The Backstory: The return of the Pretzel Bell

Ask a townie what they'd like to see back in town and inevitably, you hear the same answers: Bimbo's, Drake's, Maude's, The Del Rio, and the Pretzel Bell.

Well, sometimes you get what you ask for. It was recently announced that the Pretzel Bell would be returning to Ann Arbor in the space currently occupied by Lena and Café Habana. (Note: the family who ran the original restaurant has indicated that this incarnation is not affiliated with theirs, nor have they endorsed the use of the name.)

Many of us arrived too late to experience Pretzel Bell in its glory days. Opened in 1934, it occupied the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and Liberty or 50 years. Many have told stories about how the "P-Bell" hosted both town and gown. Students crowded in to take their first legal drink, and townies gathered to listen to the RFD Boys on Saturday nights. Anyone could have their own chug-a-lug contest by standing on the table as the loud bell tolled for thee. Numerous pictures from that era show people drinking, smoking, and generally having a great time.

But history records some other interesting happenings at the P-Bell:
  • In 1940, students filed a lawsuit against the Pretzel Bell over its refusal to serve customers who were African American. According to the Michigan Daily, the suit went "nowhere", and some of the students involved were asked not to return to campus for the 1940 fall term.
  • A 1946 Time magazine article mentioned the Pretzel Bell in its article on college football and its homecoming after the war. 
  • In 1969, the Pretzel Bell suffered damage from a fire that destroyed Martin Haller's Department Store. Owner Clint Castor did his best to rescue the beloved University of Michigan memorabilia from the walls. 
  • In 1973, three criminals broke into Clint Castor's home. They demanded money, tied up Mr. and Mrs. Castor, and pistol whipped Mr. Castor. When told that the money was at the restaurant, two of the criminals drove Mr. Castor to the Pretzel Bell. After getting $1,500, they shoved Mr. Castor back into his car and talked about killing their captive. Mr. Castor jumped from the car and phoned police. All three suspects were later apprehended. 
  • In 1973, the Republican City Council refused to endorse a resolution in support of Gay Pride Week. In response, about 70 people picketed city council, council members' homes, and the Pretzel Bell, where some Republicans were having dinner. 
  • In 1973, a group called Ann Arbor Tomorrow (AAT) investigated the possibility of running a "shoppers' shuttle" between Main and State Street. Part of this shuttle would have ran in the alley between the Pretzel Bell and Hutzel's before it turned around and went back.
  • In 1975, a benefit called the "Electric Trolley Extravaganza" was held at the restaurant. The minimum $2 per person donation would go to purchase a 1901 Brill trolley. Despite being warned of the impracticality (need for tracks, cables, etc.), the organizer wanted to use the car on one of our downtown streets. She eventually succeeded in raising the money needed to buy the 1899 St. Louis trolley car.
  • The Parkview Medical Facility, whose goal was to assist people with disabilities back into their communities, ran a contest to name their newspaper. The winning patient was awarded dinner at the Pretzel Bell!
  • In the early 1980s, the Health Department closed the restaurant because of health violations. Thus began the decline of the long standing eatery. Unpaid employee withholding taxes resulted in the IRS seizing the assets of the restaurant. On the day the restaurant closed, folks lined up in the rain to bid on the auction to sell off its assets. Most of the memorabilia and fixtures were auctioned off in 1985, including the namesake bell.
Will this latest incarnation of The Pretzel Bell have as storied a history? One can only guess. Now, who's up for bringing Drake's back….

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website,, as well as local bookstores.
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