Berlin is known all around the world for being a wild and crazy party destination. People come here from every corner of the Earth to stay up all night dancing at pulsing techno clubs and raves.
But as the pandemic presses on into year three and large capacity music venues remain closed, many visitors are finding themselves facing an unusual challenge: Can a low-key, quiet night out in Berlin still be fun?
Recently, I had a chance to explore this question at a work function for Ratzeputz, the mighty expat cocktail bar and pub where I have presided since I moved here in October 2020. We hadn’t really had a proper holiday party, and the owners were kind enough to treat us to dinner at what many have assured me is “The Best Chinese Food in Berlin.” At 7 p.m., we assembled at Ming Dynastie, just a short walk from the Jannowitzbrücke Ubahn. The sky had already long changed to black from the perennial winter gray that had enveloped the city for months, the sun a distant memory from some forgotten era. As a creature of the night, this is of course ideal for me, and the dreamy purple glow of the restaurant’s sign bouncing off of the rippling Spree and onto our hungry faces was enough light for me.
The moody vibe of Ming’s luminescence ended at the door; as we entered we were blasted with a truly no-frills, intensely bright and music-less dining room. The place was full, and everyone looked happy. It was immediately obvious that people came here for one thing: the food!
We were led to a large circular table, complete with a Lazy Susan for optimal Dim Sum. The menu was huge and we ordered pretty much one of everything, which we of course all shared. As the food continued to spin (“Spoons in everybody”) several dishes stood out and went quickly.
These include, but are not limited to:
• poached fresh fish in hot sauce,
• sauteed eggplant with potatoes and peppers,
• braised tofu with bok choy,
• poached beef in hot sauce with peppers,
• deep fried pork with sweet and sour sauce,
• roasted duck with peppers,
And for all the vegan and vegetarian folks out there, the non-meat options are plentiful and I can honestly say my mind has been newly opened to actually enjoying eggplant.
Any dish with peppers refers to the medium sized red traditional sichuan chili, which are quite tasty and can make your mouth tingle depending on your sensitivity to them.
After about an hour of rotating deliciousness, all washed down by proper German pils vom fass, we were very full and our server treated us all to some free shots of a very traditional Chinese spirit: Baiju. Some of us had tasted Baiju before, many had not and were surprised by it’s distinct and funky tasting notes. If you’ve never had Baiju before, just imagine ice cold vodka with a hint of rotting fruit and vaguely nutty flavors.
Some love it and for some it leaves the palate puzzled. Its complex flavor is a result of fermenting cooked sorghum with koji, a fungus that is used to make miso, sake and soy sauce. For me, it tastes like sake with a hint of feet and makes for the perfect cap on a traditional Chinese meal.
After being offered a redundant and complimentary plate of fresh fruit, we settled our bill and were back on Brückenstraße in search of a post-dinner drink.
Everything around us looked closed except for a sleepy little Kneipe on the corner known as Gitti‘s Bierbar.
Kneipe is another way of saying “very German neighborhood bar” and each district is peppered with them. They all have their own distinct personality but all of them carry a persistent vibe of “basic place to get a beer and maybe some schnapps, perhaps play some darts, but we’re not making a big deal about it.”
As an ex-New Yorker who has tended bar and been a guest in some very over-the-top cocktail establishments, I LOVE A KNEIPE. In NYC, low key bars that are not smelly dives are increasingly hard to find. I like the idea of a bar that could house a young couple on a nice date, a bespectacled older gentleman quietly reading a news magazine and a group of colleagues from a rowdy Neükoln bar looking for a place to chat over some beers. Gitti’s Bierbar proved to be the perfect destination for all three demographics.
As we walk in, the size and energy of our group is thrown into immediate and stark contrast by the quiet and also music-less space, the walls of which are covered with photos from old Berlin. To our left is a switched-off old boombox style stereo with stacks and stacks of CDs (remember those?) in front of it. We are greeted only by the indifferent expressions of the barmann and his one customer as they quietly chat across the bar. All of us work in a bar, so we intuitively seat ourselves in the back room where we join a well dressed man catching up on his reading and a very affectionate couple who are alternating between making out and what looks like a very serious conversation.
We are seated at a colorful, circular table designed to facilitate some kind of game, the rules of which we can’t figure out, but this doesn’t matter because the table has bright red and green buttons, and even though they don’t work we are pleased with where we are. We notice a small sign that reads “Spiele Kaputt” next to another sign that reads “Reserviert” and are asked to move to another table directly across the room.
Everything is very wooden and very old, including the barmann’s demeanor which is first irritated and then softened by a member of our party’s sweet and slightly flirtatious request for some music. We manage to hold his attention for only long enough to say the word “Bier?” which looks like pretty much the only thing available. After he begrudgingly clicks on a CD in the stereo and some barely audible German music is heard (“Is it Schlager? I think it‘s Schlager”) he returns some minutes later with a tray loaded with several glasses of the ubiquitous Helles, which we are overly thankful for.
We are not guests in a city bar anymore, we are in this man’s house and we behave as such.
As we sit chatting away at low volumes, I suddenly realize that I love this bar. It feels almost like a cafe and I‘m vaguely jealous of the reading man as I resolve to return here sometime soon, perhaps alone, or perhaps on a date, as the couple in the corner of the room seems to be enjoying the room immensely.
After some good, non voice straining talks, our group has drained our beers and one of us has cheekily secured a round of schnapps from the bar. “Das ist Wodka?“ I ask the Barmann as he wields a tray full of ice cold schnappchen. “Nay, das ist Korn. Korn!” He briskly replies as he sets down the glasses.
Korn is a traditional colorless neutral grain spirit that tastes like cold burning, with a hint of nothing and a tiny note of (maybe) grass. This was a perfect companion to our previous shot, with its distinct flavorlessness and lack of body odor aroma. “Prost!”
We felt full. We felt happy. We felt good and so did the nice young couple who had shuffled out of their cozy corner only to be immediately replaced by another pair. They looked familiar and after a closer look I realized that I had in fact seen them having a nice dinner date across from us at Ming Dynastie. These two establishments seemed a perfect pairing for a night out and apparently I wasn’t alone in this opinion.
Our night came to a close as we all shuffled out to the front room to settle our individual parts of the tab, which were all tallied by hand on a messy little piece of paper. Paying my bill at Gitti‘s reminded me of being 8 years old, checking out with a school chaperone on my way home from elementary school.
In the cold wind of Brückenstraßse, we were the only voices in the night. People love the vibrant energy and noise of big city Berlin, but it’s lesser celebrated shadow side, it‘s mysterious quiet and spaciousness is not to be missed. In these nocturnal realms there are pockets of unusual magic and for a two-stop evening that an un-curious visitor might call “boring,” take a trip to Jannowitzbrücke and visit Ming Dynastie and Gitti’s Bierbar. And hey, if you really want to go to KitKat Club you still can: it‘s just down the street and although you can‘t party and dance to techno there, they’ll give you a free corona test for your quiet night out in Berlin.
• Ming Dynastie
Tripadvisor rating 4 out of 5, (217 reviews.)
• Gitti’s Bar
You can read more here on the brewery Schultheiss’ Neighborhood Pubs website.
About the author:
Chris Loar is a comedian and artist living in Berlin. He was born in Torrance, California and called Brooklyn, New York home for 16 years before moving to Germany in 2020. A multi-hyphenate creator, Chris is also a passionate movie maker, Yoga teacher and cocktail bartender.
Follow him on Instagram at chrisloarcomedy
See more of Chris’s Berlin work diary here.
Read more on Dispatches’ Berlin archive here.