Berlin's food scene is growing in leaps and bounds and maturing as beautifully as a fine Barolo. Sure, you can still get your fill of traditional German comfort staples, from sausage to roast pork knuckle, but it's the influx of experimental chefs from around the globe that makes eating in the capital such a delicious and exciting experience.
As with art and fashion, Berliners are always onto the next hot thing when it comes to food. You’ll find plenty of culinary obsessions in the capital.
Modern Regional Cuisine
Healthy eating is sexy, which is why the organic, slow-food and seasonal movements have become an obsession in Berlin. Sometimes it seems as though the city's growing clique of cosmopolitan chefs wants to outdo each other with just how locavore they can get. Restaurants like Nobelhart & Schmutzig and Einsunternull have pushed the envelope even further by banning any ingredient not grown in the region from their kitchens. The Michelin testers considered this approach so innovative, they awarded both with a coveted star. But even on menus of less highfalutin restaurants, apple-fed pork from the Havelland, fish from the Müritz Lake District or wild boar from the Schorfheide are becoming quite commonplace. This also extends to vegetables which, this being Berlin, means mostly root vegetables like parsnip, parsley root and beetroot. Also still popular are techniques for preserving seasonal ingredients for future use through pickling, brining and fermentation.
Street food and food trucks have been part of Berlin’s culinary scene for years now, not just in random locations at markets, parties and events around town but also at regular gatherings.
Still going strong is Street Food Thursday at Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg, the year-round event that started the craze back in 2013. In spring and summer, it is joined by a number of alfresco schemes like Bite Club, which sets up on Friday on the Spree next to the Badeschiff and makes for a tasty place to get your stomach in shape for a long weekend of partying. Roughly once a month, it is grill and grind at Burgers & Hip Hop, which has a residency at Prince Charles club on Moritzplatz. In Prenzlauer Berg, Street Food auf Achse draws scores of street-food fans to the Kulturbrauerei on Sunday even in winter.
The street-food experience has proven so successful for some chefs that they’ve taken their concept to a bricks-and-mortar level. Graduates from Markthalle Neun include Bun Bao, Koshary Lux and Chicha.
Sharing Plates & Casual Fine Dining
These aren't exactly a new trend in most places around the world, but in Germany ordering a bunch of small dishes and putting them in the middle for everyone to tuck in to and help themselves is actually quite a new thing.
So is the concept of casual fine dining. Stuffy restaurants definitely don't go well with Berlin's idiosyncratic spirit, which is probably why the trend has been embraced with such vengeance. Indeed, even the new crop of Michelin restaurants – Tulus Lotrek, Einsunternull, Nobelhart & Schmutzig, among them – eschews stuffiness in favour of an ambience of dining with friends.
A meal featuring meat is so last millennium, which is why vegan restaurants are spreading faster than rabbits on Viagra in Berlin. In 2018, Berlin's finest meat-free temple, Cookies Cream, even entered the constellation of Michelin stars. And in 'regular' restaurants, vegetables are often the star of the show, such as at BRLO Brwhouse, Orania or Einsunternull. Berlin spawned the world’s first all-vegan supermarket chain, Veganz, in 2011. Detox trends like raw food and cold-press juice cleanses have also made significant inroads; Rawtastic ranks among the pioneers. For a comprehensive list of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Berlin, visit www.happycow.net.
Nose to Tail
The antithesis to the vegan avalanche is the nose-to-tail trend where recipes star not just filet cuts but all animal parts, including tongue, sweetbread, heart or bone marrow. This holistic approach provides a logical segue to the farm-to-table and orchard-to-bottle movements that have been spinning the culinary compass lately.
Middle Eastern Food
Hummus and other Middle Eastern dishes like shakshuka, sabich and tabouli were practically unknown to German palates until just a few years ago. But thanks to a growing influx of enterprising Israelis and refugees from countries such as Syria, Iran and Iraq, the city is now seeing a growing crop of restaurants, including Yafo, Hummus & Friends and Kanaan. The hunt is also on for the city’s best pastrami, with Mogg probably the most serious contender.
Eating Like a Local
Restaurants are often formal places with full menus, crisp white linen and high prices. Some restaurants are open for lunch and dinner only, but more casual places tend to be open all day. Same goes for cafes, which usually serve both coffee and alcohol, as well as light meals, although ordering food is not obligatory. Many cafes and restaurants offer inexpensive weekday ‘business lunches’ that usually include a starter, main course and drink for under €10.
English menus are now quite common, and some places (especially those owned by neo-Berliners from the US, UK or around Europe) don’t even bother with German menus at all. When it comes to paying, sometimes the person who invites pays, but very often Germans split the bill. This might mean everyone chipping in at the end of a meal or asking the server to pay separately (getrennte Rechnung).
Handy speed-feed shops, called Imbiss, serve all sorts of savoury fodder, from sausage-in-a-bun to Döner Kebab and pizza. Many bakeries serve sandwiches alongside pastries.
Locals love to shop at farmers markets and nearly every Kiez (neighbourhood) runs at least one or two during the week.
- Pfannkuchen Known as ‘Berliner’ in other parts of Germany, these donut-like pastries are made from a yeasty dough, stuffed with a dollop of jam, deep fried and tossed in granulated sugar.
- Currywurst This classic cult snack, allegedly invented in Berlin in 1949, is a smallish fried or grilled Wiener (sausage) sliced into bite-sized ringlets, swimming in a spicy tomato sauce and dusted with curry powder. It’s available ‘mit’ or ‘ohne’ (with or without) its crunchy epidermis and traditionally served on a flimsy plate with a plastic toothpick for stabbing.
- Döner Spit-roasted meat may have been around forever, but the idea of serving it in a lightly toasted bread pocket with copious amounts of fresh salad and a healthy drizzle of yoghurt-based Kräuter (herb), scharf (spicy) or Knoblauch (garlic) sauce was allegedly invented by a Turkish immigrant in 1970s West Berlin.
- Boulette Called Frikadelle in other parts of Germany, this cross between a meatball and a hamburger is eaten with a little mustard and an optional dry roll. The name is French for ‘little ball’ and might have originated during Napoleon’s occupation of Berlin in the early 19th century.
- Eisbein or Grillhaxe Boiled or grilled pork hock typically paired with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes.
- Königsberger Klopse This classic dish may have its origin in Königsberg in eastern Prussia (today’s Kaliningrad in Russia), but it has of late made a huge comeback on Berlin menus. It’s a simple but elegant plate of golf-ball-sized veal meatballs in a caper-laced white sauce served with a side of boiled potatoes and beetroot.
Need to Know
Cafes open from 8am to 8pm, restaurants 11am to 11pm, and fast-food joints 11am to midnight or later.
Bills & Tipping
- Your bill won't be presented until you ask for it: 'Zahlen, bitte'.
- It’s customary to add 10% for good service.
- Tip as you hand over the money, rather than leaving it on the table (as this is considered rude). For example, if your bill comes to €28 and you want to give a €2 tip, say €30. If you have the exact amount and don’t need change, just say ‘Stimmt so’ (that’s fine).
Reservations are essential at the top eateries and are recommended for midrange restaurants – especially for dinner and at weekends. Book the trendiest places four or more weeks in advance. Many restaurant websites now offer an online booking function. Berliners tend to linger at the table, so if a place is full at 8pm it’s likely that it will stay that way for a couple of hours. Some restaurants are introducing a time limit for seatings (usually two hours) but this is still very rare.
Late-Night & Sunday Shopping
- One handy feature of Berlin culture is the Spätkauf (Späti in local vernacular), which are small neighbourhood stores stocked with the basics and open from early evening until 2am or later.
- Some supermarkets stay open until midnight; a few are open 24 hours.
- Shops and supermarkets in major train stations (Hauptbahnhof, Ostbahnhof, Friedrichstrasse) are open late and on Sunday.