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Heidelberg finds itself 10 years younger after newly discovered opening date

ANN ARBOR, MI — It’s not every day that a restaurant gets 10 years younger.

But a lost anniversary date, a menu reboot and a COVID-19 pandemic later, Ann Arbor’s Heidelberg Restaurant and Bar can say it did just that.

In 2020, while preparing for what he thought was the restaurant’s 60th anniversary in 2021, Ian Gray, the Heidelberg’s marketing consultant, found a photo of the founding owner standing in what is now Chapala Mexican Restaurant, 211 N. Main St., next door to the Heidelberg’s current 215 N. Main St. address.

Further digging revealed that while Fritz Kochendorfer, the Heidelberg’s original owner, did open a restaurant in 1961 at 211 N. Main St. that was initially called the Washtenaw Café. It wasn’t until 1964 or 1965 — tracking down exact dates has still been difficult, Gray said — that it was called the Heidelberg. The restaurant then opened in its current location in 1973.

That means that while some version of the restaurant has been open for roughly 60 years, the Heidelberg is just 50 years old and its actual anniversary at its current location is in 2023. What the owners originally thought would be a late celebration of the restaurant’s 60th anniversary was actually a year early for its 50th.

“It still makes it the oldest restaurant downtown,” Gray said, adding that he does not think “anywhere in Ann Arbor” can claim to be under the same name at the same location for an equal length of time.

The Heidelberg is one of many Ann Arbor restaurants participating in the return of Taste of Ann Arbor from 11 am to 5 pm Sunday, June 5, on Main Street between William and Washington streets. Tickets for the event, canceled in 2021 and done virtually in 2020, are $1 each, with individual food items taking two and six tickets.

Related: Taste of Ann Arbor is back; see what restaurants will be there

While current Heidelberg owner Joe Kouza has worked to keep the restaurant’s Bavarian influence consistent, he has recently made some changes he said are meant to draw a younger, livelier crowd.

The Heidelberg is three concepts in one — a downstairs bar called the Rathskeller, the main dining room and the upstairs nightclub called Club Above. The club hosts a variety of music, including weekend Latin Nights, electronic music and hip-hop music.

In addition to reconfiguring the dining room, moving away from the segmented four-seat tables to communal tables that give the room a bar hall feel, the restaurant also refreshed the menu. While familiar favorites will remain on the menu, common German street foods like currywurst and döner kabobs are now available.

Currywurst is a popular street food with roots in post-World War II Turkish influences, Gray said. Although the dish traditionally features a sausage topped with ketchup mixed with curry powder, the Heidelberg has “tweaked” it a bit, Gray said. Döner kabobs feature kabob meat served either in a pita or on a skewer.

Both dishes will be available at the restaurant’s booth at Taste of Ann Arbor,

In the restaurant, patrons also will find dishes that are considered “neu deutsche küche,” or “new German cuisine.” They have received the changes well so far, Gray said.

“We’re trying these little tricks to find a balance between respecting the legacy of people who love what the Heidelberg was, and then still trying to appeal to a new generation of diners coming out and wanting a different experience,” Gray said.

Despite the facelift and new anniversary, Gray said the Heidelberg is much the same it has always been and plans are in the works to roll out celebrations for the actual anniversary later this year.

“If a person who likes the place 30 years ago (walked in), the only real difference they would notice, I think, is just that the music downstairs is different,” Gray said.

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