Welcome to the Black Forest Inn, where customers enjoy authentic sauerbraten and hasenpfeffer and slaver over Erich Christ’s handmade sausages and spaetzle.
It’s also where many diners stick their fingers inside bullet holes perforating the plastic shield over a photo that Richard Avedon — yes, that Richard Avedon — gave to the restaurant in thanks for his meals there as a young artist.
For 50 years, it’s been that kind of place.
This weekend, the Christ family is throwing a party to celebrate a legacy as rich as its liver pâté. Erich Christ, 75, still cooks. Matriarch Joanne Christ still guides the business strategy. (She helped make Eat Street happen.)
Daughters Erica and Gina Christ are in most every day, Erica overseeing orders (when she’s not writing a play, chairing the Whittier Alliance or directing the Cheap Theatre) and Gina wrangling special events (when she’s not teaching theology or raising her daughter).
A younger brother and sister pitch in when they can. In other words, the gig is no one’s full-time job, yet everyone’s part-time job because, well, the Black Forest existed before they did.
“I call it the oldest sibling,” Gina said. “It has its own place and its own identity. And it requires a lot of care.”
Let’s see what’s on the menu.
Erich Christ, fresh out of the Army, was headed for school in Texas when he detoured to Minneapolis to see his older brother Gerhard, who mentioned that a German restaurant was for sale. Erich, a cook and butcher in his native Germany, was game. For $500 down, they opened on May 15, 1965.
“We were happily, naively ambitious,” said Erich, who was 24. “First of all, I couldn’t fail. When I was 19, I knew everything,” he added, then sent the briefest of side eyes to his two daughters sitting nearby. “And that never changed.”
“At 25, I never got tired of the 12-hour days,” Erich said. “They were just a warm-up.”
The clientele slowly grew. A waitress named Joanne joined the staff, eventually becoming Joanne Christ.
There was never much of a courtship, Erich allowed, “but we got the restaurant going. The solution to any problem was always to make more money. But that never had anything to do with saving it; we always plowed it back into the business.”
Vacations were rare, but the family took a few camping trips. “We’d go up to Itasca. You had to jump over those rocks.”
The Avedon Special
On a November afternoon in 1986, Ellis Miller Nelson showed up with .357 Magnum pistol and fired three shots at a huge photo in the bar, Richard Avedon’s “The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution,” then valued at $30,000.
“Then Ellis walked over to the police station and turned himself in,” Gina said.
They all knew Ellis, a barroom regular whom some considered a bit tedious, to the point of shifting stools when he’d approach. “Ellis was feeling ignored because he was being ignored,” she said, although no one expected bullets.
Patrons hid behind overturned tables. “We thought, ‘It’s all over,’ ” Erica said. “ ‘No one will ever come here again.’ ” Yet the next day, loyal customers jammed the place. Any thoughts of repairs went by the wayside when everyone wanted to stick their finger through a bullet hole.
“By my count, some 6,923 people were here that day,” Gina said dryly. “My dream documentary is to ask 15 different people what happened, because everyone would have a different story.”
They keep the photo “because it’s the Black Forest,” Gina said. “Life is risky. You’re going to get a little beat up.”
With caffeine pairing
Avedon was a restaurant regular in 1970, working on a show at the nearby Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He said that he found Minnesota hopelessly provincial but that the Black Forest reminded him of New York. “And we had an espresso machine,” Gina said.
Surely one of the first here? “Second,” she said, smiling. “Dudley Riggs had the first one.”
The story goes that some rowdy customers skedaddled when Erich stormed out of the kitchen in a bloody apron, cleaver in hand, announcing: “Get out of my restaurant. I’m sick of your [ahem].”
Of course, the tale was gleefully told years later by the very crew that got the boot.
“Our father has developed a cult of personality,” Gina said. “He’s an engine. There’s like this heat that comes off him when he starts up, like one of those old trains. When he gets going, you think, ‘It’s gonna take 5 miles to stop that thing.’ ”
In the mid-1960s, the 26th and Nicollet area was a small town, with a drugstore, hardware store, fabric store, a florist — but not many places to eat, so the Black Forest did well.
Then in 1978, Kmart opened a huge store straddling Nicollet, cutting off north from south. “The Kmart was a crime,” Erich said, his German accent furthering the disdain. He added a helpful, “Don’t get me started.”
“It torpedoed the property values on this side of it,” Erica said, yet added that this enabled immigrant families to start restaurants, from Southeast Asians in the 1980s to, more recently, Somalis.
By the mid-1990s, restaurants were so plentiful and culturally diverse that owners christened a half-dozen blocks as Eat Street, anchored by the Black Forest.
Erich still makes spaetzle, sausages and klops, the huge spiced meatball in a white caper sauce. Gina watched him stride back to his spotless kitchen: “You can’t make someone retire who doesn’t want to.”
Joanne Christ is the strategist behind the strudel.
The effort to re-brand Nicollet as Eat Street? “That was Mom.” The return of the blue-checked tablecloths? “That was Mom.” The decision to remain open on Mondays? “That was Mom.” The option of ordering smaller portions? “Mom.” The murals inside and the painted facade? “Mom.”
Joanne, who moved from earning tips to earning a law degree, prefers working in the background. But her daughters credit her with keeping the menu true to its German roots. Sure, there are the entrees you have to offer these days: a burger, even a veggie burger. But many menu items still require umlauts.
“As Erich likes to say, ‘We have a lack of imagination,’ ” she said, revealing the roots of the daughters’ dry humor.
During the Vietnam War, some suspected that the FBI regularly kept watch on the regulars, “and they probably did,” Erica said. “This has always been a very counterculture area. Same reason that years later, the neighborhood was devastated by AIDS.”
Gina runs into people who tell her: “Oh, I used to always come there. But I haven’t been in so long. Never close!” “And I’m thinking, ‘How can you say all three of those sentences together?’ ” She rolls her eyes: “If you want us to stay open, you need to come here.”
A hallmark of recent Oktoberfests has been a spoof homage to actor David Hasselhoff, he of “Baywatch” and “Knight Rider” fame. Erica said it’s a hoot, “but we always get a couple of genuine fans who are annoyed that we’re making fun of him.”
The building is 120 years old, so of course it has a ghost, a woman who was pushed down the basement stairs. Nellie Stevens is a likely contender, given that she ran a restaurant there in the late 1920s. “But,” Erica noted, dry as dust, “it could have been anyone.”
This weekend’s 50th Anniversary Party is open to all and begins at 5 p.m. Friday with a toast. There’ll be live music in the parking lot and beer and brats served outdoors, along with the regular restaurant menu inside. For a full schedule of activities, visit www.blackforestinnmpls.com and click on “Events.”
And for those who find parties just too much fun, a Werner Herzog Film Festival in the banquet space will feature nine films.
“We can’t take ourselves too seriously,” Gina said, then grinned: “It’s fun being us.”
Black Forest Inn, 1 E. 26th St., Minneapolis. www.blackforestinnmpls.com, 612-872-0812. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to midnight every day.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185