Thoughts on: Why is food in Berlin (still) so bad?

If you came here expecting a rant, I* must disappoint you. I very much believe that there is a ton of great food in Berlin. Indeed, there’s always been good food in Berlin, and we’re getting more and more every day. Yet I often encounter people who come to Berlin, having read about its thriving food scene (on here or via the countless other sources), and then wonder why the average quality of food still isn’t … great. You can’t just walk into any bakery and expect a well-made loaf or roll. Just choosing a restaurant on a whim can be less than rewarding. And places in nice locations (by the water, in a park, with a view) serve subpar fare at high prices especially often. Meanwhile, you might queue at a hyped place for an hour on a Saturday night and then be surprised how average the experience was. This city sees more and more newcomers (forced to) move to neighborhoods like Spandau, Lichtenberg, or Lankwitz, who then wonder why these boroughs haven’t yet sprouted restaurants to match the high expectations of these new Berliners. So what’s going on?

Berlin is selling itself as having an energized and exciting food scene; and certainly it has one. However, this is very much a new development. The current hype is young. Markthalle Neun, for many the center of local food developments, is only seven years old.
What you don’t see is how many restaurants don’t make a cut. There is a big discrepancy between the few making good food and the big bad rest of it: the average here is usually meh. Most of the places I try don’t ever make it onto my map, and that applies to spots that have been around forever, as well as the newest brunch bunch.

This, then, is not a rant about how bad food can be in Berlin, but a post getting to the heart of why the food situation is what it is. I’m not even talking about the level (or lack) of service culture, but rather want to go into the structural reasons. Food, after all, reflects the land, its history, politics, and specifics, and you can learn a lot about a place through its culinary habits. This is why I don’t want to compare or make a point about Berlin being “worse than others”, but illustrate the current state.

First Of All: Our History

It’s been 30 years since the fall of the Wall and 29 since the BRD absorbed the GDR. This wording is important here because as necessary as the coming down of the Wall was, the events following the opening of the borders weren’t all beneficial to the people from what once was the GDR. This story falls outside the scope of this post, but if you want some more insight, check out these articles in The Guardian and the NYT. I’m mentioning it also because the recent anniversary has certainly pushed me to write this post, which has been in my head for much longer.
What I want to get to is that Berlin in its current shape is a young city. Remember: 30 years ago, there was no contact between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, no way to walk from Wedding to Mitte for dinner, or vice-versa.

It still surprises me how often new Berliners know little or nothing about this recent history, beyond the fact that there was a wall running through the city. So here’s a reminder: before the Wall came down, West-Berlin had to import most of its food, either from West Germany or—fun fact—from the GDR. Loads of the produce eaten in West Berlin was actually grown in the GDR. And there, all agricultural land was state-owned and managed according to the centrally planned economy. There was little to no space for small-scale experiments or what we now call organic farming. An exception were privately owned gardens. Many families in rural areas, mine included, grew a lot of the food they ate themselves.

In the last three decades since the Wall came down, many new organic farms and cooperatives have sprung up around Berlin. However, as agriculture takes forever, the development is still young. Not to forget, the general agricultural policy of the EU is not made for small-scale, specialised farmers, but big industrial corporations, many of them in the meat and dairy industry, either dealing with animals or producing feed for animals.
The demand for high-quality produce is directly connected to the level of gastronomy, so we still have a while to wait for the recent outburst of creativity in Berlin’s food world to really bear fruit. Even though it got loads easier to get good produce, it’s still developing and structures are being built as I write this.

And then, the land: Berlin is surrounded by Brandenburg

Food is always (or should be) a representation of the place it was produced in, so let’s talk about the Brandenburg soil for a quick sec. Because even though we can import almost anything from everywhere by now, produce is best when harvested in its prime and eaten immediately. First of all, Brandenburg’s growing potential is highly underestimated. Yes, the terroir around here is very sandy, so really quite bad at holding the little water we get. And sunny days are limited. From October to April, Brandenburg produces mostly root veggies and other sturdy vegetables like cabbage, but it’s excellent at that. Have you tried a local pointed cabbage? You’re missing out if you haven’t. Plus, in the warm seasons it can be a cornucopia with its berries, nuts, and even peaches, eggplants, and tomatoes.

However, the reason we mostly underestimate it is that its potential is often not fully realised. After privatisation of the state-owned land, much has been bought up by big corporations growing the same thing over and over again for profit. (See the history section above.) I grew up with local walnuts, but nowadays walnut trees aren’t easy to find. I know many chefs struggle to find quality local produce, which is unfortunate. But this is slowly changing, due to the hard work of very motivated, creative, and patient agricultural entrepreneurs (farmers and distributors), and you can see the results on the local markets and in our best kitchens.

There’s a lot less money than you might think

Looking at the history of the city also explains something else: Berlin isn’t rich. Berliners aren’t rich. So not rich, in fact, that a former mayor made a tagline out of it, calling this city arm, aber sexy, poor but sexy. We could debate how help- or harmful this was, but it serves as a reminder that money has only been flowing into the city for a couple of years. Most inhabitants, especially the OG Berliners, weren’t born with deep pockets, and they just never had the money to splurge on food—and often they still don’t.

And while the rents are rising fast, the wages in former East Germany are lower than in the former West. Even though Berlin ranks high in salaries compared to other parts of former East Germany, it still sits well below most of the former West. This applies to many jobs in the creative industries as well. You’d earn more at a start-up operating from Munich than here. This fact is often, if not always, overlooked when we discuss how to improve the local food culture and the only argument thrown around is how “people need to spend more money on food”. For many people it’s not a question of not wanting to pay the higher price, because they simply can’t.

Berlin is in Northern Germany.

You probably know that already, but Berlin is very, believe me, very different from other parts of Germany. And that’s a good thing. However, we’re still German, so we carry with us all the great but also all the not so great stereotypes. What’s more, Berlin is in former Prussia, so just look up the so-called Preussische Tugenden (rooted in the least fun of all religions, protestantism, and, of course, the military) and you’ll understand the city much better. We don’t appreciate splendid extravagances, nor innovative crazes. In fact, we shy away from trends, from any superficial and temporary fads only designed to squeeze more money out of us. Often, we’re actually scared to be judged superficial by our peers if they should see us subscribing to the latest fashions.

We’re not experimental: we like what we like, because that’s what we’ve always liked. And this is mirrored in the local gastronomy – most people stop developing a concept once they open their shop; menus often lack playfulness; and chefs shy away from trying what is considered a momentary trend, terrified of scaring off much-needed customers. So no wonder we’re mostly five years behind international culinary movements (but still about three years ahead from the rest of Germany). Wondering why you see every third place serving their food in bowls now? Because after more than five years, the bowl-trend finally has enough “history” to no longer be deemed fashionable but somehow innovative. (I recently spotted a Käsespätzle-bowl on a menu. WHY.)
You could imagine that to counterbalance this trend-phobia we’d treasure our food culture and its history, but nah.

Berlin Is In Germany

And white Germany is xenophobic. Germany was never purely white (even though everyone knows how hard our foreparents tried to make it so). Obviously immigration happened, and the German state owes a lot of its current wealth to the millions of underpaid workers who came here after WWII, and this isn’t limited to the West. However, white Germans have an incredibly hard time accepting that a non-white person can really, fully, and without exception be German. And while we appreciate the cheap labour, Germans struggle to appreciate the actual people, let alone their cultures. From all “newcomers,” we usually demand integration in our way of life instead of any exchange or development. This includes food from other regions of the world, which we only accept on our own terms. Though the döner kebab sandwich is now accepted fast food in most parts of the country, many white Germans probably still wouldn’t consider it part of German food culture, let alone quality food. There’s a ton of stereotypes around non-German, specifically non-white, foods, that make it hard for non-white food entrepreneurs to succeed beyond the Imbiss.

One of the most harmful stereotypes is that anything “non-white”, say Chinese or Thai, should be cheap. Not only because we consider it less valuable, but also because of a dangerous connection between price and authenticity: First of all, we throw the ambiguous term “authentic” around as if anything has any one single incontrovertible origin. Second, we often deem less expensive, hole-in-the-wall, family-run businesses more authentic because this concept meets our own faulty and very limited ideas of authenticity.
This focus on low prices devalues the skill and hours going into a cuisine. And by that we limit its reach and development. How can there be an active worship of Thai food when all you are willing to shell out for is a €4,50 Pad Thai, aber bitte kein Koriander?

Another factor is that while Germany has a large number of people with what we call a Migrationshintergrund, or some history of migration (their own or their parents), it’s not big on diversity. Most of these people are from Poland and the former Soviet Union, or, as the largest non-white group, Turkey. You might be craving Mexican food, but there are only about 17.000 registered Mexican nationals in Germany. Same story with Indians, of which there are around 150.000.

And, to return to my former argument, Germans are xenophobic, so up until a couple years ago, there just wasn’t a market for non-Germanized (aka non-bland) Indian food. Which the Indian community isn’t at all responsible for, they just had to get creative to make a living in a country that doesn’t appreciate the full spectrum of subcontinental cuisines. It is ironic, then, that now white guys sweep in and take on the role of expert, explaining to us how there’s been “no good Indian food in the city” (before they showed up). Watch out for those. They are benefiting from a void created by their fellow white people.

Germans Love Bureaucracy

Enough racial politics. Let’s get to another hurdle in the struggle to create a diverse and creative food scene in Berlin: bureaucracy. In a nutshell: opening a food place is not easy in Germany. For example, have you ever wondered why food trucks aren’t really a thing here? That’s because you won’t get a permit to sell from a truck on a public street: you have to find a privately owned lot. Before events like Markthalle Neun’s Street Food Thursday (started only six years ago!), there was very little opportunity to develop your food business without investing a lot of money upfront.

To start any food business means obeying the strict rules of the public health department, which requires you to join several costly classes (more expensive if you want to do them in English). Then the Finanzamt awaits with more requirements, like a certified cash register. And when you finally go brick and mortar, the building department has a list of demands for your spot (ever heard of a Fettabscheider?). One of the biggest issues for food entrepreneurs right now is to find real estate, which is due to the hype and the crazy rents (more on that below). It’s additionally tricky because you need a permit to run a gastronomy business in a building. And those are not handed out easily: if your chosen space is even eligible for gastronomy, it will also have to fulfil a bunch of requirements, especially if you want a full kitchen (most spaces only have a permit for a “cold kitchen” for which you at least won’t need a Fettabscheider). Ever experienced a new business having to push their opening date again and again? It’s mostly because the facilities aren’t fully satisfying the inspectors.

I’m not an expert on all the ins and outs, but even I know how painful any journey to running your business entirely by the rules is. Since I’m German, I consider most of these rules necessary, but it is an issue that none of these Amts makes a difference whether you’re a small business just starting out or a gigantic corporation serving food to thousands every day. You’re basically treated the same.

Here’s another point: as many of you have probably experienced, we Germans love things to be organised (though not necessarily efficiently). One of these organisations are the guilds – associations to protect and support certain trades. There’s a strict trade and crafts code in place, secured by the Handwerkskammer, the crafts council, which regulates who can open a business and how. Initially and commendably, this was installed to protect the quality and skills of a craft. Many crafts have a so-called Meisterzwang, which means that in order to start a business, you need to either be or employ someone with a Meistertitel, a title only awarded by the Handwerkskammer after an extended education. It doesn’t apply to restaurateurs, but to other food crafts like bakers and pastry chefs. Which means everyone who wants to run a baking business, even if it’s just baking a bunch of cookies, will need to either hold the Meistertitel or employ someone who does. Fortunately, there are exceptions to this rule, but it takes a lot of time, effort, and money to understand those and then meet their requirements. So what used to be a label of quality, today rather benefits big corporations and often stalls innovation.

And Last, The Hype.

Currently, Berlin is enthralled by a food hype, as you’ve probably noticed. I myself have contributed a fair share, also because it’s a lot of fun. Unfortunately, this hype causes people to overestimate the potential food has as a profit-making business. Investors and landlords assume you can earn a lot of money with food in Berlin these days. Unfortunately, our local government is failing to come up with a concept to support small gastronomy (the ones who are actually attracting the audience), but rather still believes in the profit-promises of the local start-up industry. Hence all the food-related start-ups, food-related start-up-hubs, food-related start-up marketing events, awards etc. etc. A corporate spirit permeates the air, veiling how hard it is to scale anything food-related. Here’s a simple example: say you work with a farm to provide high-quality walnuts for your recently funded protein-bar start-up. You could ask them to deliver three times as many next year, because you know, things are going well for you. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, since trees don’t grow on trees—at least not within a year..

Still, capitalism demands boundless optimism from everyone. And currently, landlords seem to be the most optimistic of all: rents for gastronomic spaces have gone legit crazy. I’ve seen mediocre café locations that only allow to serve lunch on the market for almost 30 Euro per square meter. Nowadays, many places ask for a one-off payment, allegedly for appliances and furniture, that can go up to 300.000 Euro – most times this is actually key money to get a lease for a gastro space and you will have to invest more. Considering how high prices for interior, appliances, staff, produce etc is, €2000 rent alone on a place can be tough.

Newly developed properties often only feature big spaces from 200m2 and up, certainly not suited for a food business just starting out. Very little gastro real estate even reaches the public market, most of it is traded behind closed doors. Luckily for us, often between the people in the Kiez. However if you don’t have these connections, it’s gonna be hard.

Plus, commercial rent contracts are hardly protected by any legislation. Rents can be as high as the owners wants them to be, and on top of that, unlimited contracts can be cancelled at any time. We know the result of this real estate development from other major cities, but we still don’t really care.

It’s getting better.

Surprising everybody, there are enough people in Berlin who want to make it work against all these odds. Thanks to their unbridled enthusiasm we get to enjoy food that’s creative, innovative, sustainable and high quality. A really spicy Chinese pop-up and a delicious Pakistani street food biz managed to find locations for themselves and have just opened up shop. The first Michelin starred Thai restaurant outside of Thailand is located just off Potsdamer Straße. We got one of the best ice cream parlors in the world. And excellent bread and bakes. Palestine and Israelis have joined to make the bestest hummus. And so much more – I’ll never run out of places to put on the map.
I wish to protect the tender seedlings of what could be a rewarding, sustainable, and just food scene in the center of Europe. If we are patient and careful it’ll only get better.

* I didn’t include it in the article at first thinking it was not necessary, but since this text spread way beyond the usual audience, here’s a quick disclaimer: I, the author of this text, was born in rural GDR in 1982, came to Berlin in 2003, and have been working in and around the local food scene for almost 10 years.

Comments

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  1. Katharina Böhler on

    Reply

    So ein guter Artikel, Mary! Vielen Dank dafür! Schicke ich direkt allen meinen ‘Berlin is so cool and food is so cheap’ Freunden :) <3

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      Danke für deinen tollen Kommentar!

  2. zoe on

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    Brilliant explanation – I have been living here a year and have wondered about how the food culture here came about and where to find the best food and you have explained it all so well – danke! One thing that is good here are the street markets for raw ingredients, so I’ve gotten better at home cooking instead of eating out, because so often as you say it’s just not worth it. But will keep following your recommendations for places to eat and remain patient!

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      thank you! and yes to exploring local produce, there is so much to discover!

  3. Camille on

    Reply

    Vielen Dank für diesen Artikel, sehr interessant! Und erklärt einiges! Also Hut ab für die sehr gute Analyse.

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      Danke dir!

  4. Cristina on

    Reply

    This article is great. I would love to see more writing on the food scene like this, to be honest. Its an evolving culture and I just hope its being captured and discussed somehow!

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      thank you!

  5. Elaine on

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    I’ve lived in Berlin for 8 years and have often had mixed feelings about the attitude to food. I’ve also given up explaining to people that British food is actually not just the beans on toast you were subjected to on your Klassenfahrt to Kent in 2001, but can be smart and creative and innovative in a way I haven’t managed to find very often in Germany. I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating on why the Berlin food scene isn’t so adaptable to trends and doesn’t move anywhere near as quickly as it does in London and I couldn’t have put together such an articulate analysis as you do here! There is loads to offer in Berlin for sure, but it often seems strangely static and unadventurous. Your article is really well thought out and makes a lot of sense! Thanks for writing it, I certainly enjoyed reading it.

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      thank you! have you tried St Bart’s gastropub in Kreuzberg? Might be something for you

  6. Anja on

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    Excellent article! We actually live in Brandenburg state (just) where you have to be very picky about restaurants and do a bit of trial and error-ing before finding a good one. Restaurants in Berlin are quite cheap when compared to other Western cities which may impact on quality and also tourism pushing up restaurant rents. I found the best meals in places where the local community goes, like Lichtenberg for Vietnamese, Neukölln for Lebanese food etc, just looking for a reasonably full restaurant. I read the restaurant guides from tip and Tagesspiegel a couple of years but honestly, they often leave out the real gems.

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      Oh Brandenburg!

  7. kit on

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    snobbish white person moaning about the lack of authentic asian food – c’est moi :-) guilty as charged. great thought provoking article.

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      thank you! I am certainly guilty as well, whiteness is a powerful yet fragile construct

  8. annton on

    Reply

    Right to the point. Thank you!

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      thanks!

  9. Luisa on

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    So good, Mary! Thanks for putting it all together and connecting the dots in such a concise and intelligent way.

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      thanks luisa, how kind!

  10. Sara on

    Reply

    This is such a brilliant article, most of which I’ve been saying for years. I also believe that many in Berlin have learned to prioritize scene and hype ahead of quality and food. I’m optimistic. Still a long way to go, but I think we will.

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      I agree. Capitalism taught us well.

  11. Em on

    Reply

    There are a lot of articles about Berlin. There are a lot of articles about why Berlin is the best at this, or the worst at that. This article goes way beyond that and manages to capture the real spirit of Berlin without glossing over its ugly sides. It’s optimistic, but realistic and offers tangible solutions to the problems it poses. Brilliantly done.

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      Thank you for your great comment! Stuff is so complex, and I definitely wanted to make a point about how ambiguous this city is, thank you for reading it this way.

  12. Ashley H on

    Reply

    Really strong piece, I learnt a lot!

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      thank you!

  13. Gigi on

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    Sorry but I don’t get it. I have travelled to 91 countries and have been visiting very continents of this planet, ate and spent my time in uncountable large cities all over the globe – my job is in writing and filing food & travel.

    BUT: Berlin’s food is just as bad or good as in any other major city. Taste is a personal matter, each and every nerve on our tongues is as unique as a fingerprint – every human’s reception and expectations to taste is unique. So if one person likes a dish and highly praises it, it can obviously be that another person doesn’t like it at all. Just like the corainder/no coriander discussion. THAT for me is the current state.

    Of course, it’s a completely different matter when food is prepared without care or without knowledge or experience. We can all agree on the fact that food is bad if it is undercooked, overcooked or burnt, rotten or inedible in any other way. But again, this can happen to you in any city.

    Food standards here btw are way higher than in many other (Non-European) major cities, as simply our laws are quite strict when it comes to food quality and hygiene. I can’t count how many times I had a bad stomach after eating around the world. But in Germany and Europe – not so much. I can’t even recall having a stomach issue here a all …

    Bad (or the lack of ) Service? I have been gnarled on everywhere around the world, although I am a polite and always cheerful and friendly person, trying to say Hello and thank you in the language of the country I visit. I have also met super friendly people all over the world, even here in Berlin – and I have moved to this city in 1991. People are friendly or not – no matter where there live. Some, like very other human, might have a really bad day, if they take it out on others and you as a customer: that is truly sad und surely not nice for the customer. But hey, this happens everywhere, not just in Berlin. But yeah, while we are here complaining, my coffee shop around the corner is notoriously unfriendly. No clue why, but I don’t care either, simply because I don’t go there anymore. Two houses further down the road, at another café, people are greeting my with the cutest smiles whenever I walk in, so that is that.

    Then: the huge discussion who is allowed to cook which food. Luckily I am researching about the exact issue right now, and oh wow, have I learned a lot. Here are my 2 cents: everyone should be able and allowed (and definitely not being judged) to be cooking whatever cuisine they want. Why the heck not?

    Luckily, many of us are living in a free world, in most countries we are lucky to choose our jobs as our political believes. If, let’s say, as a white female from let’s say Germany, you choose to cook let’s say French cuisine – why shouldn’t you? And if some people think your dishes are way better than the food they had in France – who should judge them or even you? And why should not everybody instead applaud you – when as the chef you really put in an effort trying to make it awesome? Maybe some people remember the restaurant Paparazzi in Prenzlauer Berg and their unique story. The owner, a woman born in the East, was so interested in Italian cuisine, but living in the East she didn’t have access to the ingredients. But still, two years before the wall came down, she opened up an Italian restaurant. And in the 90s it became of of the most loved places of the Kiez. And I swear to God I still look for getting such perfect Malfatti anywhere else around the world, Italy of course included, as her Malfatti, but hers are simply he best (to my taste, see above!) Great story of success, no? No?

    One of the probably (and according to many, me included) currently best thought of and most loved Pizza places in Berlin is run by a Danish man. The best Thai grill in own in run by a Pakistani. And if I have seen correctly, he loves to eat at that awesome Indian place that you are probably referring to (I am talking of Moksa, whoever made to read my comment this far, DO GO!), just as three of my closed „Indian or brought up by Indian parents“ friends in Berlin – because the food is great!

    

Many friends of mine in fact are chefs, they come from and live all over the world and make cuisines from all over the place. Most Michelin related restaurants around the world are serving French haut Cuisine – made by chefs of uncountable nationalities. No one in their right mind would be questioning their food and quality of food or authenticity.

    When I had a lunch at Les Halles in New York probably around 20 years ago, I had no clue that the late Anthony Bourdain was most likely the one making my delicious food – and I wouldn’t have cared that he wasn’t French at all – but in fact an American. But the Tartare was one of the best I ever had in my life, way better (to my taste!) than every Tartare I had in France.

    On my las visit to Vietnam, I went out with my local friends and they invited me to a Döner Kebab. It was made by Vietnamese lady, the food looked like the Döner we have in Berlin, but it tasted differently. Was it good? Yes, it was. Is that appropriation too? Did I, living in the homeland of Döner Kebap and city of it’s invention, feel personally attacked by a Vietnam lady making the food of my city and even changing it? NO way! Why should I?

    If people really believe that this is inappropriate, do they really know where Pho or Banh Mi come from (heavy French influence!), and that Pad Thai (coming from China) was introduced by the Thai Government as a way of westernizing and modernizing the country just like introducing the greeting Sawadee and renaming their country from Siam to Thailand? That in Japan, Salmon wasn’t served as Sushi until the 90s – but due to an awesome marketing stunt by the Norwegian fish farmers, Salmon is now served on rice or without as sushi and sashimi and people eating it would probably swear it’s the most authentic thing in the world? (Btw, the to my aste best sushi I ever had was made by an Italian woman in the US!). Or that Ramen is originally also from China and had been introduced to Japan only some decades ago? This goes on and on and on.

    Food, dishes, spices, tastes were and are always ever changing through mass migration, inquisition and global trade. And that is awesome. This one of the reasons why we eat what we eat today. So whoever cooks the food, whatever color their skin is, whatever gender, whatever beliefs – I don’t give a damn – as long as their food is cooked with good ingredients, with passion and with care.

    So I don’t really understand what the problem is. Bon Appetit!

  14. Mia on

    Reply

    “A really spicy Chinese pop-up and a delicious Pakistani street food biz managed to find locations for themselves and have just opened up shop”

    Which ones please?

    As an asian, I have to say that the food scene here is still all about that hype than taste.

    1. Mary Scherpe on

      It’s Chungking and Mama Shabz! You could also try Liu!

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