Confession: I am a slightly obnoxious food snob, as a number of friends and family members would readily attest. While I mostly keep my opinions to myself in order to avoid being insufferable (or, as the very wise John Lancaster once advised, Shut Up and Eat), I am shamelessly, ruthlessly judgemental when it comes to what restaurants put on my plate. I didn’t mean to turn out this way, but writing about places like this for a living pretty much ruins you.
All this probably explains why I found myself initially frustrated in Berlin. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the fact that I had swapped Bangkok’s tremendous, affordable street food for currywurst and döner kebabs. It wasn’t that the restaurants were terrible, but all too often the concept seemed to exceed the execution. There were too many faddish “ethnic” places peddling insipid versions of Asian fusion or Mexican dishes, too many food trucks selling soggy, €6 avocado toast. Plenty of plates seemed like they were cooked for Instagrammers rather than diners; a stone-cold croque madame with congealed béchamel, tempura-stuffed sushi with pointless garnishes. One heavily hyped brunch place (which shall remain nameless) even pre-cooks all of its dishes (even the pancakes) before reheating them and artfully arranging them on wooden boards.
Thankfully, after almost two years (!) in the city, I know my way around the restaurant scene a bit better and I’ve found a lot to love. While the variety of cuisines available here is perhaps not on the level of, say, London (where else could you find mind-blowing Thai-style wood-fire barbecue, sushi/yakitori and Michelin-starred Indian?), there are terrific things being done, often by very young chefs.
Christoph Hauser and Michael Köhle. Photo courtesy of Florian Bolk and Herz & Niere.
A couple months ago, I was lucky enough to chat with Michael Köhle of Herz & Niere, one of the most ambitious, earnest places I’ve visited in ages. Labels like “locavore” or “nose-to-tail” are tossed around so often that they don’t really do it justice, though you could certainly apply them here. This is a restaurant that fastidiously sources every piece of meat, fish or produce that lands on the table. They also make everything from scratch, from quince and rhubarb juices to dozens of varieties of pickles, preserves, charcuterie and bread. Whether growing their own produce or stuffing their own sausages, everything is done with the kind of obsessive attention to detail that only comes from genuine enthusiasm.
When I visited the restaurant unannounced as a customer, I was struck by how little of this is written on the menu. Unlike countless places that wax poetic about their farm-to-table philosophy and organic produce, Herz & Niere lets the quality of the food speak for itself. It’s a wise choice—nothing I ate was anything less than spectacular. It was enough to make my jaded inner food snob, finally, shut up and eat.
While there are doubtless dozens of other worthy restaurants in the city, I’d like to share a short selection of my favorites. This is by no means a definitive list, but these are places that I find myself going back to again and again.
Did I miss anything? I'm always looking for new spots to try and would love to hear your thoughts.
Everything at this popular Mitte spot is sourced from within a 100-kilometer radius. It’s not the first restaurant to do this, but with generous, beautifully plated portions, it certainly does it well.
Housed in a refurbished Kneipe, Gasthaus Figl has some of the best Schweinebraten and pizzas in the city. It seems like an odd combination, but somehow it works, especially when it comes to the Flammkuchen-inspired creations.
Another pizza place, this one decidedly Italian. The small, forever packed space has a bit of a punk vibe and the thin-crust pies are some of the best in town. Extra points for the location near a canal bridge and outdoor seating in summer. Grimmstraße 30; + 49 30 69 506 610
If you want to live it up, this is the place to do it. The prices border on obscene, but with huge hunks of red meat and a glitzy clientele, it certainly makes for a memorable meal.
A welcome newcomer to my neighborhood, this place offers a more upscale take on do-it-yourself Turkish barbecue. I've come here often enough that the staff actually ask if I want "the usual."
The surroundings are gritty, the lighting gruesome and the wine list nonexistent, but heaping portions of charred lamb, salads and mezze make this my one of my favorite Turkish spots in the city.
Sicilian to the core, this trattoria has an excellent, reasonably priced southern Italian wine list and seasonal menus.
I love Austrian food and this is the place to go for gut-busting Schnitzel and Kaiserschmarrn. The restaurant offers both traditional staples and contemporary, lighter reinterpretations.
While I’m wary of anything that comes out of a truck at this point, this Käsespätzle wagon is one of the best things ever. Florian Rohrmoser uses only Bergkäse made by his family and prepares all the dumplings to order. As a bonus, the portions are more manageable than traditional Bavarian ones, making it easier to enjoy all that gooey richness.
Cocolo Ramen (Kreuzberg)
It will never take the place of Bankara in my book, but Cocolo offers a very credible ramen in a lovely canalside setting. When I miss Asia (i.e. at least once a week), I make a beeline for the bar counter.
I’ve yet to find a satisfactory place for traditional brunch here, but with Knofi, a Turkish-style deli in Bergmannkiez, I may never need one. The Mediterranean pastes here come in flavors like beet-mascarpone, jalapeno-sheep’s milk cheese, and chili-walnut.
Al Contadino Sotto Le Stelle
Apparently Brangelina are fans of this Mitte trattoria and mozzarella bar, though the vibe here is resolutely unpretentious. Order a cheese tasting, a bottle of whatever your waiter recommends, and you’re in for a pretty great evening.
One of the oldest proper Italian restaurants in the city, this courtyard in Bergmannkiez is the perfect spot for aperitivi in summer. Wonderful, rustic dishes that I would happily eat on a daily basis.
Technically, this is more of a bar than a restaurant, but the menu has everything I ever want for a late, boozy night. Specials rotate, but you can never go wrong with the beef tartare with shoestring fries. It’s located on Weserstraße, making it a good place to fuel up before checking out some of the neighboring cocktail spots.
With so many burger places in Berlin, I would never presume to declare one "the best." Still, this classic in Schillerkiez is my current go-to (even if it can't match Burgermeister's atmosphere) for the sweet potato fries, homemade buns and respectable veggie options.
The Kitchen Store
A good salad is a rare commodity in these parts, which is why everyone was so excited with the arrival of Soho House’s casual eatery. Seasonal, inventive and never boring, these greens have me crossing town on a regular basis. The surrounding store is full of the kind of drool-worthy, pricey lifestyle items I wish I were cool enough to own.
Not particularly authentic, but fun and funky Korean option near Kottbusser Tor. The barbecue is a clear standout and a good option for a large group.
I interviewed Meo, the owner and head chef of Dao, for an article for Slow Travel Berlin a while ago, and the restaurant has remained my top pick for authentic Thai since. It's hard not to be impressed by a charismatic, savvy female entrepreneur who taught herself impeccable German, but even without knowing her backstory, I would gladly make the trek to Charlottenburg for her curries.
Cuore di Vetro
One thing Berlin excels at is ice cream (this coming from someone who lived in Bologna). I wrote a short piece about some of the best shops last year, and while I love each and every one, this charmer, run by the nicest Italian couple you’ll ever meet, is still my favorite.
Café Einstein Stammhaus
The best apple strudel in the city in a beautifully renovated building. It’s great all year round, but especially nice in summer when the garden is open.
Nur Gemüse Kebap
Okay, I know I took a dig at döner earlier, but these guys are great. Think Mustafa’s, minus the lines and with much friendlier owners. Turnover is high, which means the meat, veggies and homemade sauces are incredibly fresh. One of the rare specimens that is just as enjoyable sober as it is at the tail end of regrettable night out.
Seriously, how could you not like a restaurant team like this? Photo courtesy of Florian Bolk and Herz & Niere.