the signature dishes of Detroit’s golden half-century are being slowly forgotten, as hip dining trends from the coasts supplant the rich, beefy, gut-pleasing fare of old meat-and-potatoes Detroit. But as we Detroiters re-examine our past, finding much there that sets us apart and makes us proud of our locality, perhaps it’s time to look to yesterday’s menus and see if there’s anything there worth borrowing. Is our culinary heritage too-old fashioned for today? Well, if twentysomething kids can grow handlebar mustaches and ride velocipedes, how can a taste of yesteryear seem all that inappropriate?

Which brings us to our point: We recovered a cache of Detroit food heritage from a Hamtramck attic recently. The brittle pages contain recipes from several well-known old-line Detroit eateries, all written out in pencil cursive. We’d like to share them with our readers.

It only makes sense to start with this set of two recipes from the old Schweizer’s Restaurant. This German restaurant harked back to the days when Germans were one of Detroit’s major ethnic groups, and a half-century ago it was already an old establishment. In fact, we were able to date this cache of recipes to 1962 because the document identifies the restaurant as celebrating its 100-year birthday “this year.” (Schweizer’s opened in 1852; compare with another German spot downtown, Jacoby’s, which opened in 1904 and is now Detroit’s elder eatery.)

Notably, these instructions for sauerbraten and potato pancakes represent the signature dish at the restaurant, which left many a diner drowsy with pleasure after consuming them. Should any of our readers decide to cook this up, please let us know — or at least send us a tasty photo.

An old postcard image of Schweizer's Restaurant.


(Celebrating 100 yr birthday this yr.)

German dishes. Close to Detroit River and the heart of the city at 260 Hastings. Open for lunch and dinner on weekdays, dinner only on Saturday (closed Sundays).


Cover a lean, 4-pound piece of beef round in the following mixture: 1 cup of vinegar; 3 cups of water; 2 cloves garlic; 2 sliced onions; 1 cut carrot; salt and pepper to taste; 1 bay leaf and a generous tablespoon pickling spices.

Marinate five days in the refrigerator. Remove meat from the marinade, dust with flour and brown in 3 tablespoons corn oil in oven. When meat is brown, add 1-1/2 to 2 cups of the marinade (depending on the pan size), the vegetables, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1 diced tomato. Braise until meat is tender. Strain the sauce left in the pan, thicken with 4 or 5 ginger snaps and correct seasoning. Meat should be sliced thin, 5 or 6 slices per person, topped with the gravy, garnished with potato pancakes.

Potato Pancakes

Grate or grind — never use blender — 4 medium-sized peeled potatoes and 1 small onion into a sieve. Remove as much water as possible. Then transfer to bowl, add 3 eggs, one tablespoon flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Gently mix. Fry in 1/4-inch hot corn oil. For thick, fluffy pancakes, slide a spoonful of batter gently into the hot oil heaped high. Turn once, when pancakes are a golden brown, remove and blot. Makes 8 pancakes. Serves 4.

An old matchbook from Schweizer's Restaurant, Detroit.