Despite being the capital of a country that is not particularly well known for good food—but working hard to change that perception—Berlin is quite possibly the most interesting place in Europe to eat right now. Relatively cheap rents still allow for experimentation, and the cool factor draws young creatives (including chefs and cooks) from all over the world. “Food is culture,” maintains a small but influential collective of Berliner farmers and restaurateurs, and perhaps there’s nowhere that’s more true than in multicultural, countercultural Berlin.
From specialty coffee in the (not too early) morning to craft cocktails late into the night, Frieda is a relaxed place that lives all day by its core values—some commonplace ones, like organic, local and seasonal, sure, but also some unexpected ones like communicative, innovative and, my favorite, joyful. Food should be fun, after all. As for the innovation, the dinner menu is varied, with dishes such as stracciatella, zucchini escabeche, flowers and Sicilian pistachio appearing beside chicken liver paté on malted shokupan (Japanese milk bread) and strawberry.
A good introduction to this casual spot (not far from Frieda in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg district) is the weekday lunch menu. It’s a no-fuss affair, with a choice of two dishes each day (the menu changes weekly), one of which is vegetarian, plus sourdough, a few optional sides, craft beer and natural wines. It’s nothing fancy—meat or cauliflower schnitzel with scalloped potatoes and vinegared cucumbers when I visited—but it’s made with top-quality local ingredients (you can sign up for their newsletter to learn about their suppliers) and lots of love.
Owned by a young Vietnamese woman, this wine bar and restaurant is anything but conventional. Thanks to waves of immigration, Berlin has a large Vietnamese community, and traditional Vietnamese cuisine is an important part of the city’s gastronomy. Van Any Le took over her parents’ restaurant, where they had been serving some of that traditional food, and decided to make a whole new concept. Her chefs are from Colombia and England, and her manager is from Brazil,and together they’ve come up with a menu of snacks like a potato tortilla with spicy mayo, oyster mushroom ragout on a corn tortilla from Tlaxcalli, and fried cauliflower with vadouvan (a French derivative of masala) emulsion and herbs.
This zero-waste restaurant (one of the first in the world when it opened in 2019) and spin-off bakery are fully vegan, but owner David Suchy wants diners to forget about that. He says some 85% of his guests are “normal eaters” and are surprised when they learn that the food is entirely plant-based. Likewise, while the place already has a Michelin green star and is expecting one of the regular kind for its three-, four- or five-course evening menu soon, but he says his only goal is to put the best food on the plate. Expect dishes like cornbread with apricot-adobo-marinated oyster mushrooms, yellow salsa primavera, almond ricotta, fresh daikon radish and cucumber, spring onions and coriander, and almond mole over steamed and glazed cauliflower, chickpea tempeh, roasted nectarines, fresh apple, poppy seeds and summer herbs.
Owner Dang Khamlao says her casual spot is “typical Berlin—simple setup, good quality” and unapologetically international. (She’s actually a bit tired of white chefs saying they’re making “refined Asian food,” as if Asian cooks aren’t doing it properly.) The cooking here is traditional (no “rounding off the rough edges” or toning down the spice), mostly dishes from her mother’s native Thailand and a few spicy noodle dishes from her father’s native China, while the decor looks like a Bangkok street restaurant. In fact, everything in it, down to the last pair of chopsticks, was shipped over from Asia. She also shares the space for the occasional pop-up from members of the organization she cofounded, Smells Like Collective, a safe space for BIPOC people in gastronomy.
Extra Special Treats
Restaurant Tim Raue
Celebrity chef Tim Raue isn’t out to offend anyone, but he’s also unapologetic about what he’s doing at his namesake restaurant. What he’s doing is “cooking Asian food” (he pointedly doesn’t specify one type), but with far more emphasis on artistry than authenticity. That means a platter of starters that includes octopus with charcoal aioli and yuzu, and green curry with marshmallow, coconut and Peruvian mint, followed by an elaborate tasting menu (the place has two Michelin stars) with dishes like pikeperch that’s been marinated for 12 hours in sangohachi, and his signature wasabi langoustine that’s cooked as tempura, doused with spicy mayo and served with deep fried green rice.
Nobelhart & Schmutzig
Products from the former East Germany—once looked down on—are the stars at Billy Wagner’s Michelin-star restaurant, Nobelhart & Schmutzig. (He took the name—noble heart and dirty—from the title of an article about polo.) Each item on the ten-course tasting menu has a cryptic name like “green asparagus/parsley” or “egg/goats weed,” and the producers’ names appear alongside the dish descriptions. (The whole kitchen team is also created on the menu, a trend I’d like to see more often.) The combinations sound deceptively simple, but the flavors shine.
Canadian chef Dylan Watson-Brawn and his team are making a name (and a Michelin star) for themselves with an ambitious omakase menu (up to 40 courses) that changes daily (!) at an eight-seat counter behind an unmarked door. They’re meticulous about sourcing—and on a first-name basis with their suppliers—and also about creativity. My dinner included razor clams with caviar and young bamboo, and green eggplant that was grilled over charcoal and blanketed with a sauce from its own burnt skin. Watson-Brawn, who trained in Japan, says his restaurant is more philosophically Japanese than authentically so, but it has the pacing of an omakase meal and food that deserves concentration—as the chef says, it’s not a place for a first date.
Artist and chocolatier Kristiane Kegelmann named her business Pars because it’s the Latin word for “piece”—as in art piece, which is what every one of her asymmetrical pralines is. The individually made chocolates are painted in the Japanese Kintsugi technique with natural colors made from plant extracts such as spirulina, safflower and ash, and gold leaf filling in the small fractures and air bubbles. They’re almost too pretty to eat, but not quite, considering how tasty and unusual they are. The chocolate is from well-known Berlin chocolate craftsman Holger in’t Veld, and have a cocoa content between 80 and 84%. The fillings are carefully thought out, using seasonal ingredients like Bavarian hazelnuts, crystalized plum blossoms and earthy beetroot.
Once called the Champagne of the north, the cloudy, sour beer called Berliner Weisse was at one point the most-consumed beverage in the city. Then the water got clean enough to drink, two wars destroyed business and breweries, and consolidation almost killed what was left of the industry. Now it’s having a bit of a comeback, thanks to breweries like Schneeeule (“white owl”), which are resurrecting the lactic-acid fermented wheat beer. Brewer Ulrike Genz takes her work seriously but also has some fun with the names—a young expression of the beer is called Marlene, while one with more age on it is called Dietrich—and her playfully decorated bar, which, she says, attracts the “international beer nerd crowd.”