It’s lunchtime, and high-profile sportscaster Mike Tirico makes an entrance, radiant in the light coming from two directions. He’s followed all the way to his table by a bubble of handshaking and voices asking him about his jump from ESPN to NBC. Presumably the guy has eaten other places in Ann Arbor–he lives here–but this seems such a well-matched setting for this mini-drama, it’s hard to imagine it happening in any other restaurant.

The Pretzel Bell is back, and everyone who remembers it says it’s more than a restaurant. “First class,” “tradition rich,” “a reflection of the best of the Michigan traditions and standards” are phrases co-owners Bruce Elliott and Fritz Seyferth reach for. For many, memories of the P-Bell intermingle with an intense group love of alma mater and sport that, when lubricated by food and drink, can make grown men cry and hug each other.

Pretzel Bell memories, lore, and legend have resurfaced in abundance since Seyferth, Elliott, and about two dozen partners–mostly ex-Michigan athletes and alums–talked Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell–partners in Jolly Pumpkin, Grizzly Peak, Blue Tractor, and other eateries around the state–into reconstituting the old student watering hole in Lena’s former spot at Main and Liberty. Ever wonder why it was called the Pretzel Bell? In Bavaria, the owner of a tavern or bakery would make pretzels every day and ring a bell when they were ready. “There used to be lots of Pretzel Bells all over the United States,” says Seyferth. John and Ralph Neelands opened Ann Arbor’s Pretzel Bell in 1934 at Liberty and Fourth Ave., where Mezzevino is now. Clint Castor, Sr., arrived as manager in 1943 and bought it in 1945.

Seyferth and Elliott’s friendship goes back nearly fifty years. Elliott was a defensive back and Seyferth a fullback under Bo Schembechler. “We played in two Rose Bowls,” remembers Elliott. “We did all you could ever do,” agrees Seyferth. Elliott is now an attorney with Conlin, �xADMcKenney & Philbrick, and Seyferth has an eponymous company that does “executive coaching and team building.”

They’re just two of the legions who never got over the ignominious demise of the Pretzel Bell in 1985, but they’re the two who thought to dial up East Coast investment banker Bruce Zenkel, a 1952 graduate and large U-M donor who “bleeds Michigan,” as Carlson puts it. The idea was born about five years ago, when Elliott discovered that the Pretzel Bell trademark was up for grabs. He quickly nailed it down and began scouting locations (he and Seyferth briefly considered the original location before Mezzevino took it, but decided to wait). And that’s where a cloud interrupts the sunny reminiscing: they never spoke to the surviving members of the Castor family, who regard the new version as a perfectly legal but ethically shaky recycling of their legacy.

Seyferth and Elliott go out of their way to make the point that this isn’t a continuation of the old P-Bell. “We’re honoring the present and creating new traditions,” Seyferth says. But from the Castors’ point of view, the initial failure to engage with those who lived the P-Bell’s history looks like either a tremendous gaffe or a deliberate strategy to preempt any opposition.

Clint Castor, Jr., took over management of the Pretzel Bell in 1964, bought it from his father in 1972, and ran it until 1985–the year the IRS seized the restaurant and auctioned off the contents for unpaid withholding taxes. “Dad was a good man,” says Megan Castor Uphoff. “He should have sold or closed before he did.”

When the Pretzel Bell closed, “I was fourteen, my brother sixteen,” Uphoff recalls. “My sister Shelley was eighteen. She was going off to college and had to figure out how to pay tuition … That someone wants to bring it back and leverage those memories [of happier days] is an honor, but the way it happened was deeply disappointing and sad.”

Uphoff’s mother and sister live in Ann Arbor, her brother Todd nearby. They all found out about the new Pretzel Bell from an article in the Ann Arbor News and quickly responded with an open letter saying they had nothing to do with the new incarnation. Uphoff says that Jon Carlson immediately reached out to her, and was “sincere and remorseful that they didn’t have greater foresight for how it would have played out.

“I get what they’re doing,” she says. “It’s legal.” But, she says, the new business is still “building off the reputation, value, and goodwill” that her family created. Elliott maintains: “We knew Clint had passed away and had no idea there was family in the area. We would have been delighted to connect with them.”

Ann Arbor doesn’t really need any more sports bars, and the partners haven’t tried to make this one. The main floor is a rather chic restaurant, full of sports memorabilia and photos, some from the actual Pretzel Bell, others from the U-M’s Bentley Historical Library or athletic department. The wood paneling that creeps up the walls and partially over the ceiling is flooring from “a Detroit rec center where Joe Louis trained,” says Lobdell, the architect and designer of all of 2Mission Design and Development’s restaurants.

Waiter Jason Colegrove describes the menu as “healthy comfort food.” The house burger is topped with Danish blue cheese, bacon jam, and lemon garlic mayo. Fries come with a choice of curried peanut sauce and scallions, herb-lemon sea salt, or beer cheese and bacon. There are also lots of salads boasting artisanal or local ingredients.

The basement is more like a sports bar. The dark grotto has been newly refinished with a lot of polished wood and leather upholstery, and it feels a lot like the original Pretzel Bell. It serves a subset of the upstairs menu.

The almost immediate success of the new P-Bell will most likely soon erase the controversy. In fact, Carlson says “it’s our best opening to date.” He also downplays the sports celebrity angle. “Yeah, we get VIPs. But they live here. You see them at school functions, rolling up their sleeves.”

Pretzel Bell, 226 S. Main, 994-2773. Restaurant (ground floor): Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sat. 10 a.m.-midnight, Sun. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Bar (basement, serving limited menu): Mon.-Fri. 3 p.m.-2 a.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-2 a.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-midnight.