2 Ways to See Berlin

Is it possible to spend a long weekend in Berlin (including hotel) for the cost of a leisurely lunch?
There are no toilets at Burgermeister, which is somewhat curious as the place itself is really a toilet. I don’t mean that disparagingly; I mean it is actually a 19th-century cast-iron public bathroom that’s been recommisioned as an Imbiss, or snack joint. Before leaving for Berlin, I’d asked local food critic Stefan Elfenbein for some suggestions. He instructed me to find the “renovated restroom under the train station near your hotel.” I figured maybe some qualifying nuance had been lost in translation. But then, having dutifully walked past the floating disco and the barge spa, past the still-standing segments of the Wall and over the twin-spired neo-Gothic Oberbaum Bridge, we found this little spot under the U-Bahn tracks with a line out the door.

There are probably more romantic ways to cap off a long weekend in Europe than a pair of chili cheeseburgers in a cold converted bathroom in East Berlin, but my girlfriend, Evyn, and I couldn’t have been happier to be here. Happy because this was great late-night fare: big burgers, sloppy and slathered in an incendiary mystery sauce. And happy because the place seemed a very Berlin sort of reinvention: friendly, exuberant, odd, and affordable. We were pleased, too, because we’d completed our mission and come in on budget.

The project was simple: one city seen through two very different lenses. It would start with a meal, a very good (and very expensive) one. Not just any kind of meal, but the particular ritual, the culinary Kabuki, of a long, indulgent lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Next, we’d take the receipt for lunch and see how and if we could survive and thrive in that same city for three days.

Essentially, this was a high-stakes version of a game I’d played tramping through Europe in college: Should we break the bank on a real dinner, even if it means a second-class train seat for a bed that night? Travel is full of these trade-offs. Ours would be an exercise in extremes: Do the pleasures of culinary excess fade as quickly as the bubbles in a flute of Rheingau Riesling Sekt? Will the happy memories of eating burgers in a bathroom last as long as the hot sauce on our breath? Picking a city was the easy part. The thrill of Berlin right now is that any- and everything is happening here—much of it new, some of it goofy, all of it inventive and fun. And cheap: Berlin is one of the most affordable European capitals. This is our tale of two cities in one.

The Long Lunch: Facil Restaurant

The restaurant Facil is one of those places you can’t stop yourself from describing as an “understated oasis,” even if you can’t imagine what an overstated oasis would look like. The lighting is low and kind, the service is nimble, and the bread plate has the sort of excellent butter you want to eat with a spoon and steal from other tables. The chef, Michael Kempf, works the palette as well as the palate: golden char roe topped with a luminous, deeply yellow sous vide egg yolk. These are colorful, attractive plates, all very good and well cooked and curated. The food is not vividly memorable but, rather like the room itself, is expertly composed and easy to like. Which brought up the question: What’s an experience like this worth? It had been a bit more than four hours since the elevator delivered us to the fifth floor and the whisper-quiet automatic glass doors. For this time we lived within a polite bubble where all needs were guessed at and met by a battalion of waiters. We had that good butter on pretzely breads and ate pink Charolais beef and tender char from the Ammersee lake, in Upper Bavaria. A 2003 Yann Chave Hermitage ($180) was the kind of good where your eyes go very wide, in equal parts appreciation and alarm. That’s the thing about this type of experience: at $750 for two, you wouldn’t eat this way every day even if you could. Restaurants like Facil are a retreat from the normal world, a soft-focus place where every bite is precision-engineered for maximum contentment. The money makes no sense unless you think of it as a day spa with wine pairings and petits fours. It was fun in our bubble, but then the glass doors reopened and we were back in the Berlin of Imbisse, bus rides, and beer, in need of a nap.

The Long Weekend: Three Action-Packed Days in Berlin
A nap, yes—but where to sleep? Hotel prices can seriously wreck a budget. So I was happy to find the Michelberger Hotel, which was all of two weeks old when I booked a “Cosy” room for a promotional rate of $78 a night.

Unlike a lot of self-consciously funky hotels around the world, the Michelberger is genuinely cool. And friendly and funny: hallway TV’s play a permanent loop of The Big Lebowski in German. Built in a refashioned factory on Warschauerstrasse in the east, the whole operation feels like a large-scale art-school project. There is free Wi-Fi and cheap coffee, and the library has wire bookshelves stuffed with travel guides and 1970’s German food magazines. The world is full of hotels with “amenities” I don’t use and gilded lobbies I’d never sit in. Here, we had more than a bed—we had a home base.

To acclimate ourselves to the city we went directly to Curry 36, a famous Currywurst Imbiss. For the uninitiated, this iconic Berlin street food—fried sausage topped with ketchup seasoned with curry powder—is a creation to behold. There is something beautifully, boldly bland to it, an altogether likable badness. For the price of two orders of Currywurst with mayonnaise-topped fries our stomachs were convinced we’d really been to Berlin. And we never had to eat it again.

On a trip like this, there are two basic approaches. One is to pay close attention to costs; structure your day around train schedules and bus routes, museum opening times and lunch deals; make lists; plot your course. The other is to just go—walk, wander, see what you see and remember to get out of the stores when the buying urge hits and to avoid expensive late-night taxi rides. We tried both, depending on our mood. Some days we planned well, hit our marks, saw the sights. The Berlin Welcome Cards we picked up at the airport got us around town on the U-Bahn and discounted admission to the Jewish Museum. We saw the city from the Reichstag (free), wandered Museum Island, watched experimental films at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and checked out the cafés around Mitte. Other mornings we lazed about the hotel and approached emerging neighborhoods the way we felt we might if we lived there. We took the tram to the Mauerpark flea market in Prenzlauer Berg, near the site of the crumbling Wall. I bargained for a useless Telefunken radio, and we stopped into one of the café stalls alongside the market for shots of glühwein, mulled wine spiked with rum.

An American friend living in Berlin had recommended a “free soup kitchen for artists.” Unfortunately, it was closed (and I wasn’t sure we’d qualify), so we tried another of her suggestions. Frarosa is a wine bar/restaurant where you drink all you like and pay whatever you choose. “You put two euros into the pig to begin,” the barman explained, pointing to a bank on the bar. “At the end, we have a talk and you pay what you think is fair for you and fair for us.” As you can imagine, this is a popular policy. Fifteen tables quickly filled with a happy, loud but not loutish crowd. The hearty pork fillet and the German wines were decent, but it was the self-serve novelty and earnest charm of the place that won us over. How charming? When it was time to vote with our euros, we put down a somewhat arbitrary 40 euros ($55) and scurried out, hoping we’d been fair to all concerned.

The next day at lunch we reserved a table at Fischers Fritz, whose formal wood-paneled dining room is one of the grandest in the city and the only one with two Michelin stars. Walking into the room you pass a rolling silver Christofle lobster press parked in the corner. It’s a message, like the giant wine glasses and the hum of service, a symbol of the haute cuisine and rarefied experience ahead. But the interesting thing is how you can enjoy these shiny emblems without the time and cost of the homard à la presse. We ordered two courses off the lunch menu for $38. For about a ninth of the price of our full-size meal at Facil, we got many of the trappings and pleasures—the really good butter, the quiet attentiveness, and a happy hour or so in a nice room away from the crowds. At the end of the meal our server delivered a chocolate pre-dessert, even though we weren’t having actual dessert.

After lunch we headed out to Friedrichshain, a neighborhood in the east that feels a million miles away from Fischers Fritz and its surrounding posh hotels and cathedrals. Berlinomat sells mostly Berlin-sourced stuff: books, clothes, a cookie cutter shaped like the Fernsehturm (Berlin’s famous TV tower). For a souvenir, I chose a postcard that folds into a paper model of the Reichstag ($3). On the way back to Planet Michelberger, we stopped at a little shop on the backstreets of Friedrichshain. There was a card with the motto arm aber sexy stamped in gold gothic lettering. “It means ‘poor but sexy,’” the shopgirl told me. “It’s a very Berlin idea.” Turns out you can get by on not very much in a place like Berlin. There’s a lot of city here for the price of a lunch. Sometimes quantity trumps quality and the most luxurious thing you can do in a place is to just show up.
Cost Breakdown
Lunch at Facil Restaurant

•Two glasses of Riesling Sekt: $25* (€18)
•Bottle of sparkling water: $11 (€8)
•Bottle of white wine: $67 (€48)
•Bottle of red wine: $187 (€130)
•Eight-course tasting menu for two: $389 (€280)
Total (with tip added in): $750 (€550)

3 Days in Berlin

•Lunch at Manufaktum Brot & Butter: $21 (€16)
•Two orders of currywurst mit pomme frites, a bulleten curry, and a Beck’s beer at Curry 36: $10 (€7)
•Two Berlin Welcome Cards: $62 (€44)
•Two-course lunch at the Michelin two-starred Fischers Fritz: ($77) + two-course dinner + drinks + club entrance at Cookies Cream: ($110) + one package of fake cigarettes ($1.40) $188 (€131)
•Three nights at Hotel Michelberger ($229) + drinks and snacks ($35) + dinner at Frarosa ($55) + souvenirs ($10) + admission for two to Jewish Museum and KW Art Museum ($36): $365 (€266)
Total: $646 (€464)

* All prices have been converted from euros.