Though I drove briefly through Germany’s stunning Berchtesgaden region in the Bavarian Alps recently during a second and third return to Austria and Switzerland, when I spent 8 days this May in Berlin, I actually hadn’t been back to Germany since 1999. At that time, when I was backpacking around Europe for 3 months, Berlin was all cranes and construction — and an unparalleled energy and openness.
Returning nearly 15 years later, I witnessed a more polished Berlin with a vibrant cocktail scene and that same quirky humor I loved the first trip there. I missed some of that raw energy of before, just a decade after the Berlin Wall fell, that sense that anything was possible and the future would be vibrant. While that isn’t exactly what I pick up now, there is still a forward-thinking modernity to Berlin, different from any other European city. Going back to Nazi days and the destruction of historic architecture, there is a more modern vibe to Berlin than many a European city, though, thankfully, there are plenty of striking old buildings I found as I dug further in to neighborhoods from north to south.
Particularly vibrant is Berlin’s Turkish population. When I was in the densest sections of Kreuzberg’s Middle Eastern neighborhoods, I was the minority, surrounded by halal meat and produce markets and elderly men sipping mint tea. Cheap eats are where Berlin shines, particularly when comparing Turkish food or currywurst (try Bergmann Curry in Kreuzberg), the other signature Berlin dish alongside döner kebab.
Hipster gentrification is pervading neighborhoods that still show a few rough edges, like the further reaches of Kreuzberg, whereas hot ‘hoods like Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg are long-established bastions of cool.
I find Berlin’s cocktail scene more consistent than its restaurants — and though I had some superlative meals in hole-in-the-wall as well as fine dining establishments, mid-range was where things were a lot more inconsistency and lack of greatness compared to other parts of Europe. Even Michelin-starred Spain transplant, Dos Palillos (despite its El Bulli connections), was uneven and ultimately disappointing in its tasting menu.
Nonetheless, there were a number of highlights. Here are my top 10 meals in Berlin:
1. TIM RAUE, Kreuzberg
Opening two more casual restaurants in 2013 (La Soupe Populaire and Sra Bua), Tim Raue’s two Michelin starred fine dining flagship, Tim Raue, was not only — by far — the best meal I had in Berlin, but it is one of my favorite restaurants in all of Europe. He’s a rock star hero in Berlin with rough and tumble roots growing up in the Kreuzberg district, garnering international acclaim with his Asian-influenced cuisine. His exquisite tasting menus are paired with a stellar wine and sake list from sommelier André Macionga.
Artful plating and unique expressions of Asian food — predominantly Japanese, Chinese and Korean — Raue expresses an international palate with fine dining precision and superb service, packaged in relaxed casualness. Trying both the regular and the vegetarian tasting menus, standouts abounded, from popular Peking duck three ways utilizing the duck’s heart, stomach and tongue, to lily blossoms soaked in mint vinaigrette. Flavors dazzled with distinction and unexpected combinations. Eight tiny bites to start (think Korean banchan-style amuse bouche) are a highlight, as is dessert, like succulent Périgord strawberries from France in rhubarb jus with Pondicherry peppers.
2. Turkish Street Food, Kreuzberg
Whether filling up on Döner kebab, purported to have been invented in Berlin by Turkish immigrants, or gözleme (a flatbread), there are boundless offerings of Turkish foods in numerous neighborhoods for mere dollars. Next visit, I look forward to exploring mid-range, modern interpretations of Turkish food at restaurants like Osmans Töchter. All three of these spots are in different areas of the Kreuzberg district:
Mustafa’s is legendary, a tiny stand with a line that runs down the block and moves slowly, easy to shrug off as a tourist trap. Nonetheless, it’s worth a wait and a crucial intro to Berlin’s Turkish street food. They’re known for their gemuse kebap, typically spit-roasted chicken shawarma shaved into a sandwich with fresh vegetables, “secret” sauce and a choice of kräuter (herb sauce), knoblauch (garlic sauce) or scharf (spicy sauce). Every bite is a revelation.
On a small park (a nice place to take your food), Imren Grill‘s Kreuzberg is home to “real deal” Döner on platters, in baguettes or in wrap/flatbread form. The food is fairly unadorned and straightforward and all about the hearty lamb.
Konak Grill is a humble space known for their kofte (lamb meatball) “burgers”, essentially a long sandwich where kofte is layered with tomatoes, lettuce, red onion herbs and spicy sauce. This friendly, tiny shop is next to a subway stop in the most active Turkish area I visited, bustling with markets, shops and Berlin’s dense Turkish community.
3. SCHWARZWALDSTUBEN, Mitte
Schwarzwaldstuben is everything you want in a traditional German and Alsatian (French-Germanic food from a region in France) to be. The quirky, pub-like space is inviting, with doors opening onto the streets of the impossibly cool Mitte neighborhood lined with sidewalk cafés.
Even if waitstaff act a bit disinterested, the vibe is relaxed as Johnny Cash plays on the sound system in a space that is both kitschy German, with mounted deer heads and cuckoo clocks, but also hip. Beers on tap flow alongside Germanic wines and Alsatian dishes like flammkuchen (€7.50) — I like traditional ham, apples, onions — or German spätzle (€6.80). It’s easy to fill up for a reasonable price (note: cash only).
4. KANTINE KOLHMANN, Kreuzberg
Kantine Kolhmann was one of the restaurants I wanted to love, though inconsistent. I actually went back twice (which I almost never do when I could try one more restaurant).
Staff are friendly and welcoming in an intimate dining room and crowded, little bar next door, both comfortably worn yet cool. The food is of the modern-day Germanic variety, which I was hoping to see a lot more of in Berlin.
One cocktail delighted of the few I tried — blessedly German in its profile: Kolhmanns (€9) combined Buckenhoff Weizen beer, edelkorn (a type of German schnaps or brandy), Green Chartreuse, basil, citrus and Angostura bitters. It’s rosy and bright on the rocks doused with Johannisbeersaft (currant juice).
House pumpkin seed and oat bread with salty, green butter is a fine accompaniment to a meal, while lentil balls wrapped in lettuce and dipped in carrot puree (€3.50) makes a fine starter. I loved the combo of dishes offered in glasses, allowing me to try a range of the menu over two visits (3 for €10, 6 for €19, 9 for €28). While green apple and dill-laced herring tartare was dry and disappointing, blood sausage over creamed sauerkraut was downright dreamy. Elderflower cream with pumpernickel and cherry compote (€3.50) was an inspired, not-too-sweet dessert.
5. IXTHYS, Schöneberg
Schöneberg is probably my favorite area of Berlin with its sometimes upscale hippy vibe, sidewalk cafes, peaceful, tree-lined streets and unexpected gems. Ixthys is one of those gems. I am spoiled with having grown up on the best Korean food outside of Korea in LA and Queens, NY. Of the couple Korean spots I tried in Berlin, the food was a shadow of what I easily find even in SF.
And yet, a filling bowl of bulgogi beef bimbimbap (€8.50), was not only sheer comfort with gojuchang hot sauce, actual heat being difficult to find in spice-averse Germany, it was a welcome change of pace here.
The humble, quirky shop is manned by two sweetheart Korean women (one speaking German, Korean and English) who cook up the food as you grab a spot and a drink out of the fridge. The walls are lined with handwritten Bible verses in German. The painstaking care and mission of this little spot make it feel like one of those oddities you can’t help but be touched by.
6. MOGG & MELZER, Mitte
While one cannot compare the pastrami/rueben sandwiches here with the greats of NYC and LA, Mogg and Melzer, opened by Oskar Melzer and Paul Mogg, certainly turns out solid pastrami and Jewish deli favorites with gourmet flair in a cozy, eclectic cafe that is worth lingering over tea and Germanic wines.
Located in the former Jüdische Mädchenschule (Jewish Girls’ School), with a crazy history, including a Nazi take-over (in the same building as Michelin-starred Pauly Saal), it seems fitting to eat Jewish food here. The reuben is solid, as is their coleslaw, house pickles and matzo ball soup.
7. Quà Phê, Mitte
Casual yet hip Quà Phê is one of a plethora of Vietnamese restaurants and cafes found around Berlin these days. Despite the profusion and trend of Asian restaurants, specifically Vietnamese, these spots are a far cry from the authentic Vietnamese food in the US (dominant in areas I grew up in) and certainly in Vietnam itself.
In fact, Vietnamese-run District Mot, despite its eclectic, darling decor, was almost atrocious. All dishes came out in 5 minutes (a bad sign), running from tasteless spring rolls with less-than-fresh (think browned) vegetables, to claypot catfish (one of my favorite dishes both from my Vietnam travels and at many of the best US Vietnamese restaurants) that tasted as if the hardened fish had been reheated three times. Just awful.
Given that experience, I could forgive Quà Phê its in-authenticity. Getting past caucasian staff, when I asked if the ginger lychee mochi dessert was similar to Japanese mochi (since that is not a Vietnamese dessert), they had never even heard of Japanese mochi and had no idea the dish wasn’t Vietnamese. Ditto the bao buns. But at least the food was fresh, fairly tasty (particularly pho cuon, Vietnamese rice crepes) and the space charming, with sidewalk seating in full view of Fernsehturm, the iconic Berlin tower. It’s also a respite for traditional Vietnamese coffee.
8. VOLTA, Wedding
Volta’s outdoor communal tables feel like a modern beer garden and though the indoor space is loud and a bit sterile, chill staff welcome around a center bar for one of the most popular burgers in Berlin.
Affordable prices for all international dishes (€4.50-13), including a twist on Peruvian ceviche, pair well with quality beers (like Berlin-based Eschenbräu), wines and schnaps. But, oh, that burger. Juicy beef is piled high with onion rings, arugula, cheddar, bacon and pickles on a brioche bun in a sweet barbecue sauce. One of the more fun meals I had in Berlin.
9. JOLESCH, Kreuzberg
With its elegant, Old World-meets-New World dining room and casual cafe/bar space, Jolesch (open since 1992) is one of Berlin’s great stops for Austrian food, namely their famed Weiner schnitzel. Transporting me back to Austria, their schnitzel is properly done with large cuts of veal, pounded flat, perfected with a squeeze of lemon and their dill-laced potato and cucumber salad. They also serve generous, fresh salads and Kaiserschmarrn, a classic Austrian dessert of fluffy, torn pancake with plum sauce.
10. DAS LOKAL, Mitte
Lokal is the epitome of hipster Berlin with its rustic-chic dining room and good-looking staff set to a fine wine list. The farm-to-table approach hearkens back to the California-created tren, playing off local German foods with modern interpretations… but results are decidedly mixed. Carrot fennel soup (€6) and even spargelfond, aka asparagus (€10), with radishes, cucumber and broccoli in phyllo pastry where rather bland. Roast pork (€19) with carrot, sauerkraut and apple wasn’t exactly exciting but was comforting and well-prepared. Given the raves by locals and critics, I was expecting more, even as I liked the vibe, drink list and ethos.