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20 years of Exberliner

20 years in 20 dishes: The food that shaped Berlin over two decades

Exberliner is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. We look back on 20 dishes which marked our two decades.

Illustration: Agata Sasiuk

Berlin boasts every kind of cuisine under the sun, served to an eating public that’s as worldly as it is woke. But it wasn’t always this way. Food editor Jane Silver pays tribute to the plates that changed the way we eat.

2002: Pelmeni – Pasternak

Then: At the time of Exberliner’s founding, Prenzlauer Berg was the place to be, and newcomers were crazy about Russian food – like the hearty boiled dumplings served at Ilja Kaplan’s Russian Jewish café, Pasternak.

Now: Kaplan’s mini-franchise Datscha serves up pelmeni all over the city, and the brunch buffet at Pasternak remains the stuff of legend. With latest venture Tsomi on Kollwitzplatz, Kaplan has moved on to a more recent Slavic food trend: Georgian!

2004: Mission-style burrito – Dolores

Then: It may not have been authentically Mexican or even authentically Californian, but this build-your-own burrito bar gave Berlin its first taste of mole, carnitas and actually spicy salsa.

Now: Dolores paved the way for Maria Bonita, Taquería El Oso and a Mexican food scene that could finally satisfy all but the pickiest of North Americans. Its own wraps, meanwhile, have fuelled many an Exberliner deadline and can still be found in Mitte and Schöneberg.

2005: Gemüse Kebap – Mustafa’s

Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap. Photo: imago / Arnulf Hettrich

Then: Chicken, roast vegetables, feta cheese. With these simple ingredients, a brand-new spin on the döner – and the mother of all street food queues – was born.

Now: Despite a slew of imitators and a whole lot of confused vegetarian tourists, the stand on Mehringdamm continues to top the lists and draw the crowds.

2006: Hamburger – Burgermeister

Then: A burger was a mere rubbery disc from McDonald’s until Burgermeister’s fresh-ground patties and brioche buns (sold out of a former public toilet, no less) showed us another way.

Now: Of the two game-changing burgers that emerged in 2006, The Bird’s steakhouse-style behemoth was the most talked-about, but this one had the biggest impact: from Tommi’s to Goldies to the nine locations of Burgermeister itself, the default Berlin burger is as slim and simple as it is satisfying.

2007: Kopfsalat – Grill Royal

Then: The hottest place to be in Berlin wasn’t a club but a steakhouse run by scene veterans Stephan Landwehr and Boris Radczun. And its must-order dish wasn’t steak, but… a head of lettuce with some vinaigrette on it?

Now: That salad’s been nibbled on by the likes of Scarlett and Leo while Landwehr and Radczun have thrown their weight behind one buzzy restaurant after another, from Pauly Saal to Kin Dee to the soon-to-reopen Dóttir.

Tonkotsu ramen – Cocolo

Photo: Sahand Zamani

Then: Ladling cloudy pork broth from behind a tiny counter in Mitte, the always-prescient Duc Ngo (See page 26) transformed Japanese noodle soup from a humble convenience food into a must-eat dish.

Now: It took a while, but ramen is everywhere, whether slurped at Cocolo – and the dozens of noodle shops that followed – or obsessed over by food nerds (including Ngo himself, who created a deluxe version of it for a pandemic-era pop-up).

2008: Vegan burger – Yoyo Foodworld

Then: A fast food shop with no meat on the menu? Sure, the Friedrichshain squatters would go for it, but would anyone else?

Now: Would they ever! Fourteen years later, Yoyo sits at the epicentre of the most vegan-friendly neighbourhood in Europe’s most vegan-friendly city, a place where even the bloodiest of burger joints feel obligated to offer a veggie option. (The squatters, meanwhile, are long gone.)

2009: Bibimbap – YamYam

YamYam. Photo: Tonya Matyu

Then: Before Sumi Ha set up her cute, colourful Mitte lunchery, Korean food was an “exotic” excursion, kimchi inaccessibly spicy and the trisyllabic rice bowl tricky to pronounce.

Now: Berliners eat bibimbap as regularly as schnitzel (if not more), when they’re not feasting on Korean barbecue, snacking on gochujang-glazed fried chicken or treating themselves to a slice of Korean matcha roll cake before picking their K-pop-loving kids up from Korean class.

2010: Wild boar ragu – Little Otik

Then: This was the peak supper club era, when arty expats hosted extravagant semi-legal feasts in their still-cheap Altbau flats. One such club, run by an American chef-DJ couple, morphed into a Graefekiez hotspot that merged local ingredients (like Brandenburg wild boar and foraged mushrooms) with NYC vibes.

Now: Little Otik only existed for three years, but during that time it got the international press excited about Berlin’s “fresh” new food scene, primed Kreuzkölln residents to spend €50 and up on dinner, and set the stage for every cosmopolitan farm-to-table restaurant that followed, from its successor St. Bart to supper club turned Michelin-starred locavore mecca Ernst.

Eisbein with dashi, pickled ginger and Japanese mustard – Tim Raue

Then: At long last Berlin had a celebrity chef to call its own, a reformed street tough who earned a Michelin star for applying bold Asian flavours to classic German dishes like pork knuckle in his home neighbourhood of Kreuzberg.

Now: Raue’s Asian-appropriating schtick hasn’t aged well, but the type of fusion fine dining he pioneered has become commonplace. Many more restaurants, a memoir/ cookbook and a second Michelin star later, that Eisbein remains on his menu.

2012: Avocado toast – Melbourne Canteen

Then: A product of Neukölln’s Australian invasion, this controversial brunchery annoyed the locals both by charging €5 for bread with some mashed avocado on it, and, as immortalised in a viral Exberliner rant, by hiring staffers who didn’t speak German.

Now: How quaint do those decade-old grievances seem today? Aussie breakfasts are ubiquitous and rarely cost under €10, while bitching about Anglophone baristas has become the province of crotchety conservatives like Jens Spahn. (It still wouldn’t kill them to learn a little Deutsch, though.)

2013: Pulled pork sandwich – Big Stuff

Photo: Big Stuff Smoked BBQ

Then: A nascent category of Berliner called the “foodie” took notice of a newly revived market hall in Kreuzberg, where BBQ-loving couple Tobias Bürger and Anna Lai sold house-smoked meat as part of a roster of gourmet street food vendors.

Now: With Big Stuff as an anchor, Markthalle Neun is the city’s ground zero for everything local and artisanal. Meanwhile, judging by the crowds at Bite Club and the Markthalle’s Street Food Thursdays, our hunger for mobile cuisine is here to stay.

2013: Blood sausage “pizza” – Cordobar

Then: The Mitte art crowd was growing up, growing rich and getting into wine. And so, an indie label head and the director of Oh Boy teamed up with a couple of forward-thinking sommeliers to open a place where they could quaff obscure varietals accompanied by upscale bar bites, like a disc of Blutwurst topped with beetroot and wasabi.

Now: Cordobar has turned into fine dining restaurant Cordo, but the trend it uncorked – of the deceptively laid-back “wine gastropub” where the contents of your glass and plate share equal importance – couldn’t be put back in the bottle.

2014: Quinoa bowl – Daluma

Then: Grünkohl was for northern Germans, quinoa was for hippies and juice was a mere noun until a minimalist café on Weinbergsweg brought the “clean eating” craze to Berlin.

Now: After a few years of raw superfoods and cold-pressed cleanses, the city’s wellness obsession has died down to manageable levels, leaving us with Daluma’s three locations – which continue to serve many a newly minted yoga instructor – and a predilection for eating things out of bowls, as seen in the Great Poke-fication of 2018.

Pizza margherita – Standard

Photo: Standard

Then: Aside from the wood-fired pies at Masaniello and the thin-crusted ones at punky Northern Italian trio I Due Forni/Il Casolare/Il Ritrovo, you couldn’t exactly call Berlin a pizza town. Then came Naples-born pizzaiolo Alessandro Leonardi and a blazing-hot domed oven…

Now: Puffy, blistered, cold-fermented dough, San Marzano tomatoes and DOP fior di latte have become, well, the standard. We wouldn’t be surprised if five new Neapolitan pizzerias opened in the time it took us to write this.

2015: Smoked potato soup – Nobelhart & Schmutzig

Then: No pepper, no citrus, no photos. Potatoes and smoked butter treated as reverently as lobster or caviar. A condom vending machine in the restroom. From the very beginning, it was clear we were dealing with a different breed of fine dining.

Now: Billy Wagner and Micha Schäfer’s uncompromising venture birthed contemporary Berlin cuisine as we know it – small German producers, European natural wine, Nordic-inspired techniques – while encouraging eaters to care about the origins of their dinner. Nearly every upscale restaurant that’s opened since has had to emphasise sustainability, or at least pay lip service to it.

2016: Hamshuka – Kanaan

Then: As Berlin’s Middle Eastern population swelled, the time was right for Levantine cuisine to get its moment in the spotlight. That light shone most brightly on a Palestinian-Israeli cooperation with a heartwarming backstory, a chill location and an irresistible brunch plate that fused silky-smooth hummus with spicy shakshuka.

Now: Kanaan’s moved around a bit, but its hummus is still hip. So are the flavours of the SWANA region, from neighbourhood hangouts (Café Pilz, Aleppo Supper Club) to fancy haute-Levantine concepts (Prism).

2017: Chongqing noodles – Chung King

Photo: F. Anthea Schaap

Then: Word of mouth was building around a spicy noodle pop-up run by Ash Lee, a Shanghainese chef who didn’t hold back on the fiery chili oil or numbing Sichuan pepper.

Now: Berlin can’t get enough of Chinese noodles, the more ma la the better. Xi’an-style specialists Wen Cheng, Chengdu lunch spot Liu and the brick-and-mortar location of Chung King itself rank among the hottest eateries in town, literally and figuratively.

2018: Marennes-Oléron Fine de Clair oyster – Oyster Klub

Then: Dutch importers Küstlichkeiten had given Berliners a taste for the fruits of the sea, but good fish was still hard to find – and oysters were still for expense-account diners and KaDeWe shoppers, at least until an enterprising pop-up began bringing fresh Bretagne bivalves to Neukölln bars.

Now: Soon after Oyster Klub renamed itself Fish Klub, its French Atlantic fish, shellfish, cephalopods and crustaceans found their way onto seemingly every menu in town. Among a certain type of foodie, starting one’s meal with a couple of freshly shucked oysters has become de rigueur.

2020: Chicken sandwich – Barra

Photo: Barra

Then: A scary new virus had shut down all of Berlin literally overnight. This included Neukölln’s most happening natural wine bar, which just two days later debuted a new takeout offering: sweet-spicy glazed fried chicken in a homemade milk bun.

Now: Barra set the template for a year and a half of pandemic eating in which Berliners patiently queued for all manner of portable, expertly made comfort food – including a cluckton of fried chicken sandwiches. Once restaurants reopened, Daniel Remers and co. returned to their usual menu of small plates, but that didn’t put an end to our love for birds on buns.

2022: and beyond…

Now: The food scene is being pulled in so many directions, it’s hard to tell what the future will bring. Local vegetables grilled over an open flame, à la Ember and Stoke? Wagyu beef served to high-rolling techies at haute izakayas like Nomu and Zenkichi? Sinaloan seafood, Taiwanese hotpot or good old-fashioned German? We’re guessing all of the above and much, much more.