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Adventures in the New Berlin

Micha Richter Inside Norman Foster's glass-and-steel Reichstag dome.

Photo: Micha Richter

In need of a nightcap, I head to the nearby Ankerklause, a bar boat moored by the Turkish market, afloat with hipsters, punk rockers, and the occasional aging French tourist couple who have steered way off course. When the sun sets (that would be 5 p.m.), the bar becomes the kind of Berlin free-for-all that has made the city the world’s capital of informality. As Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” blasts across the canal, I take a peek outside to watch the resident swans—those most blasé of Berliners—tuck their beaks beneath their wings and drift off to their complex avian dreams.

The swans are asleep, but the city is just getting started. Berlin lives by its nightlife. Even the average cabbie knows the score and will tell you that “Tresor is over and Café Moskau is full of teenagers,” but Berghain is still the place to go. The club is housed in a muscular former power station in a nether zone between West Kreuzberg and the gentrifying Friedrichshain area of the East (you’ll simply never find it). In its mix of straight and gay, this fantastically imposing space recaptures the Weimar aesthetic Berlin has been aching for ever since the Third Reich wiped out much of the city’s eclectic culture. But before you can enter, a guy with three lip rings, some sort of pirate’s vest, and the mien of a young Mozart—the bouncer, in other words—will carefully scrutinize your worth. “Berlin is the city for electronic dance music,” says Mark Butler, a fellow at the American Academy and professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on the Berlin scene. “Almost every twenty- or thirtysomething you meet is a degree or two removed from someone who is recording techno or running a label.” And half of them seem to convene at Berghain every Saturday night. By 9 a.m., when the club’s shutters suddenly open to reveal the stealth arrival of a gray Berlin morning, the purist techno rhythms may well have grabbed your heart and taught it how to beat.

If not, something else will do the trick. Berlin may be tamer than it was in the 1990’s, when people would organize spontaneous after-hour parties in the ATM vestibules of their local banks, but the nightlife is still thumping. Back in Kreuzberg, the Monarch bar, on the second floor of a hilariously dreary housing project, beckons the 40-year-old hipster who wishes to turn the clock back by exactly 15 years and is ready to groove to a disco version of “Hava Nagila” or the gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello.

Wedding is a gentrifying neighborhood of art galleries and new clubs just north of the Hauptbahnhof. Here is Haunch of Venison, the branch of a London gallery that put on a stunning display of Zhang Huan’s 13-foot-tall Berlin Buddha, which was made entirely of incense ash and took three months to disintegrate—impermanence being yet another of this city’s leitmotifs. Opposite the Haunch is a club called Tape, home of the World Championship for Chess Boxing, where the contenders play chess for four minutes and then beat each other up. At other times, this enormous space hosts well-known acts like the Swiss diva Miss Kittin and the singer Peaches, the ever popular mistress of incorrectness, whose filthy Canadian mouth has found a perfect home in Berlin.

And then there’s the KMA 36 bar, on the broad and unrepentantly socialist boulevard that is Karl-Marx-Allee, formerly known as Stalin Allee. The vodka martinis are excellent, and the bar’s architecture alone is worth the visit—this former GDR cosmetics studio is an open constructivist glass box that would rank with the best of Warsaw Pact design. Glowing bright at night, the bar has a simplicity and inclusiveness that belie its ridiculous roots.

As Berlin swells with expats and the economy picks up a bit (picture media parks and town house developments), the question remains: Is this the new crucible of world culture or just an unusual city with a tiny airport?The galleries are here (although the buyers often are not), the nightlife, the youthful excitement, the coffee shops full of media types with laptops are all in evidence, but the international set likes to eat well, and restaurants have never been Berlin’s strong suit. That’s changing. Celebrity chef Tim Raue, who has done much for the city’s cuisine at the restaurant 44 in the Swissôtel, is moving on to the famous Adlon Hotel. Here is a chef with affection for watermelon and the ability to bring Asian-chili heat to a humble piece of cod, a level of spicing appropriate for the global tongue. Another worthy entry is Facil, on the top floor of the Mandala Hotel at Potsdamer Platz. The space is reminiscent of the clean lines of the Neue Nationalgalerie down the street, and one is mesmerized by the two rows of chestnut trees—yellow and green in equal measure—shivering in the autumn cold on the attractive patio. The weird acoustics deposit snatches of political and economic German on your plate, along with the helicopter laughter of powerful men. The wine list is heavy on fine Austrian Sauvignon Blancs, and one night I was moved by a shoulder of Brandenburg venison with pine-cream chicory that was as good a treatment of the city’s anorexic deer as I’ve ever had.

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