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Sipping Alternative Berlin : To Taste This City's Quirky, Post-Punk Side, Get Off the Boulevards and Into the Cafes

August 01, 1993|HARVEY DICKSON | Dickson is a correspondent for the Boston Herald and a Freedom Forum Fellow in Asian studies at the University of Hawaii. and

BERLIN — Let others buy their chunks of "Berlin Wall." (Street lore has it that somewhere there's a guy who poured a square meter of cement in his backyard, spray painted it and sledgehammered that baby to make it market-ready.) No, there is a better way to get a feel for this au courant city: the cafes.

Not the big, chandeliered places on the Kurfurstendamm. They're nice, genteel, hushed. To see Berlin as the city's glitterati and proto-punks see it, go to the cafes away from the sight-seeing shuttles.

The crowd is young, with hair by Weed Whacker, and leather-adorned. Someone is always getting that first cup of cappuccino for the day, and modern Berlin's main industry--intense small talk--is being taken care of. The first customers may roll in about 11 a.m. at the earliest, but the cafes stay busy through the afternoon and into the night. I can never sit in one of those places for long without my mind inevitably turning to the big questions: What do these people do ? Where do they work? When do they work? Why are they wearing that?

Every cafe has its own style and following, but common to any proper cafe are newspapers hanging from reading sticks, big bowls of Milchkaffee (coffee with milk) that take two hands to grip, and heavy clouds of cigarette smoke (don't bother asking for non-smoking sections; there aren't any). It may be heresy to say so, but I find Berlin's cafes a little more interesting than Parisian cafes. More quirky. More, say, proletarian.

Berlin neighborhood cafes have an unrushed civility found in the United States only in a few college towns and perhaps Seattle, where lingering is considered quality time. The one exception might be Schwarzes Cafe, which seems to have no American parallel and could be alarming to anyone unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the debauchery of pre-World War II Berlin.

There are hundreds to choose from, but here's a highly selective guide to getting started from someone who has sampled several dozen, both as a leisure traveler and as a newspaper reporter working in East Berlin. A few highly personal criteria first:

* No pool tables. Any cafe with a pool table receives an automatic disqualification under the common-sense rule that wherever there is a pool cue there may be a knucklehead waiting to break it over your head.

* No little white aprons on the table-servers. If you want aprons, go to the Ku'damm, which is what locals calls Kurfurstendamm, the wide boulevard of tony shops that runs through the heart of western Berlin.

* You will never, ever be asked if you want something else. This implies a subtle suggestion that maybe it's time to leave, the antithesis of what a good Berlin cafe is. Really superb alternative cafes make you tackle the server to put in your initial order. Sure, catching your server's eye is a challenge through the smoke. But that's the system and cafe fans like it.

With those rules in mind, buy a one-day public transit pass (all cafes listed here are easily accessible from the U-Bahn subway system) for nine marks (about $5.60) and head out.

CAFE SAVARIN

This is the place to step through the looking glass. It's a perfect bridge to cross over from the niceties of the Ku'damm into avant Berlin. There's a feeling of being in the living room of a slightly eccentric aunt--the one who never married, lived abroad and uses cigarette holders. Decor here is fabric wallpaper, musty paintings and photos in heavy gold frames. Sunday mornings are best here. Linger over one of several daily quiche offerings or the standard breakfast plates with cheese, cold cuts, soft-boiled eggs, fruit and a German concoction called quark , which is a cross between yogurt and sour cream served with diced fruit. It's a little off the beaten tourist track in the residential neighborhood of Schoneberg, but near several good ethnic restaurants on Potsdamer Strasse.

CAFE DREIKLANG

The name means Cafe Three Alarm, but it's a misnomer. Peace reigns here. An oversize Sphinx head looks down from the bar at the overworked staff, but the purple pom-pom-on-a-stick stuck in the sliced banana served with breakfast is the loudest thing in the place. Two small rooms are done in yellows and browns with a temporary look about them. There is homemade cake and a big pick of newspapers and magazines. Dreiklang is the first in a series of fine places as you walk north up Goltzstrasse. Not far from Cafe Savarin, the Dreiklang and other Goltzstrasse cafes are in a neighborhood full of the kind of chic boutiques with, seemingly, five or six clothing items in the whole store, all lovingly displayed.

CAFE M

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