A Food Lover’s Weekend in… Berlin
Have you heard the joke about the traditional German dish? It’s the wurst…
Tell that in Germany’s thrilling, free-spirited capital and it’s not just the dire pun that’d earn you a stony-faced response. Berlin’s dining scene – born of unfettered artistic expression in the post-Cold War thaw, and its breathtakingly diverse immigrant population – has long since shaken off its rep for being a mere sausage-fest.
The city’s globalised culture has spiced things up: the Döner kebab was established in West Berlin in the ’70’s and they wield serious culinary clout here today, while Thai Park jubilantly celebrates South East Asian flavour.
Sustainability and innovation are Berlin’s ‘bread and roses’ too: the city’s a hothouse for vegan and vegetarian restaurants, some of whom farm their own vegetables – often in their dining rooms. It’s socially enlightened, with refugee cookery schools (such as Über den Tellerrand/Thinking Outside the Box) popping up, and stress-free slaughter measures taken. We spent 48 hours eating our way through the city and can proudly declare ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’: demonym and doughnut.
Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport is a short hop from London. EasyJet runs frequent flights from Luton, Ryanair from Stansted – and the journey time is around two hours. From the airport, the city is a 40-minute drive, or from the Bahnhof Flughafen Berlin-Schönefeld station, hop on the S-Bahn and you’ll arrive in around 30 minutes.
This is Berlin; you don’t want curtain swags and velveteen headboards. You want exposed pipes and bared concrete, graffiti and a muddle of mid-century modern seating, and a hammock, we guess. 25Hours Bikini Berlin, set alongside the Zoologischen Garten on the west side, gives a little of Berlin’s grit and ‘oi’, but also luxuries like a sauna, gym and a cute, cosy caf. The uber-cool 808 nightclub is just next door, and the zoo is a few paw pads away. Alternatively, Max Brown Ku’Damm in Northern Wilmersdorf has impressively affordable rooms with playful detailing (mini basketball hoops, neon coathangers) in the city centre.
The scruffy but lovable Neukölln district’s lightning-fast regeneration has been so speedy that anti-gentrification laws (milieuschutz) have been passed to protect its existing community. Property developers haven’t sandblasted its edges yet, but smashed avo and third-wave coffee roasters have crept in. Stripped-back yet cosy Isla Coffee is one such, with scrumptious brunch goodies. On the border of Neukölln and Kreuzberg – in the pretty, canalside ‘hood of Kreuzkölln, which is packed with old-school charm – is Populus café. Run by a pair of passionate Finns, it’s emblematic of the neighbourhood’s cool streak. It’s garlanded with ferns and sprigs from Finnish boreal forests, and the brunch is saintly and sinful at once; yes, there’s avo, but spinach waffles with carrot lox and horseradish cream-cheese, chubby cinnamon buns and fruit-laden granola pots may sway your favour. Wash down with globally sourced, direct-trade, single-origin coffee that could be from Burundi, Guatemala or beyond…
The Mitte district’s new morning star is Black Isle Bakery; batches of salmon, crème fraiche and dill buns are often decimated by local fans, but there are no real losers – with fillings such as apple and brown butter, and mushroom with a splash of vermouth, we like these buns and we cannot lie. Gluten-free options are legion too.
Café Kranzler, a famed haunt for the West’s literati during the Cold War, has recently been taken over by third-wave roasters The Barn and updated in Scandi-chic style – a move that signifies the returning hipness of areas formerly considered bürgerlich (bourgeois). Its history may still linger amid the upcycled wood and stacks of cookies, but allegedly the coffee has been improved.
Start off in Mitte and you can tick the city’s must-sees off your hit-list. Here, you’re just a wander from the Brandenberg Gate, Potsdamer Platz and the Reichstag; of the latter, Norman ‘gherkin’ Foster’s dome represents modern ideas and a new openness, so try to resist running down its spiralling walkways.
The Peter Eisenmann-designed Holocaust Memorial – a disorienting maze of concrete blocks – is a sobering yet vital stop. Put the selfie-stick away, and submit yourself to the darker recesses of the past as you wander the alleyways in between.
Alternatively, go trend-hunting on a pilgrimage north to the Feiner Herr truck, which parks up on Tegeler Street. So, what’s setting the locals’ stomachs to rumble these days? Postmodern pancakes. These crêpes are battered to their own beat: some are sprinkled with lavender popcorn, or made from apple-banana batter and topped with cinnamon compôte and crisps; savouries include beetroot and coconut, and guac-cheddar slathered picks. If only we could think of an analogy for how fast these hot cake-y things are selling… And, if you’re a stickler for tradition, grab a messy carton of currywurst and chips at Curry at the Wall.
To the rest of Europe’s bafflement, the Hoff’s Germanic appeal endures to this day. Pay homage to the beefy ex-Baywatch-er and adopted Berliner at the small museum hidden in Circus Hostel’s basement. It’s curious, but this shrine shows that as far as German affection goes, forever and always, the Hoff’s always here. For a more edifying cultural experience – with less chest hair – Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle is renowned for its thought-provoking art shows. It’s currently showing Turkish modernist Fahrelnissa Zeid – before the hall moves to its new address at Pinzessinnenpalais – and past exhibitions have been globally minded and visually stimulating.
The DDR Museum presents tableaux of life behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin. It addresses both the era’s hardships and brutality, alongside the day-to-day, with a heavy dose of nostalgia and a dash of humour, and a glimpse into East Berliners’ holidays at nudist beaches and ‘interesting’ state-sanctioned TV.
The city’s chefs started seriously gunning for the stars in the early 2000s, and their efforts paid off, pulling in itinerant gourmands and mad respect from Michelin. Nobelhart and Schmutzig is the latest in a glittering constellation – with a true 250km menu (almost all ingredients are sourced within the city limits) and a ‘vocally local’ concept (the restaurant’s menu pays deference to their suppliers, and is agriculture rather than guest-focused). A ten-course set menu is served to diners sitting around a kitchen-facing counter. Dishes arrive in masterful miniature: it changes with the greenery, but past patrons have dined on dandelion buds nestled in cress seeds in half an onion shell; and carrot and chamomile soup. For more tempting tasting menus where morsels arrive with smears, dollops and sprinklings, French eatery Bandol Sur Mer fits the (above average) bill. Two set menus are served, starring pork with green plum and pearl onions, beetroot with green strawberries and deer dressed with sprigs of juniper.
Protokoll is a Russian-owned beer bar serving sudsy refreshments from all over the world. It looks damn cool, with a backsplash of German-flag-gold tiles and reclaimed-wood sidings, and a line of decorative tap-handles. A line up of cult favourites To Øl, Beavertown and BRLO are pulled, alongside some outlier picks. Stein and dine with a laden meat and cheese board.
It may be impossible to direct a taxi driver to, but once you’ve arrived, Ä bar on Weserstraße, will win you over with its easygoing, ramshackle charm. It’s a popular expat hangout, with few matching chairs and a fiercely defended foosball table.
The upside-down isn’t always a spooky realm lit in blue and prowled by mind-flaying monsters. If the Stranger Things gang (and Steve, who would fit right in) were transported to Madame Claude, they’d have a much chiller time in a space where furnishings are secured to the roof and guests drink (and dance) on the ‘ceiling’.
Berlin’s curious, industrial-disco-ball-topped obelisk, the TV Tower, stays open till midnight (last ascents are at 11.30pm). By day, you can trace the city’s ever-changing topography from the observation deck, but by night, the city lights up like a rave in an abandoned warehouse. In the on-high cocktail bar, décor has a strong Seventies vibe.
An icon of Berlin’s sustainable-dining scene, Infarm only opens once a week on Saturdays to serve brunch, but it’s well worth squeezing yourself into this small window of time; the café grows all of its produce pesticide-free in-house (or brings its fresh microgreens in from its network of city farms) – you can even see your salad growing as you dine. The espressos churned out by Holy Coffee’s La Marzocco gear could be considered as miraculous as a morning shot in the arm. Their pastries, cakes and bagels are all worth getting your teeth into, too.
Paulinski Palme is a fresh-out-the-box brunch spot in Neukölln; so fresh that the menu’s still being finalised, but with eggy dishes promised and a quality black-pudding supplier secured, it’s a ‘ja’ from us.
Mitte’s Mauerpark Market is a flea with an incredible selection of antique curios, vintage books and artwork – everything you for borrowing a bit of Berlin cool. After dusting off steins, Soviet doodads and other bric-a-brac, take a leafy stroll through the Tiergarten, Germany’s main, central park, which has a beautiful flowery island within, and areas where you can bask in the buff (weather – and propriety – permitting).
Take a little trip to South East Asia for lunch: District Mot have strived to bring an immersive Vietnamese dining experience to Berlin, outfitting their space with colourful stools, trinket-peddling carts and even disarrayed power lines. Flavour-packing comfort food is a specialty, with a range of bao-burgers, broths and warming, pork-y noodles. Thai Park has lured in hungry German gourmands for more than 20 years – it was initially a socialising spot for the city’s Thai community, but the enticing whiff of spicy noodle soups, and the promise of pillowy dumplings and sweet-sticky mango rice have lured in the crowds.
Korean barbecues sizzle all over the city too – try Mmaah Columbiadamm, whose meaty, saucy, potato-ey dishes are extremely reasonable and generously heaped.
Street art and Berlin’s history adhere to each other like spray paint to a wall – the derelict buildings of post-war Germany beckoned to anarchic souls who scrawled bold statements over the neighbourhoods. In 1990, a lengthy section of the wall was turned into the open-air East Side Gallery, with artists painting vivid murals bearing messages of hope, peace and politics. It’s a moving, must-see tribute to freedom. After the fall, artists exuberantly decorated the city as they revelled in a newfound cultural expression. Today, Berlin wears a colourful coat, which despite its illegality is – mostly – tolerated (not that we’re encouraging you, mind), and new opening, The Museum for Urban Contemporary Art has legitimised the scene. It’s largely overseen by Urban Nation, whose former projects include large-scale open-air installations by Shepard Fairey and the Nomad Clan, but they’ve invited some of street art’s biggest and ballsiest to enliven the new gallery’s interiors.
In their minimal, wood-lined dining room plastered with vintage Japanese posters, Hako Ramen are quietly reigniting the city’s ramen scene; they have a small, select, slurpable menu, with chicken and pork varieties and veggie/vegan options. Bowls are deep and prices are just right.
Mod-Italian eatery To the Bone’s emerald-green and mustard interiors make it the fashion-plate of emergent restaurants, and its food-plates are pretty moreish too, with bone marrow and oxtail confit, beef tartare sushi, and seasonal dishes such as courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta and mint.
Spend your last evening in laidback fashion by attending an out-of-the-box gig at Auster-Club. Or see who’s taken to the decks at Watergate – a well-established, techno nightclub by the river. It’s livelier mid-week, but still a fine stop for a last-minute boogie.
Peckish before your flight? Don’t forget to grab a Döner at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebab. Said by some to be the city’s best (the lengthy queues are a bit of an indicator), it’s crispy, zesty and stuffed with tender chicken. It closes at 2am on a Sunday – when the Berliners’ nights are pretty much just starting – so they can use it to fuel up as you use it to cap your night.