Palate’s food and drink guide to Germany’s capital
East Meets West. Cool. Edgy. Noir. These are just some of the words used by the guide books to describe Berlin – words as random and decontextualised as the city itself. Berlin doesn’t have the classic elegance of, say, Paris, Rome or Stockholm, for obvious reasons. It may even seem a little rough round the edges with its brutalistic and blocky architecture. Every surface is a graffiti opportunity, whilst looming above, omnipresent and keeping a beady eye on all the tourists, hipsters and designers beneath is the iconic TV Tower (Fernsehturm) – that 1960s GDR vision of the future (and location for Berlin’s highest bar and restaurant). The cathedral, the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag are just some of the few historic buildings that remain: the rest of the city rebuilt itself, in more ways than one, becoming one of the world’s most progressive, liberal and forward-thinking cities. And there is something for all pleasure seekers in this endlessly fascinating city: walking along the East Side Gallery, canoeing on the Spree, strolling through the Tiergarten, all manner of museums, clubs open all night long, and, of course, there’s the food and drink.
Starting with the traditional cuisine of the area, Konigsberger Klopse is a must. You would be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like one of Captain Kirk’s adversaries and indeed ‘The Wrath of Klopse’ has a certain sinister ring to it, but it is in fact a classic Prussian dish. Conceptually it’s not a million miles away from the humble Swedish meatball but made from veal and anchovy and served with boiled or mashed potatoes, beetroot and capers, in a creamy roux. In one of the early episodes of Deutschland 83 Stasi officer Walter Schweppenstette can be seen eating it for lunch in all its beige glory. In the present day you can enjoy this in many of Berlin’s traditional restaurants. One particular honourable mention is Restauration 1840 in Hackescher Markt, perhaps the only area in Berlin that resembles a traditional European street cafe area with bars, restos and cafes next to each other.
And then, of course, there’s currywurst – the ultimate street food. I’m sorry, but unless you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you’re not allowed to leave Berlin until you’ve tried it. Konnopke, Curry 36 and Bier’s Kudamm 195 are generally agreed to be the best places in the city, the latter in particular (which was also my favourite). The thing is, it isn’t just about the sausages or the curried tomato ketchup, magnificent though these are (and each stall has its own secret recipe). It’s also the experience of eating standing up, with one plastic fork to puncture each slice of sausage on a paper plate and to mop up that gloopy spicy sauce, with the best chips on earth and washed down with a Berlin pilsner. It’s so wrong and yet so right. The locals love it and it’s a rite of passage for the uninitiated. Heck, there’s even a currywurst museum!
Plants, Chains and Automation
Of course, Berlin caters for the full range of options as you’d expect of any sprawling cosmopolitan city. The Scheunenviertel area is just slightly away from the touristic centre and replete with many bars and cafes. Rose Garden, just off Torstrasse, is a deli and self-service café with healthy all day breakfasts and more smashed avocado than you can shake a bratwurst at. All of their ingredients are sourced from fair trade products. I had an excellent chicken Caesar salad here and didn’t begrudge having to serve myself. Just a short walk up Schonhauser Allee is The Barn, part of a small coffee collection – this outlet in north-central Berlin is their actual coffee roastery and the smell is worth the visit alone. I’ve had cheaper coffee, mind, but they apparently justify the slightly inflated cost on the basis that all the beans are of the highest quality from ethical sources.
For an Instagrammable and vibrant Vietnamese fix head to Monsieur Vuong. Is the food good? Pho sure (sorry). Sticking with the Vietnamese theme, 1990 Vegan Living out east near Boxhagener Platz has an entirely 100% plant-based menu. Berlin has a burgeoning vegan scene generally but special mention has to go to Brammibal’s Donuts for its fun and quirkiness.
Chains have their place like anywhere else, such as Cecconis located on the ground floor of Soho ‘Haus’ Berlin (the part that’s open to non-members) – if you’re looking for an emergency bowl of pasta it does the job but the service left me a little cold.
As you head towards the high-end of the market things begin to shine. Facil at The Mandala Hotel has been garlanded with two Michelin stars and is just walking distance away from the legendary Hansa Studios. With its garden and water features, it has a very relaxing and calming ambience – you wouldn’t know you’re just metres away from the hustle and bustle of Potsdamer Platz. Here, the Icelandic salmon with green lentils was really very good, artistically presented and with well-balanced flavours, though their pork belly with cucumber and shiso, whilst pleasing to the eye, ended up being a little dry. Speaking of dryness, a fear of mine with German wine is that it will always be too sweet. Facil’s sommelier guided me through an unfamiliar and esoteric selection, such as the forgotten but revived Disibodenberg Riesling, and the Graf von Benztel-Sturmfeder Schozacher Lemberger, a young red with light Burgundy qualities (and a name as long as the alphabet). Each of them complemented the food as you would expect. And not bad value either, a mid-week lunch setting you back around 50 quid.
Grill Royal, a steakhouse and celebrity hangout, commands great views of the river and ‘Museum Island’. In the summer an outdoor table really makes for a wonderful dining experience. But beware, it’s over-priced. I actually couldn’t fault the steak but I could fault the service. Even accounting for the fact they have a large number of covers, it required a Herculean effort to get the attention of waiting staff, in particular with paying the bill. And what a bill! Steak, gratin dauphinois and a glass of fairly unremarkable Malbec came to around 70 quid!
But if it’s that combination of views and great food you’re after, head to Hugo’s at The Intercontinental. It’s a bit off the beaten track but the views are worth it. Despite being one of Berlin’s finest restaurants, its hard floor and hard chairs give a surprisingly informal bistro feel, but at least the lighting is flattering and the service is faultless: the kind of service where the staff don’t know you from Adam but treat you like an old friend. This is what I look for. I’m glad it’s not somewhere that just trades on its view either – the food has real substance too, as do the well thought-through wine choices. Stand-out dishes included the scallop, cooked in one bowl, ceviche in the other, and followed by a slice of beef in the most divine marrowbone-infused jus. The cheese trolley has to be seen to be believed. Like Grill Royal, it’s not cheap, but it doesn’t seem unfair for the quality of the cookery and level of service.
Finally, for minimalistic, foraged wizardry, head to Nobelhart & Schmutzig, which has a more detailed self-standing Palate review here!
Beer gardens and cocktails
Ah, German beer in all its delicious, hoppy frothiness: PraterGarten is Berlin’s oldest beer garden, dating back to 1837, located in Prenzlauer Berg, with an open air stage for entertainment and an adjacent restaurant for when you get peckish. Slightly smaller in scale and specialising in craft beer is Republic on Kopenicker Strasse, complete with its own ‘Beer Ambulance.’ International craft beer chains such as Mikkeller (Danish) and Brewdog (Scottish) are present too, so there’s no shortage of options when looking for a couple of cold ones.
If cocktails are more your cup of tea, head to The Adlon Kempinski Hotel by the Brandenburg Gate for something sophisticated. Their signature cocktail, the Kaiser Cup, is a deceptive, cheeky little number: essentially a ‘coupe’ of Champagne, gin and Cointreau with pieces of fruit bobbing up and down. It’s even served with a teaspoon. It packs quite a punch, I can tell you.
If you don’t suffer from vertigo then a drink at the top of the TV Tower is quite an experience for the setting alone, but booking in advance is highly recommended and beware the stools at the bar are at a premium. I also had a decent Negroni and a really good chat with the bar staff at Brut on Torstrasse – a friendly place with a neighbourhood vibe.
A little further afield
For David Bowie fans a trip to Berlin isn’t complete without going to his former stomping ground in Schoenberg in the south-west of the city. Stop by Cafe Neus Ufer where he used to hang out with Iggy Pop in the late 70s – their former local is still here to this day. Whilst you’re in the area also check out Zig Zag jazz bar, a 20 minute walk down the road (or 5 minute Uber ride).
One of the many great things about Berlin is that there are plenty of places to visit just a bit further out of Mitte such as Charlottenburg Palace, the Stasi Museum in Lichtenberg, or the bordering city of Potsdam. Just on the periphery of Berlin is the Grünewald, and if you have the time it’s worth a little trek – a mere 20 or so minutes on the S-Bahn from the central station or half an hour away from Alexanderplatz.
Undoubtedly one has to be absurdly rich to own any patch of land in the Grünewald, an area reminiscent of Sandbanks in Dorset or Highgate in London. Christopher Isherwood was less than impressed when he described it in A Berlin Diary (part of Goodbye to Berlin) as a “millionnaire’s slum” with “villas in all known styles of expensive ugliness, ranging from the eccentric-rococo folly to the cubist flat-roofed steel-and-glass box…crowded together in this dank, dreary pinewood.” Some of that may still be true today, though I found the woods, and the lake, far from dreary and couldn’t really believe this is just on the outskirts of central Berlin. For food, the Vivaldi Restaurant at the Schlosshotel provides a complete oasis of calm. I stopped by for a brief lunch after an energetic calorie-burning walk and was pleased to see they were showcasing asparagus, appearing in almost every savoury dish. Their trout mousse, served with green and white asparagus, had a slight spiciness to it which was complemented well by a Riesling. The veal with Milanese risotto arancini (and more asparagus!) may not have been particularly Germanic but was gorgeous nonetheless. Sitting outside in the garden with a gentle breeze, in peace and quiet, was up there with the finest dining experiences of my life.
So there you have it. A guide like this can never be exhaustive – indeed, Berlin has an inexhaustible supply of places to go – but for a brief trip this should give you plenty to go on.
All of the bars and restaurants in this article were tried and tested as at June 2018