There has been a plan in the back of my mind ever since I moved to Berlin: trying to taste all the cuisines of the world in my own city. I’m pretty sure it should be possible, but thus far I’ve noticed I’m always going back to my favourite (Vietnamese/burger/Sri Lankan/Spanish) restaurants. In GDR times, there was one place to go when you felt like tasting something ‘exotic’: Karl-Marx-Allee. Russian? Polish? Romanian? Hungarian? Look no further, KMA had it all.
Café Moskau, right before opening in January 1964.
Image courtesy of Eva Brüggmann, Bundesarchiv
The Socialist World
Obviously, the world was a little smaller for the inhabitants of the GDR. The only ‘acceptable’ countries were other socialist states, the so-called brother countries, and the government even tried to promote interest in them. The biggest Brother State was the Soviet Union, most of the other countries in the Eastern Bloc were smaller brothers. Travelling to these countries was possible under certain conditions, and that’s why Poland and Czechoslovakia were popular holiday destinations.
But even when you didn’t have the money or ability to travel eastwards, you could still get to know the culture and food of the countries by eating in one of the nationality restaurants. Starting in the 1950s, the DDR trade organisation opened 7 of them in East Berlin: Moskau (Moscow), Budapest, Warschau (Warsaw), Bukarest (Bucharest), Sofia, Praha (Prague) and Morava (a wine restaurant named after a river in Serbia). The official goal: introducing the people of the GDR to the specific country, by serving the typical cuisine and hosting several events. Café Warschau for example had mostly staff from Poland and served Polish pastries (Warschauer Torte, to name one) and other national dishes.
From Moscow to Warsaw
No effort was spared in decorating the restaurants. Restaurant Moskau was built between 1961 and 1964 and has a big mosaic (9 x 15 meter) at its entrance. A model of the Sputnik, in its original size, was placed on top of the roof and the inner garden had a 2,5 meter high fountain made of steel. A few hundred metres down Karl-Marx-Allee was Warschau, designed in art deco, Berliner classicism and socialist classicism. The staircase at the entrance was adorned with a wall-filling mosaic and the interior was ringed by pillars. On top of this extensive interior design every nationality restaurant had plenty of folklorist decorations.
And the hard work paid off: the nationality restaurants, with their special menus, proved very popular. Not every Berliner could afford to taste the kitchen of Russia or Poland, though: the restaurants were on price level ‘S’, the highest category in the GDR. Who did visit the restaurants? The GDR elite and also, surprisingly, people from West Berlin. Prices were still relatively low for them and they liked tasting the different cuisines of the Eastern Bloc. The guestbook of restaurant Budapest shows that even Richard Nixon, later to become president of the US, had a spicy meal accompanied by gypsy music.
Steaks and Computer Games
Unfortunately, Karl-Marx-Allee has long ceased to be the place to go when you want to taste the specialities of Central and Eastern Europe. After the Wende, the restaurants were all forced to close due to a lack of guests. Budapest had been empty for years until in 1996 it reopened as a steak house, part of a restaurant chain from Hamburg. Twenty years later, the Argentinian steaks are still there.
In 1996, the Berliner Zeitung newspaper wrote about the former restaurant Warschau’s ‘complete dereliction’. It took another 9 years until it was entirely gutted in 2005. The beautiful staircase remained, but it doesn’t have a function anymore. The building is still worth a visit, though: it’s the ‘Computerspielemuseum’, a great museum about computer games. Only one of the nationality restaurants managed to keep its name, albeit with a changed function: Moskau, these days an event location, is still one of the shining stars of the KMA.
Where to go now? Some Tips
So what if you’re in Berlin right now and in the mood for some Polish, Russian or Bulgarian food? You’d have to look a little further than Karl-Marx-Allee, but there are still some good nationality restaurants in Berlin – even though they’re not run by the government. For Russian, I advise you to go to Datscha (Gabriel-Max-Straße 1, Friedrichshain), for Polish Pierogarnia should be on your list (Turiner Straße 21, Wedding), the Hungarian cuisine is honoured in Budapest Calling (Dorotheenstraße 12, Mitte), Romanian food is served in Baron (Hermsdorfer Damm 133, Reinickendorf) and the taste of Bulgaria lives in Primaria (Gärtnerstraße 12, Friedrichshain).
But wait, you could decide to stay on Karl-Marx-Allee as well! Restaurant Prager Hopfenstube (Karl-Marx-Allee 127) serves food from the Czech Republic. And even though there’s no special place for wines from Central and Eastern Europe anymore, the lovely wine bar Briefmarken (Karl-Marx-Allee 99) might have some wines from the region in stock.