Spend just one day in Berlin, and there’s no denying it’s cutting-edge city. It pulses with non-stop energy day and night, the air infused with creativity, culture and promise. There are many ways for travelers to gain some insight into this complex and ever-expanding metropolis. On my recent whirlwind visit, I got a feel for the city by exploring its cuisine. As a frequent traveler and devoted foodie, my key to a new destination is usually culinary. Yes, I use foodie websites and apps, but I also try to find locals who are willing to share their under-the-radar dining tips with me. It is not always easy to find strangers in strange lands willing to dole out food advice, but it’s always worth a shot. With only 24 hours to spend in Berlin, I was searching for a way to have authentic food-centric experiences in a condensed amount of time. Gastro Rallye to the rescue. This Berlin based company specializes in dining adventures led by English speaking residents. Gastro Rallye’s goal is for you to soak up genuine atmosphere by visiting eateries that locals frequent. The company operates culinary focused tours in several cities, but it is particularly appropriate in Berlin. Berliners eat out incessantly. Restaurant prices are low compared with other European capitals and the variety of dining options is enormous. If you want to get a bona fide feel for local life, dining out should be an integral part of your visit.
My evening tour would hit on three restaurants: one for appetizers, one for the main course and another for dessert. In the process of this revolving meal, I would get to know my guide’s insider tips for visiting Berlin. My guide, Lollie Barr, is a charismatic British/Aussie who came to Berlin five years ago for a weekend and never left. As a writer, she was entranced by the economic reality of how inexpensive life in Berlin is. Her low overhead costs allow her to live decently on a freelance writer’s salary, something that gave this freelance writer a pang of jealousy. She is one of several part-time gastro guides employed by the Swedish-born founder Henrik Tidefjärd. Lollie is custom-made for this sort of work, as she generously shared her personal story and her passion for Berlin. She knew everyone and everyone knew her, and I was the beneficiary to her insider status.
She met myself and four other participants at our hotel, The Circus, an up-to-the-minute boutique property in the trendy Mitte neighborhood. We would be walking to each eatery, as Mitte is a restaurant and nightlife hotspot. After brief introductions, we headed to Mani Restaurant. It is located inside the sleek and stylish Hotel Mani. I loved the layout with its open kitchen, perfect for catching a glimpse of Chef in action. The green marble-lined fireplace worked like a charm on this brisk November night. If you thought German cuisine was all pork knuckle and Spätzle, Mani’s refined, fresh and eclectic flavors will change your mind and surprise your taste buds. The pan-Mediterranean offerings are tantalizing. Our selection of pre-ordered appetizers was a good way to explore the innovative menu. Raw Jerusalem artichoke salad, eggplant prepared three ways, lush olives and briny fried prawns filled our table. Everything was delicious, but just as importantly, I witnessed the worldly, jet set crowd at one of their favorite local haunts.
We moved on to our next location to sample a classic German winter dish, roast goose. This standard of the German kitchen is often served as part of the traditional Christmas feast. The setting for our goose consumption was Restaurant Tucholsky, a few blocks from Mani, but decades away in mood. If you’re partial to time travel, this place feels like a 1920’s movie set of Berlin come to life. The decor screams old-world Berlin and the menu follows the same time-honored route. The goose was oven-roasted and served with potato dumplings and red cabbage. I have never eaten goose so moist. It was cooked to perfection. The mild potato dumpling was the perfect accompaniment, stealing none of the goose’s spotlight, but appropriately sopping up the pan drippings. The red cabbage was just the right hint of texture and color that my plate needed. My Berliner Pilsner washed it down sublimely.
Berlin’s nightlife is legendary and no trip to this modern capital would be complete without sampling it. Well fortified, we walked to our final stop, the hip bar Pauly Saal. It is located in what was once a Jewish girls school and is currently a stylish complex of art galleries and cafes. Pauly Saal’s offers a great selection of grown-up cocktails that you should consider pairing with dessert. The warm fig tart was worth indulging in. The figs had been preserved in September, when they were fresh off the tree, and they had taken on a rich, caramel-like quality. The pastry dough was properly flaky and the ideal foil for the chewy figs. The live jazz combo was excellent, the people watching mesmerizing. Berliners of all ages were socializing, as you don’t need to be a fashionable 20-something to be accepted in the hipster circle in this welcoming city. When the Gastro Rallye wrapped up, it was well after midnight, but the crowd seemed eager and fresh. I had the feeling the night was still young.
Tours are customized, and they happily cater to individual tastes and interests. Apart from the epicurean and lifestyle insights the dining tour gave me, Lollie’s tips on what to do during my precious single day of explorations were much appreciated. I was thankful that she suggested I visit the East Side Gallery and view the emotionally moving mural art display. I heeded her advice to see the regal 3,300-year old painted limestone Nefertiti Bust at the Neues Museum on Museum Island. The most valuable note she gave me was to look down as I walked the streets of Mitte. This neighborhood had a sizeable Jewish population before World War ll. One of the ways Berlin commemorates victims of the Nazis is with Stolpersteine or stumbling stones. These brass plates are embedded in the sidewalk concrete and are a mini memorial to a Jewish victim who actually lived on the street where the stumbling stone is placed. Each slightly raised plate has the name and details of the tragic death of a former resident. They are purposely made for you to stumble on, to encourage contemplation on the individual life lost. Not that I’m super graceful, but I might have not noticed them without Lollie’s mention. That would have been a shame as it was a most powerful part of my visit to Germany.
Getting to Berlin is easy from the U.S. with Air Berlin’s non-stop flights from gateway cities such as JFK, Chicago, Miami and Fort Myers. Coach class fares are very competitive and the level of service is excellent. Business Class features individual pod-style seating for privacy, comfort and pampering. The have an extensive European and global flight network. They are a member of Oneworld Alliance, so you will be getting those coveted frequent flyer miles.