The Mitte boys are back

The veterans of Berlin’s post-Wende nightlife underground have reached into their deep pockets to recreate the scrappy playground of their youth.

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Photos by Steffi Wiegand

If you’re 36 years old and it’s early on a Friday night in Berlin, you are either hungover or drunk, somewhere in between, or both at the same time. So it seems at least when you are the (famous) owner of one of the newest places-to-be in Berlin, which Trust in Mitte certainly is. The Torstraße haunt owes its cachet not least to the names behind it: Heinz Gindullis – better known as Cookie – and Marcus Trojan, two pioneering granddaddies of the celebrated Berlin nightlife scene and its most Profi spin doctors.

The two sit at the counter of Trust, or rather Cookie sits, and Trojan wobbles around next to him, trying to figure out what he is doing here. “I need a drink,” he slurs, stumbling behind the counter and grabbing a small bottle. At Trust you don’t buy drinks in glasses. Alcohol comes only in bottles – the smallest, 20 cl, for €22 – the idea being that people will share and casually get to know each other.

But today, Trojan drinks alone. Cookie pours a glass for him. He’s not up for a drink himself. He overdid it at his club Cookies the night before; he doesn’t know why, he doesn’t know how, just that it was really bad. “Drinks,” Cookie says, smirking, “and then later on, everything else you could imagine.”

Trust is closed on this Friday night in April. “We rocked too hard, destroyed the bar, all drinks are gone, back next week, trust us,” someone has written on the door outside. Cookie shrugs. A weekend of missed turnover doesn’t really seem to matter. Trust is not here for their subsistence. It’s their playground. “A bar for grown-up kids,” Trojan likes to call it when he is sober.

Supporter’s information: To truthfully answer the question, am I an alcoholic?, you would need to look at your drinking habits to see if you are drinking responsibly or excessively.

Both have, one might say, ‘made it’. Cookie employs over 100 people. He owns a club, a mini veggie-gastro empire made up of Berlin’s three-and-only upscale vegetarian restaurants: Chipps 1, Chipps 2 and Cookies Cream, and an events agency.

Trojan has his own club, Weekend, which was touted as the ‘next big thing’ when it opened in 2004 on top of a high-rise at Alexanderplatz. The club won awards for its interior design and made its owner famous at the age of 30. Trojan has just opened a new bar in Neukölln, Pigalle.

While you might expect men in their positions to go even bigger, slicker, more corporate – or to retire to a villa in Grunewald, or why not, Tuscany – Cookie and Trojan sit here now in this bar that at first sight looks quite underground, with its raw walls, ragtag furniture and stripped-down selection of drinks.

King Size is another example, a bar the size of a shoebox a few blocks away, which resembles Trust to the extent that the two could be branches of the same chain. King Size was opened last summer by Boris Radczun of Grill Royal fame and Conny Opper, who made a mark on Berlin’s underground nightlife scene (from Rio and Scala to an endless list of temporary places like Haus am Köllnischen Park) before raising the stakes with his Berlin Festival.

Cookie and Trojan look like two snotty brats. Cookie, a string bean with an endearing cherub’s smile, wears jeans and a black cap; you will rarely see him in a different outfit. Trojan is the perfect son-in-law: well-groomed, tanned as if freshly returned from a snowboard trip, his short blond hair always carelessly disheveled.

Cookie came to Berlin in 1992 and worked his way up from dishwasher to bar manager at a restaurant while throwing parties every Tuesday, mixing cocktails in a Mitte backyard on Auguststraße. It was illegal, only for people who knew, friends, more or less.

Cookie’s bars hopped from one temporary location to the next, eventually transforming into clubs with DJs and increasingly frequent openings throughout the week. Eventually Trojan was hired as a barman at Cookies; that’s where the two met.

Cookies’ empire grew bigger over the years. And Cookie’s Greenwich Bar embodied the new chic Berlin of the turn of the millennium. It was then that for a brief moment, Berlin went yuppie – the gallerists, publicists and ad-men turned away from the shabby underground in favor of upscale flourish and high design.

Exclusivity has changed its face countless times but has always been a defining factor of Berlin’s nightlife scene. Cookies and the party animals of the 1990s Mitte underground left the aura of illegality to the new generation and to new territories in Neukölln and at the borders of eastern Friedrichshain.

In the early 2000s, they opted instead for clubs, bars and restaurants where they could realize bigger visions, those requiring the kinds of investments only possible with fully legal status. No one wants to sink a ton of money into a project that could be shut down any day. While the newer scene moved west of the Spree, the veterans were busy reinventing their old turf.

But while making money brings a certain security, these party-makers are still restless. It’s Berlin that made them this way. No one really needs to “grow up” here, in a city where it is cooler to wear the right vintage shirt to the right underground party than to park your Porsche outside a martini bar.

Success has different coordinates in Berlin. It hardly ever means a nine-to-five job, but rather networking and socializing – at a party with the right guest list.

Back in the days, Cookie says, you really had to let yourself be won over by Mitte. Flats were shabby and old; there were no shops, no boutiques, no cafés. It’s these pioneering Mitte residents who are now the guests Cookie and Trojan want to see at Trust, those who still yearn the roughness of the Mitte of yore, but who at the same time are no longer quite so young. They have – to some extent – money; they don’t want hands-up-in-the-air raves anymore, but they still want to party.

So what Cookie, Trojan and Opper did with their new bars was to revive that old trashy feeling… through careful and expensive redesign. The cobblestone floor at Trust, which looks like it’s been here forever, is new. The rawness of the walls is new. The scuffed chairs are new.

Look a bit closer and you’ll see that the fridge is full of champagne, €150 a bottle, that there are orderly emergency exits and toilets that might have cost the same amount as the rest of the bar – equipped with a design gimmick that will only make sense if you’ve spent countless nights in clubs: sliding doors between the cabins.

“It would be boring to do the same real trash we did 15 years ago, wouldn’t it?” Cookie says. And if Trojan could think and talk straight right now, he would probably repeat what he likes to say in interviews: “Stagnation means death.”

What’s also been artificially (re)created is the exclusivity of the traditional 1990s backyard-illegality where it all started. King Size and Trust are hard to find, the doors merging with the building facades of Friedrichstraße and Torstraße. There’s no big sign outside, and a doorman keeps out the tourist mob that floods the streets of Mitte these days.

They don’t seem to discriminate against younger generations though. On any given Friday or Saturday night, Trust is crowded with 20-somethings who can afford the cheapest booze on the menu: €22 for a 20cl of vodka.

“In the end, we all want the same thing: to drink and not think about what we are doing in real life,” Cookie says, while Trojan downs his tumbler of vodka. “And we’re going to India, right?” Trojan tries to focus on his friend and upon failing, lets his arm drop like a dead limb on Cookie’s shoulder. “You, me, with backpacks, India, if you don’t wanna drink, I don’t care. I will drink!”