Berlin, the Big Canvas
DEBATE before dinner: Berlin is the most cultured city in Europe. You could make the argument, certainly, after walking silent and alone through the majesty of the Gemäldegalerie, pausing for a while before Tiepolo’s “Martyrdom of St. Agatha” to consider the agonies of faith.
|The Martyrdom of St Agatha||c. 1756||Staatliche Museen, Berlin|
St. Agatha's legend has her imprisoned and tortured in Catania, Sicily, by the provost Quintianus. On the second day of her passion Quintianus orders her breasts removed, but later St. Peter visits her cell to heal her. Four days later she is rolled onto burning brands, but this torment is ended by a sudden earthquake. Back in her cell, she prays that Jesus will take her and then dies.
You could make it alongside the tourists marveling at the Grecian splendor of the Pergamon Altar in the museum that bears its name, or beneath the roar of applause at the end of “Tannhäuser” at the Staatsoper, or while reading Brecht in the Tiergarten, the city’s verdant central park.
Facts: You could go to art galleries in Berlin for a solid week and find yourself not halfway through a master list. You could spend two weeks wandering Museum Island and still miss a few Romantics; you could spend a career within the Bode Museum.
Less ambitiously, you could take a canal boat along the winding Spree and marvel at the street art from some of the celebrated graffitimen — Banksy, CBS, Kripoe — who have come to leave their marks. It’s a beautiful trip. You could argue the merits of the city’s Holocaust Memorial, designed by Peter Eisenman, a grid of nearly five acres of tall concrete slabs that appears to roll east out of the Tiergarten in the manner of a cemetery, a Greek hill town, or a failure.
But then you should make your way into the glamorous heart of a city that has borne witness to horror and majesty alike, to eat.
Because, really, where there is culture there ought to be food. It needn’t be caparisoned with foam or gold leaf, nor lauded by Michelin. It should be simply good, and it should be served well, and it should allow for the free and wide-ranging discussion of art for as long as you like.
It was that desire that occasioned a trip to Berlin this spring: a desire to wander through the city’s arty demimonde and to eat beside its residents, to talk smack about video installations and works of string, critics, government grants, gallery dreams, gallery crimes — and then to eat heartily.
It was that desire that led directly to the Johann König gallery, a few blocks off the Potsdamer Platz, where two art critics were discussing shadow and perspective. This was a lucky business.
The critics, one American, the other German, had arrived unannounced, and were now talking with the Norwegian artist Matias Faldbakken. Mr. Faldbakken was putting long pieces of black tape onto a Belgian linen canvas on one of the gallery’s walls, layering them one atop another to create abstract shapes that might have been letters. The work was part of a group show at the gallery that was to open the following day. The conversation was, apparently, one that had been going on for some time.
“What does it say?” asked one of the critics, Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times, gesturing at the canvas. The question was the sort that raises art critics above the status of the average human being, who might simply have looked at the shapes and smiled tightly.
The other critic, Andreas Schlaegel, has a sideline as an Elvis impersonator in addition to his written work; he also plays drums in a band called Art Critics Orchestra. He chuckled. Americans have far fewer long words than Germans. But straightforwardness is one of them.
Mr. Faldbakken, tall and blond and skateboarderish, cocked his head to the side and offered a small smile.
“I’m not going to tell you this time,” he said, placid as Oslo. “It remains an enigma.”
They all laughed. Mr. Faldbakken put on his backpack and headed out the door into the afternoon sun.
It was almost time to eat.
THE Berlin Biennale, the city’s vast contemporary art fair, would open the following day, and the city was filling with the art-world mob: curators from New York, buyers from Kyoto, Italians in Prada and duty-free cologne. Some would repair to bistros in the city’s prosperous west, others to grittier precincts in Kreuzberg, or leafier ones in Prenzlauer Berg.
Mr. Kimmelman was bound for the Grill Royal, in Mitte, the city’s most central — literally, middle — neighborhood, formerly in East Berlin. And by early evening he was settling in there, a steak house right off Friedrichstrasse, tucking into oysters and gin.
The room provides a view of the kind of restaurant scene only a city that has both money and space can provide: a large, airy dining room set under low ceilings, with wide tables and gentle lighting, packed close with artists, curators, dealers, gallery guys, smart-eyeglassed business tyros in three-piece suits, fat burghers eating Irish steak, French entrecôte, Argentine beef.
There isn’t much in the way of celebrity culture in Berlin, but Grill Royal serves those who make the grade on its wide boulevards and cobbled side streets: American film stars; Scandinavian novelists; Germany’s political elite. Waiters swing past them on the double-quick, polyglot and efficient, bearing plates of enormous salads, briny oysters, steaks and steaks and yet more steaks, the occasional grilled dorade.
Glass-backed, fluorescent-lighted refrigerators flank the open kitchen, offering diners a view of real-life Damien Hirst: large fish piled high beside giant crab legs; fillets of beef hanging in the cold, still air, beside the tools used to break them down. A wax-encrusted Vespa scooter sits in one corner acting as a kind of massive, hipster-European candelabrum; a stuffed peacock makes its strutting point in the room’s center; neon-tubed sculptures on the wall by the bathroom may wink broadly toward the flowers of Georgia O’Keeffe. “Those are vaginas,” Mr. Kimmelman said.
The food is excellent. Start with Fine de Claire oysters from the murky, green pools of Marennes-Oléron in western France, along the Bay of Biscay — medium-size, sweet, a little nutty, cold. Try a bibb salad the size of an upside-down hat, bathed in soft and creamy vinaigrette. Behold those plates of grassy, tender meat, crust-grilled and served beside a piquant steak sauce, with toothsome roasted baby potatoes with rosemary on the side, a dish of plain steamed spinach, another of sweetly turned coins of carrot.
To drink? A waiter brought a 2000 Château du Beau Vallon from St.-Émilion — a fat Bordeaux happy to be in Germany entertaining Americans. It did more than nicely.
There are plenty of other places to eat in Berlin while on the art-scene prowl. For breakfast, you might head west to Charlottenburg, to have coffee and pastry at the Café Wintergarten in the Literaturhaus on Fasanenstrasse (say that three times fast!), before ducking into the Springer & Winckler Galerie to see what’s up (some ghostly Sigmar Polkes).
You could head east to Unter den Linden, perhaps the city’s most splendid boulevard, to have a rich farmer’s omelet with sweet baby potatoes and thick bacon hunks at the warm and crowded Café Einstein there, then venture out on an institutional stroll. Unter den Linden hosts, among others, the pink, fascinating, vaguely scary and old Deutsches Historisches Museum, where construction finished in 1706, with its airy addition by I. M. Pei (who wrapped up work in 2003). There is also the Staatsoper and Berlin’s outpost of the Guggenheim, on the ground floor of the headquarters of Deutsche Bank, where there were some fine Olafur Eliasson glacier photographs on display.
After an Einstein omelet, though, a walk through the Brandenburg Gate and up to the Reichstag would not be an error, if only to get the blood moving past your stomach. In addition, of course, there is the sheer magnificence of the building’s facade, still pockmarked with war-era bullet holes, rising off its wide base toward the new Norman Foster-designed glass dome on its top. Standing beneath that on a clear Berlin morning, well apart from the long lines waiting to get in, it is easy to imagine the strange beauty of the building wrapped in foil, a project the artist Christo completed in 1995.
But this is so mainstream and obvious, no? Next you’ll be asking for lunch at the Kempinski Hotel, eaten outside on the Kurfürstendamm with a soft fleece blanket wrapped around your knees, followed by some shopping (Chanel! Jil Sander!).
Better to put on some black and head east, fortified with coffee bought in an S-bahn station (a subway by New York lights, taken from “Stadtschnellbahn,” or fast city train), toward Checkpoint Charlie, the Kreuzberg gallery scene, and lunch.
The aristocrats of art walk through the former East Berlin as royalty might through a distant part of their dominion, stepping carefully over puddles in suede loafers and wicked heels, past empty lots filled with cold-war emptiness, ancient graffiti, the gloom of communism, toward the light-filled spaces of men on the make. Many are bound for Sale e Tabacchi, a perfect Italian restaurant in the Rudi-Dutschke-Haus, so named for the leader of Berlin’s left-wing student movement in the 1960s, who died in 1979, after being shot by an assassin more than a decade earlier.
You are bound there as well. But first, take in some art. First stop: Max Hetzler, a gallery hard by one of those lots on Zimmerstrasse; it’s a bit as if Larry Gagosian had an outpost in Newark, or on the southern end of the south side of Chicago. A stone’s throw from where the wall once divided the city, Mr. Hetzler had mounted “Always There,” a show of work devoted to the color gray — by Richard Phillips, Albert Oehlen and André Butzer — set in rooms as high-ceilinged and beautiful as a palace, or a church.
Mr. Hetzler, rumpled and friendly, with the handshake of a polar bear, chuckled at the idea of Sale e Tabacchi. He would be there soon, he said. Everyone would.
Galleries are thick on the ground in this neighborhood, which approximates Chelsea in both art density and market strength. In addition to Mr. Hetzler’s space — a Berlin home to Kara Walker, Thomas Struth and Bridget Riley, to name a few — there are the Swedish dealer Claes Nordenhake’s gallery, on Lindenstrasse, where a drawing and collage show by the Swedish artist Ann Bottcher was rising, and the Jablonka Galerie on nearby Kochstrasse, where Alex Katz’s “Marine” paintings were hanging wide and beautiful. Also on Kochstrasse, Julius Werner has a ground-floor space, where A. R. Penck’s graffiti-ish paintings and odd, figurative sculptures were showing, an evocation of both New York and the 1980s in one fell swoop. It was the sort of show that makes one want to smoke.
Instead, though: basta. Pasta! Sale e Tabacchi sits behind huge glass windows and an elegant bar, stretching out beneath immense ceilings toward a courtyard garden in back; it’s the Kreuzberg version of the famous Borchardt restaurant on the Gendarmenmarkt, where the city’s elite gather at lunch, and schnitzel is the very large coin of the realm. Here, though, waiters in long, flowing aprons speak comic-opera Italian and serve a bustling crowd of underemployed artistes who’ve locked their sleek Dutch bicycles out front; business fellows with BlackBerrys and iPhones; Mr. Hetzler and his wife, Samia Saouma, reading newspapers in the back.
You might decry this scene in favor of more street-friendly food, what Berliners call imbiss food, for the small shops that serve it: Turkish doner kebabs in the gyro tradition; pretzels; the odious hotdogs in ketchup, dusted liberally with spice that are known in Berlin as currywurst. There is even a marvelous Neapolitan pizza place on Oranienstrasse, also in Kreuzberg, called Pizza a Pezzi-Napulé, which for anyone interested in global pizza-slice ethnography is worth a detour.
But have a perfect veal tonnato at Sale e Tabacchi, a plate of ravioli in sage butter, some soft bread, a small taste of espresso to finish. Those Pencks were kind of droll, no? Do they sell at all now? Save for a reporter or two, there’s not a rube in sight.
BERLIN is a lively city, and a walk along the Kurfürstendamm or a visit to the food court at KaDeWe — Europe’s largest department store, on Taventzienstrasse, near the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church — shows it to be an occasionally crowded one as well. But the population has never recovered from the war and the division that plagued it for a half century, and with 3.5 million people in a metropolitan region that supported a million more in 1939, it rarely achieves anything approaching critical mass.
That statement is challenged nightly at Paris Bar, however. Set down the street from the Theater des Westens, and around the corner from the Savoy Hotel (where, if you’ve had enough of artists, there is a lovely little cigar bar to while away some time with a copy of the Financial Times and a Cuban panatela), Paris Bar was near the center of West Berlin’s gallery scene in late cold-war days; it was dealt a grievous blow by the fall of the Wall, when the art world fled east to Mitte and once bustling Charlottenburg became sleepy, a place for the old.
That cycle is turning now, back toward the west, with Paris Bar an important beneficiary. The restaurant is a gathering place for artists and dealers alike, perhaps the city’s most important art-world canteen, serving both the chic and the beautiful, the jet-lagged and the underwashed who follow them — the people, Mr. Kimmelman said, “with interesting facial hair.” In Manhattan terms, it’s as if Elaine’s, the celebrity bar, bred with Raoul’s, the SoHo bistro, and hired Anne Isaak, a charismatic and unflappable owner of Elio’s, the east side trattoria, to run the place. A sign set into the floor of the entranceway reads, “Passant Sois Moderne,” a kind of plea: “Passersby, be modern.”
This refers to the art on the walls, really: crowded tight with portraits of Karl Lagerfeld, Tracy Emin, salon-hung thises and thats; if you can paint convincingly well, you could probably trade work for food here and want to. The menu is old and perfect.
And so there is French onion soup, deep with flavor, and more of those briny, perfect Fine de Claires, and a salad of baby spinach and bacon, with a soft poached egg in buttermilky dressing. There are glasses and glasses of rosé, and entrecôte with béarnaise and crunchy fries, duck à l’orange with turned carrots, a perfect soft omelet of tomatoes and bacon. Familiar? Yes, it’s bistro and bohemian and correct down to the sautéed rabbit livers set atop a bright salad cut sour with endive and bright with vinaigrette. One will probably suffice for the table: rabbits in Germany, it would appear, have enormous livers.
Germans, too. The wine flows freely into the night, as an Icelandic film director high-fives everyone in sight, as French waiters serve American museum staff members and tattooed fellows who might be Polish, Belgian, or both. Smoke curls north to the ceiling like mist. (Berlin banned smoking in restaurants in January; that message has yet to make it to Kantstrasse 152.) Conversations rattle along in German, French, English, Italian, in some multinational Esperanto of shared cultural literacy: some love the artist Pushwagner’s “Soft City” graphic novel art at the Kunst-Werke, part of the Biennale; many decry all the silly video installations; definitely everyone will have something more to drink.
And so to bed. Walking out of the place on a cool Berlin night, shrugging into jackets after the heat and bustle within, two young men passed by the restaurant. One paused; something had caught his eye. He pointed to a poster hung in the window, advertising the show at Jablonka, across town.
“Ja, ja, Alex Katz,” he said, excitedly. Art city!
A CITY WITH ART IN THE AIR AND A LOT ON ITS PLATES
WHERE TO STAY
Savoy Hotel (Fasanenstrasse 9-10; 49-30-311-03-0; www.hotel-savoy.com) is an elegant dowager with 125 rooms, a block from the Kurfürstendamm in Charlottenburg, near the Berlin Zoo. It’s comfortable and quiet, with a lobby that smells faintly of the cigar bar next door and a sumptuous dining room that does not. Double rooms from 75 euros, about $120 at $1.61 to the euro.
Hotel de Rome (Behrenstrasse 37; 49-30-460-60-90; www.hotelderome.com) offers fancier accommodations in its 146 spacious rooms in the former Central Bank of East Berlin. The building’s edifice dates to 1889, when it was the head office of the Dresdner Bank, and has been lavishly remodeled — the underground vault, for example, is now a swimming pool. Double rooms from 395 euros.
Eastern Comfort (Mühlenstrasse 73-77; 49-30-667-63-806; www.eastern-comfort.com) is a houseboat in the Spree River, popular in the backpacker and hippie-cat sets, on the border between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, near the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall. Double rooms from 54 euros.
WHERE TO EAT
Café Einstein (Unter den Linden 42; 49-30-2043-632;) is a clubby and welcoming coffee house near the Brandenburg Gate, with excellent eggs and bacon to match the strong coffee. Old-timers will tell you the original location on Kurfürstenstrasse is better. So be it: Breakfast runs around 36 euros for two.
Grill Royal (Friedrichstrasse 105B; 49-30-2887-9288; www.grillroyal.com) is a chic steak house in Mitte, set on the bank of the Spree, perfect for introducing oneself to the pleasures of Fine de Claire oysters. Follow with a grilled steak and excellent potatoes, a few glasses of wine, and you’re out the door for at least 65 euros.
Sale e Tabacchi (Kochstrasse 18; 49-30-2521-155, www.sale-e-tabacchi.de) serves as a kind of elegant cafeteria for Kreuzberg gallery owners and the art-world crowd that provides them their business. Excellent pastas and salads, accompanied by gallons of sparkling water, will cost around 20 euros a person at lunch.
Pizza a Pezzi-Napulè (Oranienstrasse 176; no phone) is a modest pizza parlor in Kreuzberg with pizza made in the Neapolitan style. You’ll be in and out for around 3 euros a person, particularly if you think of the meal as a snack, best taken before or after a meal at Sale e Tabacchi.
Paris Bar (Kantstrasse 152; 49-30-313-80-52; www.parisbar.net) is a bustling art canteen in Charlottenburg that serves bistro grub of the first order: excellent steak frites, glistening salads. The reservation policy is quirky. If you call from a hotel, the host may declare the restaurant fully booked. Show up at the door unannounced, however, and chances are you’ll be whisked to a table immediately. Dinner for two, with copious wine, will cost around 125 euros.
WHAT TO SEE
In addition to Museum Island, Unter den Linden and the Kulturforum museums, Berlin’s vibrant gallery scene provides days of possibility. Highlights include:
At the Max Hetzler Galerie (Zimmerstrasse 90-91; 49-30-229-24-37; www.maxhetzler.com), an elegant gallery near Checkpoint Charlie, there is an exhibition by the installation artist Mona Hatoum.
The Johann König, Berlin (Dessauer Strasse 6-7; 49-30-26-10-30-80; www.johannkoenig.de), a large, spare and light-soaked gallery near the Potsdamer Platz, is the summer home of a solo exhibition by Andreas Zybach.
The Springer & Winckler Galerie (Fasanenstrasse 13; 49-30-315-7220; www.springer-winckler.de) is an airy space nestled into a quiet block off the Kurfürstendamm; a show of Andy Goldsworthy’s drawings and objects is up through the end of June.