The underground is eternally cool. In edgy Berlin, home to hipsters of the world, it's also determinedly ephemeral. We attend impromptu concerts in basements crammed with girls in tattoos and boys in eye makeup. Browse through pop-up art galleries that appear suddenly at night complete with wine and cheese. Eavesdrop on conversations about secret guerrilla-dining in unlicensed restaurants set in people's homes.
But mostly we go to bars. Their embracing, forgiving grunginess gets addictive. The patrons are young and glamorous, defiantly laid back in ripped stockings, tousled hair and scuffed shoes. We slowly learn how to avoid the smugly glossy tourist traps, bursting with camera-slung, jabbering, excitable tourists diving into curry wurst while proudly wearing their new, and inevitable, ‘Ich liebe Berlin' T-shirts.
My Berliner friend, who lives in trendy Kreuzberg, introduces us to the bar with no name. “They're too cool to have a signboard,” she whispers as we enter the tiny bar, lit entirely by candles standing in broken bottles, all dramatically caked with wax. Their buttery light throws shifting shadows against the tables and walls, as the space slowly fills with music, people and smoke.
“The owner's rented the floor above this so the music doesn't disturb the neighbours,” says my friend, adding that a group of her friends stay on the floor above him.
Later we visit the group house, shared by three young couples — German, Japanese and Danish — where we spoon out generous bowls of pumpkin soup in the warm, communal kitchen and then eat it at a large wooden table, lit by a spectacular chandelier of deep red candles. The soup's followed by lush aubergine pasta and apple pie, straight out of the oven, all accompanied by far too many glasses of red wine and good-humoured argument. It's a tempting way to live: rent a big apartment and move in with all your friends. Perhaps this will be the joint family structure of the future. It certainly makes dinner time a lot more fun. Especially with a bar on the ground floor!
Yet, my favourite Berlin bar is marginally less spectacular. Called Wohnzimmer, meaning Living Room, it's filled with old fashioned flea market furniture reminiscent of the GDR. Evenings here feel like hanging out at a friend's house, as it gets crowded with locals and random chatty bar drifters. Wohnzimmer is set in Prenzlauer Berg, formerly Soviet-occupied East Berlin. Appealingly cheap when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it drew artists, writers and a host of other creative people. However, now the neighbourhood's gentrified, filled with yuppies who're gradually changing the character from bohemian to baby boom.
Sunday Fruhstuck — a long, leisurely breakfast — is a charming Berlin tradition. Every café offers a slightly different version though the staples remain standard: bread baskets, jams, salami, cheese and nutella. All washed down with coffee, or tall glasses of steaming mint tea. Completely captivated by the name, we pick ‘An einem Sonntag im August' (On A Sunday In August), set in graffiti-festooned Kastanienallee, for breakfast. In typical underground fashion it's obstinately grubby, with peeling paint, walls smothered in scribbles, and rag-tag unmatched furniture. The young clientele seems to be composed almost entirely of backpackers, easy to spot in their crumpled T-shirts, haphazard hair and sunburns. It's here that we discover Milchreis, a seductive blend of short-grain rice cooked in cream and laced generously with vanilla.
In 2003, an artist started pasting drawings of his ex-girlfriend Linda on the streets begging for forgiveness and asking her to return to him. The romance caught the attention of the public, and they got very involved, calling into radio stations with advice for Linda. “Linda, he loves you. Forgive him,” said some. “Linda, he's an ass,” said others. He began to be known as ‘Linda's Ex.' In arty Friedrichshain, we breakfast under a ‘Linda's Ex' poster, saying (in German) “I'm here every Saturday and Tuesday evening waiting at the bar for you. Please come and talk to me, Linda.” There's nothing like heartbreak to keep breakfast conversation interesting and love affairs are dealt with thoroughly over what the Zebrano café calls their ‘Ghandi' breakfast, a vegetarian offering that includes cheese, olives, marmalade and croissants.
Unfortunately, ‘Linda's-Ex' ultimately confessed the whole campaign was a publicity stunt. But if you're looking for romance, in Berlin there's plenty. Start by finding yourself a bar with no name.