The Bavarian Inn in Frankenmuth has been serving up family-style chicken dinners since the 1900s. (Hope O'Dell)
The Bavarian Inn in Frankenmuth has been serving up family-style chicken dinners since the 1900s. (Hope O'Dell)

FRANKENMUTH—Once a year, for as long as I can remember, my brother and I were picked up from school by our grandparents to make the 45-minute drive from Midland to Frankenmuth for a traditional chicken dinner.

We’d stop first at Bronner’s, where I’d agonize over which ornament to get, my family’s growling stomachs making my indecision more and more pronounced with each passing minute. (I am currently the proud owner of six guitar ornaments, all purchased during my years-long quest to convince my parents to get me a real one, but before I ever touched a guitar.)

Then we’d head over to the main attraction: The Bavarian Inn, where a family-style chicken dinner was the star of the show. As a vegetable-averse elementary schooler, I viewed their Famous Frankenmuth Chicken combination as the perfect meal—fried chicken, buttered noodles, buttered mashed potatoes, and homemade ice cream. Were there vegetables on the table? Probably, but I certainly didn’t touch them. 

Now a recent college graduate with a full-time job, this holiday season seemed like the right time to introduce Frankenmuth to my girlfriend, Julia. A Florida native, Julia had never been to “Michigan’s Little Bavaria.” So a couple weeks ago, we hit the road to find out if my family’s holiday chicken tradition was genuinely great—or just a great memory.   

When we arrived for our dinner at 5 p.m., we quickly noticed that we were the only diners under the age of 65. Directly across from our table was an older couple playfully bickering with their waitress over whether they had room for dessert, and behind us was a white-haired gentleman mulling over a pitcher of dark beer.  Despite the average age of the crowd, all of the diners at The Bavarian Inn seemed to be having a nice time, so Julia and I chalked it up to the early hour and opened our menus. 

The novelty of the Old World, German-themed Bavarian Inn still holds the same excitement for me as it did when I was a kid. The staff in lederhosen, the fairytale paintings on the walls and the woman who wanders from room to room playing an accordion—it gives the feeling that you’re stepping back in time, to a period with way more suspenders and knee-high socks. (In a good way.) I pointed out the fairytale scenes on the walls to Julia—Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White—and it made me feel like a kid again, spotting my bedtime stories around the room and pointing them out to my grandparents.

The Bavarian Room walls are filled with paintings of classic Grimms’ Fairytales. (Bavarian Inn Twitter)

I worried that it was my years of childhood memories keeping the magic alive for me, but Julia was also taken by the atmosphere. She joined in, spotting a portrait of one of the Grimm brothers tucked away in a corner of the room. Across from us, another couple did the same thing—it was clearly their first time at the restaurant, and they were in awe over how long it must have taken to paint the murals. To other, more experienced patrons, all of this whimsy was expected. No less charming, though. The decor was part of the tradition—something to delight in as they sipped their chicken noodle soup (which has been the starter for the multi-course meal for as long as I can remember, and probably much longer than that). 

Julia and I ordered the family-style chicken dinner, which is served in four courses—soups, salads, entrees and desserts—all set in the middle of the table and left for you to dole out yourself (save for the ice cream, of course). This may sound like what you go to a restaurant to avoid doing, but it’s actually what truly makes the experience special. When my brother and I were in high school, our family rarely had a chance to eat dinner together. I was at basketball practice or working on the school newspaper, and my brother was running cross country or at the pool with his swim team, so we’d eat with our parents in shifts or in passing. The once-frequent meals we’d had with our grandparents became reserved for birthdays and holidays.

The main entrees of a Bavarian Inn chicken dinner—chicken, dressing, buttered noodles, sweet potato and mashed potatoes with chicken gravy. (Hope O’Dell)

At The Bavarian Inn, surrounded by an inescapably festive atmosphere, my family would make an assembly line of plates. We’d pass them around the table scooping food from warm serving bowls, always making sure to leave enough for the next person. It was a chance to do what we didn’t seem to have enough time for anymore. I got to talk politics with my grandfather and tease him about eating all the “gross” food that I wouldn’t try (namely anything with vegetables in it). My grandma would tell us stories about past Christmases before I was born and made sure my plate was never empty. 

It was a chance to slow down and catch up, at a time when most of my life was moving fast and focused on the future. 

Sitting across the table from my girlfriend a couple weeks ago, life’s still moving fast. In the span of six months, we’d both graduated from college, started full-time jobs, moved hours away from each other and spent our weekends driving back and forth to see one another. 

So it was nice to slow down and catch up, to watch her eyes widen as our server delivered our courses, a tray the size of a small coffee table balanced on their shoulder. The meal stretched out longer than most, and we talked about everything the rush of our lives usually stood in the way of discussing. I told Julia about the time my family had arrived at The Bavarian Inn and there were no tables available, so my grandparents took us to a Chinese restaurant instead. The time a server spilled hot coffee down my back and gave me free cake to make up for it, and how on some years we had 15 family members working the assembly line of chicken, potatoes and noodles. Julia told me how her dad was going to overnight her a plate of her grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner, since she’d be unable to get home to Florida this year, and we shared ideas for what to do to ring in New Year’s Eve together. 

As we talked, we ate. Raised on flavor-packed southern food, Julia’s eyes went wide when she bit into the chicken. When she was too full to keep eating, she pulled the flaky, salty skin off the chicken and nibbled on it, to hang onto the taste without straining her already-full stomach.

On my plate, the bones from an entire chicken—an entire chicken–piled up next to the scraps of mashed potatoes and slightly overcooked (but still delicious) buttered noodles that I couldn’t finish. Our server approached and Julia and I raised our white flags of surrender. No more; we couldn’t eat another thing. But when they asked if we’d like vanilla, orange creamsicle, or swirl ice cream, we couldn’t turn it down.

When two miniature glass chalices of vanilla ice cream showed up, each was topped with a plastic figurine of a German girl in lederhosen. I tucked them into my pocket to keep in a box of mementos—ornaments, you might say—that I’ve kept from our relationship. Finished at last, we boxed up our leftovers, put on our jackets and walked out into the windy, dark, Michigan cold. Julia looped her arm through mine, and I realized that she was the first person outside of my family I’d ever shared that experience with. Maybe, I thought, we had just started a new tradition.

As if reading my mind, Julia looked at me and said, “I’d eat that once a year.” 

I set out to learn if The Bavarian Inn was a truly magical tradition, or simply my family’s fond memories. And my answer is surprising, at least to me, a proud Gen Z cynic. It’s both. It’s your grandparents, taking the time to listen to your stories and play eye-spy with you on the walls of the restaurant. And it’s you, whose busy life has no room for such whimsy—but you do it anyway. In a world of Amazon Prime and DoorDash, that’s the magic of The Bavarian Inn. It’s showing up with the people you love, and being forced to slow down. It’s remembering that you like that, sometimes. And it’s going back again each year, so that eventually, the memories you share over mashed potatoes and buttered noodles are the ones you made together.