When people come to visit NYC, I love playing food tour guide. Where to start? Lobster rolls, pizza, burgers, soup dumplings, pork buns, oh my. Pierogi at Veselka. Everything at Shake Shack. Roberta’s in the summer, for beers in the back from plastic cups and pizza. Gelato at Grom. Brunch at Balthazar. Cheese and chocolate cake at Casellula.
Where to start in Berlin? I follow around my friends, who are mostly musicians, but take their food very seriously. People keep comparing Berlin to Brooklyn, or New York 30 years ago. Things are spread out, secret, in basements and under parking lots. Rent is affordable. The energy is kinetic, sometimes frantic. People come here for their dreams: music, installation art, startups, solar energy-powered music festivals. Like New York, Berlin is a magnet. Like New York, Berlin has multitudes of heart.
From a New York perspective, here’s my guide for maximum deliciousness in the city of crazy, terrible history; street art galore; counter-culture and counter-counter-culture; and endless sausage:
Drink lattes. There’s a tall glass of steamed milk, and then the barista tips back a shot of espresso into the white-washed abyss, and serves the thing with a spoon as long as my forearm. The espresso settles over the milk but under the towering fluff of foam. People take their coffee seriously here too.
It’s been relentlessly gray and chilly, so that the first thing I do when I get home is put on the thickest socks I have and make tea. Hide from the cutting gray air in charm-filled coffee shops and bookshops galore, sipping latte No. 2.
So much is open till 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 6 a.m. If you go to a party at midnight, it won’t have started yet.
Beer is cheaper than water. Wine is about water-priced.
Buy beer on the U-Bahn and take it on the train. Pet a cute, well-behaved, leash-free dog.
Buy beer at a spätie, a Berlin take on a bodega, open 24/7, smoky, and lit up in neon. Sip it at one of their little tables, or walk with it down the street, because you can. Just don’t take your beer to the Muslim-run döner shop, it’s rude.
Drink schnapps at a dark and smoky kneipe.
Drink Jäger. “Ew,” I tell our new Berlin friend, who suggests this. “You don’t understand,” he explains. “It has different connotations here. Don’t think frat boys. Think German housewives doing shots after a big turkey dinner.”
After beer and Jäger, get a little bit of everything from Gel Gör Inegöl Köfteci. Berlin has the largest Turkish population outside Turkey, and this place is a happy testament. Sweet lamb sausage, chicken, or falafel with arugula, sumac, and mint and an unholy trinity of sauces: herb, garlic-y yogurt, and spicy red pepper. Take a break from all that alcohol and wash it down with ayran, the salty-sweet Turkish yogurt drink.
Or find the best döner, down Gubenor Stresse. I haven’t been to all 1,000, but I have no doubt it wins. The guys who shave juicy, meaty chicken off the big spit-roasting cylinder wear feathers in their jaunty hats. They know I don’t speak German so we try for small talk in another tongue: “bonjorno! hola!” I get the teller (platter) with a pile of chicken, and charred eggplants and potatoes, and chopped tomatoes. Spicy sauce and yogurt sauce… always alles (everything).
Skip currywurst. For the uninitiated: this is pork sausage, first steamed then fried then chopped into chunks, and finally topped with a strange concoction of ketchup-y sauce and a sprinkle of curry powder. The relationship to actual curry is dubious at best.
A better bet: rotisserie chicken from Das Hühnerhaus in Kreuzberg, which is always packed with gleeful chicken eaters, pulling apart the juicy, steamy meat with their fingers. The garlic sauce is the thing. Maybe order your half bird with a salad; salad is a rare pleasure here.
Or go shopping at the Türkischer Markt in Neukölln if you can squeeze past the ladies with big carts and the ogling men for orange persimmons and gigantic bags of clementines for one euro. There are bins and bins of olives, and cheeses, and dips, and sweets wrapped up in phyllo. Buy everything you can carry, then go home and make a salad because you need some veggies, studded with purple, peppery radishes and salty feta. Shove it into hot lavash, fluffy and pliant. Turn on the radio, which plays some kind of house music, because you’re in Berlin, the sky gray out the window, the city humming, dark, sad, promising, ecstatic.
Pack your bags. Think about your first meal back in New York, the squash you will roast in your Harlem kitchen, the taco truck on 96th Street, a big bowl of fragrant, fiery can chua soup. Berlin is lovely, but New York is home.