Neukölln Café Culture

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

In Berlin’s multi-kulti district, Neukölln cafés seem to come and go.

It is becoming a hub for bars, small clubs… Neukölln cafés are slowly replacing the tired bakeries, too many casinos which no one wants to go to, and shops in desperate need of visitors and renovation. A wave of students and hipsters alike who have moved to Neukölln have revived the area with studios, a culture of sitting in cafés; creating an entirely different scene.

I think it does ruin to character of a Kiez (district) to have a row of high-priced generic places next to each other. There are some great coffee shops, but what Neukölln cafés need is good coffee, for less than 2-3 euros, and decor without the whiff of pretentiousness or it being a soulless copy of somewhere else.

The battle against gentrification

Gentrification in the area has sparked some controversy, particularly present in Mitte but also the case of Neukölln cafés. The best example of this is Salon Renate, a lovely espresso cafe with home-made food all created with local ingredients. Even the benches and signs in the windows were made by the owner.

This Neukölln café unfortunately closed down after just a year and a half; despite speculation that they were going for a spirit license to add some spark in the evenings. I also noted that Oak next door entirely copied the menu from Salon Renate but just had a larger budget to spend to make the place shiny.

The street itself, Weichselstraße, has other nice places which I hope will remain – including JAJA, a natural wine bar run by a French-German couple, NudelBude a home-made pasta restaurant which is against glutamate and Peppi Guggenheim, an almost all-hours bar (never really seen it closed to be fair, not as extreme as Bei Schlawinchen which has been open for over 35 years) with cheap gin & tonics.

Neukölln cafés: Zazza’s Gormet Rösterei with a Turkish twist

If you walk further up Sonnenallee and past Kottbusserdamm, you will find a cute square around Schönleinstraße. This is where I stumbled across Zazza Gormet Rösterei, a cute cafe with cakes, coffee and ciabatta, with some vintage chairs splayed across the pavement in summer.

At Zazza’s they are just doing something right. Although they do not serve alcohol, they offer exactly what Berliner’s want in the summer: ice cream, strong coffee, a large patio area and some comfy chairs. They have a menu which is creatively presented as a scrap book or something similar, their service is excellent and they are very friendly.

The Turkish twist is they serve bread with sujuk (a sliced Turkish garlic sausage sort of like chorizo), Turkish teas, home-made hummus and pesto, olives etc. It’s USP is that is serves fresh food and you really feel like you are eating clean but also something more exciting than a regular lunch.

I get the impression that real Berliners know of this place and people tend to sit there for a good while, especially if the sun is shining. The square itself is dotted with some pizza joints, cafes and Spätis but also has a large playground although it is seconds away from Hermannplatz and other busy streets. It’s a moment of calm amongst the hustle & bustle.

Don’t forget to see my top 10 coffee places in Berlin where I mention a mixture of Neukölln’s cafés and my favourite Kreuzberg hotspots.

“No German, sorry”

This morning I read in The Guardian that Berliners are fed up with the lack of German-speaking baristas in the city. This does not mean ALL Neukölln cafés are like this: in Mitte, speaking English probably isn’t considered a bad thing. It just upsets the locals who are not able to order something simple in their own country.

It’s obvious to me why this is the case. Being an expat who would most definitely go for bar-work if I was in a city where I did not speak the language. As a linguist, I would use the opportunity to improve the target language, not deny speaking even a little. That’s just because our brains are wired differently. There are many reasons why you should learn German in Berlin.

Speaking English in cafés

Others see it as a drawback: they have to string together sentences in front of customers and hope their accent is okay. They do not want to embarrass themselves. What is the point if everyone speaks English anyway?
In my other post, I demonstrate and give some tips on how to overcome this battle against the everyday stress of learning a language in a city where everyone speaks English.

I have worked in an Irish bar in Berlin called The Lir (Fionnuala is one of the children of Lir in Irish Mythology so it’s rather brilliant, sort of my destiny to work there), and punters* definitely appreciated the fact I could converse in German. You’ll be surprised how people help you out if you’re stuck.
Some people also wanted to hear English for authenticity, and didn’t mind some words here and there to make them laugh.

*”punters” could be described as “regulars” which is self explanatory. In the case of punters it’s usually in the context of a bar or pub. “Stammkunden” (plural) are people who go somewhere regularly. I first heard the word “Stammtisch” (place where people regularly meet over a drink to discuss things or play pub quiz, for example) and I decided to guess a word “Stammbar” (it exists!).

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