Berlin, back in full swing
By Charly Wilder
No city was fun in the darkest days of the pandemic, but there may be nowhere that could compete with Berlin for sheer gloom during that first COVID winter. Even in good times, the city’s funereal grayness, its scant daylight and collective penchant for gallows humor and blunt negativity, known as the Berliner Schnauze (literally: Berlin snout), is only barely compensated for in the colder months by its abundant cultural offerings, thriving cafe and restaurant scene, and what is arguably the best nightlife in the world. Berlin in lockdown was not pretty.
But this summer, the city is back in full swing. Berlin’s 178 museums, seven symphony orchestras and three opera houses are once again up and running. Bars, clubs and restaurants are operating at full capacity, and, with the exception of a mask mandate on public transportation and in medical facilities, virtually all COVID restrictions have been lifted since March 20. Germany’s entry restrictions were also dropped — at least until the fall, when there has been talk of renewed requirements if case numbers creep upward.
A Few Fraught Openings and an Extraordinary Museum
Perhaps the biggest opening in town was the new airport, Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport, a blunder-riddled, 30-year project that opened at the end of 2020 after at least six missed opening dates and a budget that ran billions of dollars in the red. And now that it’s finally here? Of course, everyone seems to hate it. The design is outdated. Logistics are dismal, food options grim. Clunky buses run between plane and terminal. At least there seem to be more trans-Atlantic flight options and the airport is somewhat better connected with the city center. But overall? Not a huge win.
Another fraught, long-awaited opening was that of the Humboldt Forum, the neo-Baroque reconstruction of Berlin’s long-dead City Palace conceived as Germany’s answer to the Louvre or British Museum. The museum, which opened virtually at the end of 2020 and began its phased physical opening in 2021, has elicited criticism from the beginning for everything from its tacky design to its insufficiently investigated links to the country’s colonial past. Still, there are worthwhile exhibits to explore. In addition to covering the site’s history and contemporary topics such as climate change, exhibits include the German state’s extensive collection of non-European art, including impressive holdings from the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art, much of which was acquired through imperialist plunder.
Visitors may be better advised to check out the extraordinary Neue Nationalgalerie, the iconic modern art museum designed by Bauhaus pioneer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that reopened last summer after a six-year, $164 million refurbishment by David Chipperfield. Dedicated to art of the 20th century, the museum is particularly strong on early German modernism, from the expressionist Berlin street scenes of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to Hannah Höch’s political photomontage and the glitter and doom of new objectivity portraiture masters Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Current exhibitions include works by Sascha Wiederhold, whose graphic, psychedelic abstractions were suppressed by the Nazis, almost into obscurity.
A Flourishing Food Scene
While the pandemic was inarguably rough on local businesses, particularly as rents in the city continued to spike, extensive government support helped stave off much of the damage — part of Germany’s 130-billion-euro ($155 billion) stimulus package. COVID certainly didn’t stop the ascent of the city’s food scene, which is flourishing like never before as new restaurants and pop-ups by innovative chefs make it increasingly hard to remember that only a decade ago, it was legitimately hard to find a great meal in Berlin.
Much of the recent action is concentrated in Prenzlauer Berg, the former East Berlin workers’ district turned bougey family enclave. Opened in July 2021 by Samina Raza and Ben Zviel, the duo behind the Berlin stalwart Robinson’s, Frieda is an all-day restaurant that takes a similarly locavore, nose-to-tail approach to accessible fine dining, with a daily changing menu featuring faultless dishes like line-caught tuna “chateaubriand” in a black pepper reduction with triple-cooked fries, or heirloom tomatoes from a regenerative farm in Brandenburg served with AAA Cantabrian anchovies drizzled in olive oil. Above all, Frieda is vibey, with its cinematic open kitchen, on-tap natural wines and custom hi-fi sound system pumping vintage house and jazz vinyl (dinner for two with drinks, from 140 euros, or about $144).
Other new Prenzlauer Berg standouts include Bar Normal, a smart wine bar and restaurant opened this year by young Vietnamese restaurateur Van Anh Le (dishes from 5 to 25 euros), and Markthalle Pfefferberg, a food market on the ground floor of the Pfefferberg industrial complex that includes an organic butcher, a fresh pasta maker, a Mexican grocery and, most notably, the first decent taco spot in Berlin, Taqueria el Oso (lunch for two from 25 euros). Also in the neighborhood is Otto, the three-year-old contemporary German restaurant whose young Berliner chef, Vadim Otto Ursus, has been at the vanguard of the city’s restaurant renaissance (dishes range from 10 to 25 euros). Its COVID-era spinoff, Otto Pantry, offers fermented products, bottled drinks and preserves.
In Mitte, the Dutch team behind Lode & Stijn opened another European fine dining spot in the building of the Suhrkamp Verlag publishing house called Remi (dinner for two with drinks from 160 euros). More exciting is San, which serves what must be the best sushi in Berlin in a low-key minimalist dining room on a quiet Mitte side street (dinner for two from 100 euros; a 50-euro prepayment is required per person to reserve). Other notable additions include ChungKing Noodles, a cultish Sichuan noodle joint opened in Kreuzberg by Chinese chef Ash Lee after a series of celebrated pop-ups (dinner for two from 45 euros); La Côte, a Mediterranean bistro in Neukölln’s Schillerkiez known for its oysters and wine list (dishes range from 3.50-euro oysters to a 28-euro octopus dish); and Julius, a slightly dressed-down sister restaurant of the Michelin-starred fine dining establishment Ernst, just down the block in Wedding. Julius offers similarly Japanese-inflected, meticulously sourced cuisine, but at a slightly lower price point and level of accessibility (75 euros per person without wine pairing).
The past year has also brought a handful of exciting pop-ups and roving culinary concepts, like Gaia, a women-run, farm-to-table project based in Berlin and Brandenburg (lunch for two from 70 euros), and Ember, a project founded by young German chef and Noma alum Tobias Beck that serves inventive multicourse wood-fired cuisine in interesting locations throughout the city (dinner is 110 euros per person without wine pairing).
New and Coming Hotels
The city’s hotel scene has not been nearly as fertile as its gastronomic counterpart. The hotel group Amano opened a new location in Friedrichshain (doubles in August start at 121 euros), and the architectural team behind the Former Jewish Girls School project in Mitte opened a boutique hotel called Wilmina in the Charlottenburg district that might have been appealing were it not housed in a former Nazi prison where women dissidents were jailed and interrogated by the Gestapo.
But anticipation is high for two hotels by local culinary institutions opening later this year in Mitte: Chateau Royale, a 93-room interpretation of the classic grand hotel by the team behind Grill Royale (doubles in September start at 195 euros), and Telegraphenamt, a hotel and members club by the owners of the 150-year-old Gendamenmarkt dining establishment, Borchardt (rooms from 200 euros).
Night Life Returns
Then there’s the club scene, perhaps Berlin’s biggest tourism draw. Even before COVID, concern that rising rents and rampant property development were threatening the city’s landscape of clubs rooted in its queer techno underground had led to a new term: Clubsterben, or club death. These worries heightened as the pandemic forced all of the city’s clubs to close, remaining shuttered even when shops, museums and galleries began to open with restrictions. Some clubs were repurposed as COVID testing centers or vaccination hubs. Berghain, the techno temple itself, reopened as an art exhibition that saw the former power plant filled with works by local artists from the private Boros Collection.
Rumors abounded that Berghain would never reopen as a club, that nightlife in the city would never fully recover. But the rumors, it seems, were unfounded. After a bizarre “Footloose”-esque period when clubs were allowed to operate but only under a Tanzverbot, or dancing ban, the city’s nightclubs were eventually given the go-ahead to resume regular operation.
In the end, not a single Berlin club closed for good because of the pandemic, thanks in large part to government grants and advocacy by the Berlin Club Commission, a trade organization. Newer venues, like open-air clubs Oxi Garten and Æeden, and especially the culturally adventurous Trauma Bar und Kino, are breathing fresh energy (and much-needed diversity) into the city’s nightlife.
And the forest raves that spread through the Brandenburg countryside during that first locked-down summer? They seem to be one COVID-era development with staying power. There’s no telling what the fall might bring, but at least in the summer of 2022, there’s more dancing in Berlin than ever before.