Modern Meets Traditional at Karl Ratzsch

A modern chef melds tradition and a contemporary aesthetic at this Downtown institution.

Karl Ratzsch closed in April, 2017.

Perhaps no opening in the first half of 2016 was as highly anticipated as the revamping of the German institution that dates to 1904. When c.1880’s Thomas Hauck bought Karl Ratzsch, he also found himself knee-deep in tchotchkes, priceless and otherwise. While Patrick and Libby Castro of Milwaukee’s LP/w Design Studios worked on streamlining the interior, keeping the aura of tradition, Hauck was poring over old menus and recipes and deciding just how traditional to be – well, quite.

It’s great to see a new owner-chef holding the reins, and one who doesn’t want to stray too far from established custom. Sauerbraten, liver dumpling soup, Wiener schnitzel, Usinger sausages – these are the specialties Deutschlanders want back. They get those classics here and untraditional dishes like scallops with roasted corn and cremini mushrooms and maybe a funky meatless mix of roasted butternut squash, rutabaga, celeriac, potato dumplings and charred rapini. But for diners expecting the artful combinations of c.1880, Ratzsch’s is simply a different style of restaurant – harkening back yet also moving forward.

Uneven service brought down my earliest visits. But the front of the
house has had time to learn the ropes. Ratzsch’s has also added everything from a Friday night fish fry (not for purists! But I love the silky applesauce and a crunchy slaw bathed lightly in vinaigrette) to weekday lunch. Just like the open-face sandwiches my mom used to make when I came home from school for lunch, Hauck is doing “saxon” sandwiches that have no “top coat.” And they put my mom’s sandwiches to shame. I endorse the quark, pickled onion and chives on pumpernickel.

Whatever time you go, soak up the lingering energy of so many diners, famous and not, who’ve inked deals, gotten engaged, played piano (Liberace), had arguments, drunk Spaten and eaten sausage over decades past. Lead off dinner with smoked salmon, potato pancakes and sour cream followed by crackling pork shank with spaetzli, pork schnitzel with capers and egg, and goose shank, wild rice and pickled cabbage. Dessert is easy! Get Bienestich (bee-sting cake), a chewy, old-world creation with a creamy custard filling and nutty topping. ◆

Karl Ratzsch
320 E. Mason St.
Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri. Dinner Mon.-Sat.
Prices: Mains $16-$42.

This dining review appears in the Dine Out Pocket Guide in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the April issue on newsstands beginning April 3.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.