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Berlin’s food winners and losers (Corona edition)

As Berlin’s gastro scene slowly settles into its new normal, here’s an overview of the tops and flops from the last six months.

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Attila Hildmann, the second-most-horrible vegetarian in German history? Photo: Attila Hildmann

As Berlin’s gastro scene slowly settles into its new normal, here’s an overview of the tops and flops from the last six months.

Loser: Attila Hildmann

The second-most-horrible vegetarian in German history began 2020 as a garden-variety asshole, as known for double-parking his Porsche and threatening his critics on social media as he was for his cookbook series and (really quite mediocre) meatless burgers. By May, the celebrity chef was storming the Reichstag with a motley Telegram army of tinfoil hat-clad Covid conspiracy theorists, channeling his bile towards health minister Jens Spahn, Angela Merkel, Bill Gates and, inevitably, the Jews. By then, his Kreuzberg burger shop had already closed. Puzzlingly, though, the Charlottenburg original survives, patronized by Hildmann stans and oblivious vegans.

Loser: Sarah Wiener

The Austrian media personality, entrepreneur and restaurateur once seemed as reliable a presence in Berlin as the Fernsehturm – but when the ow of out-of-towners dried up, so too did her entire customer base. In July, Wiener tearfully declared insolvency, closed her Hamburger Bahnhof and Futurium restaurants and dissolved her catering business. Some 120 employees lost their jobs, while poor Wiener herself is now forced to subside off her book and TV royalties, her cookware line, her position in the EU Parliament… Also in the red: fellow Promi chef and long-term Seattle expat Cynthia Barcomi, forced to close her fancy Mitte deli and retreat to her homier original coffee shop on Bergmannstraße.

Loser: Tourist traps

Basically any restaurant reliant on the selfie-stick crowd lost big. With no wealthy travellers to order its high-end Königsberger Klopse, the new Pots in the Ritz-Carlton had to shutter indefinitely. And despite allegedly manipulating employees’ timesheets and serving mouldy pasta to save cash, mega-chain VaPiano went bankrupt in April and closed all but one of its Berlin locations. (A supposed August “comeback” doesn’t seem to have materialised yet.) On the other hand, the tacky Mio under the TV Tower stayed open and promptly found itself hosting a superspreader event, with at least 13 visitors infected by three partiers from Münster.

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Steak frites at Chez Michel, a local Kreuzberg favourite. Photo: Chez Michel

Winner: Kiez standbys

It wasn’t places like Mio that Berliners flocked to as lockdown lifted; nor was it trendy fine dining destinations like Charlottenburg’s Cell, which lysed in May. No, we made a beeline for the cosy neighbourhood hangs where the chef knew our names and the food never disappointed. Some had been there for years, like Kreuzberg’s Chez Michel (photo); others were instant fixtures, like Wedding newcomer sotto. All bene ted from locals’ newfound Zuschuss wealth and – we should hope – lavish tips.

Winner: Barra

On March 13, we sat down at the Schillerkiez wine bar – fresh off its Michelin Bib Gourmand win – and had what turned out to be our last supper B.C., a dreamy repast of chewy focaccia, sea bass ceviche, charred broccolini and thin strips of grilled beef heart, accompanied by expertly chosen natural wine. Barra shut its doors the next night, but reopened just two days later: no more delicate small plates, just a €10 fried chicken sandwich for takeaway and fresh pasta for home consumption. The result: more popularity than ever, especially among Kiez locals who’d previously avoided the crowds and high pricetag. While Tempelhof-adjacent competitor Palsta floundered with its takeout game and eventually closed, Barra resumed normal service in June without skipping a beat.

Winner: Comfort food

The biggest trend of lockdown? A retreat to the classics. Fried chicken was suddenly everywhere – in brioche “sandos” at Mrs. Robinson, coated in spices at Nashville-style pop-up and delivery service huMble Pie, stuffed into torta buns at La Lucha. But even more pervasive than poultry was pizza. One of the few successful mid-lockdown openings was New York-style pizzeria Magic John’s, whose foldable slices, topped with pepperoni, truffle ricotta, veggies or plain cheese, made US expats wax rhapsodic. And two critical darlings managed to expand their empires – Malafemmena’s ultra-orthodox Neapolitan pies may now be found in Prenzlauer Berg as well as Friedenau, while Gazzo’s sourdough crust, regional toppings and buffalo soft serve are coming to an as-yet-undisclosed new location outside of Neukölln.

Winner: Doing what you want

Then again, there’s something to be said for risk-taking. We took notice when Kreuzberg’s Yummy Chicken, a generic fast food joint suddenly began offering very legit idli and dosas – turns out that with no students or tourists to lure in, the owners had decided they may as well hew closer to their Tamil roots. Or witness Prenzlauer Berg’s Eatery, an outgrowth of catering company Smash’d. Pre-Covid: it was an Aussie-inspired brunch spot offering the same old at whites and avo toast; today, the Swedish-Australian expat duo behind the joint opted for a return to their Middle Eastern roots, from Aril Brikha’s very own hummus with a soy sauce-marinated ramen egg, to co-owner and resident chef Emad Soliman’s Spiced Chicken (his mum’s recipe, involving a secret blend of 10 spices) or Kamouneya, a traditional cumin-spiced beef stew the man’s also brought from his native Egypt. And you can’t even accuse them of going random fusion-y (“Lemongrass Chicken”?!), knowing that said poultry was inspired by the Hong Kong joint Soliman patronised during his Uni days in Melbourne!

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Prenzlauer Berg’s Eatery is an outgrowth of catering company Smash’d. Photo: Eatery