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Jeff Gremillion | Photo: Andy Phillipson | March 5, 2013
Posh and pubby in the west, edgy and arty to the east, today’s Berlin is historical, hysterical and so hip it hurts.
An infrequent visitor to Germany may conjure bits of dark history if asked to contemplate Berlin. The Third Reich. The Cold War. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. But how about live jazz wafting upward like a breeze from a partly tented, bamboo-accented courtyard, through the open shutter-style windows of a bright-white, meticulously modern hotel room?
Well that’s the scene at twilight at the 5-year-old Ellington Hotel (as in Duke) in the Schönenberg district of the former West Berlin, from which the city’s jazz radio station actually broadcasts daily. Its glassed-in DJ booth is a conversation piece just off the atrium-style bar inside. At the moment though, an American chanteuse is wailing “Cheek to Cheek” in real time over the polished stylings of a quartet. Ice tinkles in Moscow Mules garnished with thick slices of cucumber and ginger root, as bottles of sparkling rosé chill in metal basins.
While reminders of the city’s complicated past are scattered everywhere, tonight’s crisp pre-autumn tableau is more the story of Berlin now. Sexy, youthful, highly social and relentlessly artful, its distinct neighborhoods are abuzz with new design-focused boutique hotels, beyond-bratwurst restaurants, boozy pubs, trendy clubs, slick shops and great galleries.
Here in Berlin’s old West, as it were, the city’s torrid affair with torrid affairs is evident on many a shady side street, as sex shops sidle up to sausage stands without irony. Nearby, some of Berlin’s hallmarks of classic luxury are fixtures; around the corner from the Ellington, Europe’s second-largest department store after London’s Harrods, KaDeWe, draws 180,000 visitors daily. The sixth floor’s sprawl of butchers, seafood markets and made-to-order hot-food stations is a trip; Bulgari and Dior join the merchants touting inedible wares on lower tiers.
The Kurfürstendamm thoroughfare, with its Champs-Élysées-meets-Fifth-Avenue grand hotels and boutiques à la Louis Vuitton, winds through Schöenberg’s leafy next-door neighborhood of Charlottenburg. It’s also here, in this effortlessly urbane district, that chatty hordes cram into the street-side community tables of the Mondo Pazzo Italian restaurant to nosh on heaping organic salads, simply done seafood and pasta—and to smoke their far-from-verboten cigarettes. “If other major European cities are chic,” remarks a local TV newsman dining at Mondo one night recently, “then Berlin is hip.” An important linguistic distinction in a country whose language provides five different ways to say “the.”
Other sections of the city offer a different kind of energy. Potsdamer Platz—an area decimated by allied bombing in WWII, and then ignored as a no man’s land through which the Berlin Wall sliced like a dull knife—is hopping. Besides the vast Sony Center, a mixed-used development with a huge oval-shaped floating roof that recalls a surrealist circus tent, there’s both the typically refined Ritz-Carlton and the memorably lovely Mandala Hotel.
The Mandala strikes a balance between high contemporary style and almost laid-back Zen. Its Facil restaurant, where chef Michael Kempf’s shank of local lamb comes with a salad of herbs and lavender, is set inside a huge glass cube that in turn is surrounded improbably by a graceful, billowy Japanese garden. In the Ono Spa, a two-therapist treatment—imagine one massaging your scalp and the other your feet—goes down in a spare, mod space suggestively appointed with Herb Ritts nudes.
In this part of Berlin, one finds both marvelous luxury and moving lessons. A few blocks from Potsdamer, across the strasse from the Tiergarten park, even above-tourist-traps travelers will walk through the 221-year-old neoclassical Brandenburg Gate, and the 7-year-old Holocaust Monument nearby. At the latter, a sculptural maze of 2,711 concrete pillars ebb and flow on a sloping field like so many ships bobbing on a storm-gray sea.
Just beyond the Gate, the district known as Mitte, in the heart of the former East, is awash in art and design, a living, sprawling homage to the city’s layers of recent history and its sexy present. Midrise triumphs of glass-and-sass contemporary architecture are sandwiched between austere 19th century apartment buildings and, frequently, bombed-out voids left undeveloped for posterity. This all mingles with whole blocks of joylessly designed, monolithically concrete tenements which locals now embrace as “commie kitsch,” filling them to capacity and, almost humorously, placing flowers in the windows.
In the back alleys, some of which interconnect to form a network of secret spaces, various weingartens and biergartens strung with colored overhead lights pop up among edgy shops and cute cafés. As does the Chamäleon Theater, which still trades in the art form for which Berlin is most famous: cabaret. In one show, a scantly clad coed cast take turns ribbon-dancing in the air, balancing upside-down one-handed on poles and offering other burlesque-tinged feats of acrobatics, following a plot that suggests they are roommates in a loft. Perhaps it’s not uncommon in Berlin for your hunky roomie to strip to his skivvies and juggle?
The area is rife also with trendy new hotels, including the scene-savvy Weinmeister. Like its front door, its central stairwell encircling a glass elevator shaft is shrouded in graffiti, nodding to the city’s heritage as the street art capital of the world. It caters to filmmakers and musicians and arranges many of its rooms in a curious way, with beds facing a “view” of a leafless cobblestone courtyard flanked on all sides by other buildings. (Don’t mind the 20-somethings gathering for a smoke almost literally at your feet as you awake.)
There’s also the new SoHo House, a recommendation of Virginia Giordano, who runs the smart Culture Trip travel service that customizes vacations in Germany for travelers interested in the arts and style. The whimsical, Technicolor-cool hotel—its baroque-tilting rooms look as if they might’ve been decorated by your kookiest aunt on an acid trip—touts a graffiti shark by Damien Hirst in the lobby, and a rooftop pool lounge at which guests and staffers alike are almost uniformly blond and beautiful, and usually named Paul.
Not far away, the Former Jewish Girls’ School, which functioned only briefly in the capacity its name suggests before it was taken over by the Nazis, is now a multi-use building with edgy galleries, a museum space dedicated to Berlin-beloved JFK and, in the old gym, new Pauly Saal restaurant. In a streamlined décor of pale-hued wood and emerald green upholstery that you could almost imagine in a hunting lodge, the focal point is a life-sized sculpture of a red-striped torpedo, placed above the window to the open kitchen. Does this belong here?
“Of course,” says the maître d’. “It’s art. It’s not supposed to fit in, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong.” He laughs at his own contradiction. But it actually makes perfect sense in today’s Berlin, where bold art belongs even if doesn’t always seem to fit—and where good ol’ jazz, at portentous twilight, floats by on the wind.