Berlin café society may have a cool reputation but it has a warm heart too. And in misty November when the days are suddenly shorter and you need to kick back and feel mellow, every Berlin neighbourhood has somewhere that fits the bill. If you’ve already tried the recommendations in ‘Berlin Unwrapped’, here are three recent discoveries that offer good food and cheer at a reasonable price – and each with unique flair.
‘Giro d’Espresso’ in Knobelsdorffstraße, Charlottenburg is the perfect place for lunch or coffee and cake after an autumn walk around the grounds of Schloß Charlottenburg. Or if it’s raining, skip the walk and go there for breakfast. Its name refers to the Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s Grand Tour races, and combines the owner’s two great passions – cycling and coffee. For over twenty years, it was Stefan Reisner’s dream to open his own espresso bar café in Berlin, complete with Italian charm and Italian specialities. There’s now a great little Italian delicatessen next door as well and ‘Stefano’ has definitely brought Italian coffee culture and much more to Charlottenburg.
The décor has a subtle pink theme to echo the pink jersey worn by the leading cyclist in the Giro d’Italia. Black and white photos, wooden tables and chairs and Stefano’s cycling mementos complete the nostalgic ambience. But it’s the friendly service, the impressive selection of coffees and the lovingly prepared food that makes you want to linger. The Giro d’Espresso is open weekdays at 8am, Saturdays at 9am and Sundays at 10am. It closes at 7pm Mondays to Thursdays and 6pm at weekends. Friday night is special – the café is always open until 9.30pm and on the first Friday of the month is ‘notte lungo’ when you can wine and dine until midnight.
So many coffees to choose from….
Moving over to Mitte here is another secret gem, the ‘Nord-Sud’ in Auguststrasse. This place is run by the inimitable Jean-Claude Malfroy. If you speak French, he will love you and even if you don’t, he will charm you in both English and German. There is no written menu. Jean-Claude comes to each table and offers a choice of three, three-course set menus of standard French home-cooked food at the amazing price of only €7.50. You can’t mix or match – you just pick one menu. One of three main courses is always fish and one is usually red meat or pork.
If you are looking for fine dining, ‘Nord-Sud’ won’t fit the bill. Everything is totally casual and simple with the atmosphere of a French country bistro and the proprietor definitely calls the shots. If it gets busy, the effusive Jean-Claude goes into actor mode to keep the show on the road. Then it’s best to sit back with a glass of house wine or Jenlain beer and watch the entertainment. Nord-Sud is open Mondays to Saturdays for lunch and supper from 12pm until 3pm and from 6pm until 10.30pm.
Jean-Claude surveying the scene
Finally, here’s a top insider tip for a reasonably-priced restaurant in a rather special location in the East Berlin borough of Friedrichshain, about a 15 minute walk from Alexanderplatz along the iconic Karl-Marx Allee. This broad avenue, flanked with Moscow style apartment blocks, still reeks of Soviet grandeur and recalls the huge military parades staged by the GDR regime during the Cold War. In the 1980s I recall several soulless, state-owned shops dotted along this avenue, including a toy emporium in one of the Strausberger Platz towers, and a couple of restaurants serving rather average Russian or Hungarian food.
Strausberger Platz today
How times have changed. Now, Berliners from all over the city flock to ‘A Mano’ to enjoy a gourmet Italian meal in a unique setting. The food at ‘A Mano’ is absolutely first-class, all home-made as the name of the restaurant suggests and beautifully presented.
‘a Mano’ on Strausberger Platz
Nothing is too much trouble for the friendly staff. They also appear to know many of their customers, suggesting that ‘A Mano’ attracts a regular clientele. It’s not hard to understand why. Apart from the excellent menu and wine list, a complimentary plate of bread, olives and mortadella arrives at the table at the start of the meal and at the end a glass of grappa or limoncello appears. In summer, tables are arranged on the broad pavement outside, underneath a huge spreading oak tree where Berlin embraces Italy. And inside, the smart red and black interior contrasts with crisp white tablecloths. A perfect fusion of Berlin cool and warmth, ‘A Mano’ is open every day from 11.30 am until midnight.
Outside ‘a Mano’ – in summer and in winter