Grimy techno basements are all well and good, but what if you're a Promi (or a wannabe) looking for a more VIP experience? Our writer dove into Berlin's uncool-but-thriving 'premium' club scene.
The stamp on my wrist says VIP, but the real VIPs get a plastic wristband and the very, very VIPs get only a cursory once-over from the man twice my height as they saunter past the velvet rope. I’m on a dancefloor somewhere beneath the Adlon Hotel, closed off to all but a select few guests, double-fisting a whisky-cola and a champagne cocktail because the open bar will stop in 10 minutes. To my left, the exclusive Grey Goose Lounge. To my right, the even-more-exclusive Cristal Lounge, where the minimum charge is €500 per table of four. Above us in the gallery, a growing mass of ‘normals’ peers enviously over the railing.
She started, like, feeling my biceps, and then she just ran back to her friends without saying anything.
“We like the dancefloor to be full right away, so we don’t open it to everyone until we’ve got a couple hundred guests up there,” explains Anette Frisch, my press contact. She’s radiating excitement. Felix, property of the Adlon Holding Company, is turning 10 today, and they’re debuting a new lighting system for the occasion.
At last, the moment arrives. The guests pour down the stairs, the women in towering pumps and itty-bitty dresses, the men in crisp slacks and button-downs, popped collar optional. The music goes from inoffensive house to “O Fortuna” as a pair of impressively flashing LED panels descends from the ceiling. Then the Star Wars theme plays, and Darth Vader appears with a magnum-sized bottle of vodka, lit sparklers protruding from its neck. Accompanied by scantily clad women bearing Red Bull and more sparklers, he parades it past the DJ booth and deposits it ceremoniously on a table in the Grey Goose Lounge occupied by German celebrity boxer Arthur Abraham.
It’s only 12:05am. The Brandenburg Gate is metres away. What the hell is happening? Isn’t this Berlin, where clubbing’s supposed to be a down’n’dirty 48-hour endurance marathon? What happened to the hard techno, the ripped jeans, the Club Mate, the spaced-out groups of English speakers squeezing into bathroom stalls to do drugs?
A pharmaceutical student I meet in the glass-walled smoking area upstairs introduces himself as a Felix regular and a native Berliner. “Isn’t this the best club in Berlin?”
Forty-three-year-old nightlife magnate Daniel Höferlin is also a native Berliner, born and raised in the former West. “After the Wall, there were two scenes, the West scene and the East scene. In the East, there were empty factories and people put two turntables there and made a party – but I’m not from that scene,” Höferlin says. Instead, in 2001, the former soap opera actor and pop singer gravitated towards Schöneberg’s 90 Grad, which under the management of Nils Heiliger had been attracting Promis from Denzel Washington to Britney Spears since the late 1990s. “It was the mother of those kinds of clubs in Berlin.”
The crowd was “mostly West people – people who like to go out a bit more chic. When you go to the ‘East clubs’, you have to be sure the door guy is unfriendly and the bar service is slow and the toilets are dirty. But some people like dressing up.” It reminded him of the clubs he’d been to in Ibiza when he was younger. “To me, that’s what it should be. When the club lights go on, everyone should be in a good mood.”
According to Höferlin, 90 Grad was one of the first clubs to offer bottle service in Berlin, although the idea (wherein patrons must buy bottles of liquor at a huge markup if they want to reserve a “VIP” table) had long caught on in America. “In other cities it was totally normal, but in Berlin it’s a bit uncool.”
After 90 Grad burned down in 2004, Höferlin became general manager of Felix, where he catapulted the then-fledgling club into the spotlight. “We had Jay-Z, Beyoncé – they all came because it was cool, it was new.” As a high-end party destination, Felix was unrivalled until the mid- to late-2000s, which saw an explosion of similar locales in Berlin: The Pearl in Charlottenburg. Puro Sky Lounge, on top of the Europa Center. Department in Mitte’s Postfuhramt.
“What about Adagio?” I ask, remembering the other Promi club I’d usually heard mentioned in the same breath as Felix.
“Adagio is... different,” Höferlin says. “But you’ve got to go there. It’s like the Berghain of the West.”
On Potsdamer Platz, Adagio is so far removed from Berlin it might as well be another planet. Its ‘baroque’ interior, complete with angels painted on the ceiling and church organ pipes on the walls, has as of October been updated with blindingly white tables, chairs and bars in an effort to keep up with the times. The result looks like someone tried to store props from 2001 on the set of a low-budget vampire film in a corporate conference centre. It’s almost Christmas and women wearing little more than Santa hats gyrate on platforms in front of the DJ booth. Behind it, a giant LCD screen exhorts patrons to “Aim High”. Manager Marcel Siegenthaler later tells me it cost €250,000 and is there for the sole reason that it is a “USP – unique selling point.”
Siegenthaler, a Swiss businessman and 18-year club management vet, took over Adagio in 2010 after a long stint in Brazil. “People in South America spend more money on nightlife,” he notes. “In Berlin it’s more like big cars and expensive flats.” He describes the crowd as a 50-50 split between locals and the kind of tourists who “fly Lufthansa and stay at the Hyatt.” People come here to have a good time, he says, not to see and be seen – still, “most of the place is VIP,” he says, and it attracts people of a “higher level”.
That level is evident in the ladies’ room, where, amid the row of heavily made-up girls primping in front of the mirror, one woman is busy adjusting her thong to make sure just the right amount peeks out of her trousers. On my way to the dancefloor, I pass VIP areas on either side – I’ve read about Rihanna and Chris Brown partying here, but right now all I see are leering fortysomething businessman types.
While it might be less classy than Felix, the music is the same – 2002’s greatest hits. As “Jenny from the Block” plays, the friend I came here with (a maths student who plays bass) works his way into a constellation of girls, one of whom starts grinding against him with a manic intensity. I turn away politely, but seconds later, he’s back. “I asked if she wanted to get a drink upstairs, and she said okay. But then she started, like, feeling my biceps, and she just ran back to her friends without saying anything. I’ve never been rejected so... shallowly!”
‘Premium’ clubs like Felix and Adagio (both of which pull in up to €30,000 per night) rely on bottle service for revenue. Siegenthaler tells me half his club’s income comes from the VIPs, and Frisch at Felix rolls her eyes as she says, “When people get a beer that’s, what, €4.50? Nothing!”
But these high rollers will only stay and spend money if they have a good time. Thus the attempts to pack the clubs full of non-VIPs for them to mingle with: drink specials, ladies’ nights where women get in free. Thus Darth Vader’s vodka delivery service. “I was kind of the one who brought that to Berlin,” says Höferlin. “At Felix, we overcultivated the bottle culture. We even sorted it out at the door – if we saw people coming from a taxi who looked international, we’d try and sell them a bottle.”
In 2010 he left to start his own club, Asphalt on Gendarmenmarkt, with Roland Mary of Borchardt. “This time I went to tons of parties, to Kit Kat, to Panorama – I brought all that experience. I had the door girl from Bar25.” Still, Asphalt floundered until February 2011, when Madonna made an appearance there. “We were supposed to shut up about it to the press, but I called my guy at BZ. So our name spread. We went away from underground, more to the mainstream, but that was better for the numbers.”
Last year, after a prolonged falling-out with Mary (“too many alpha animals”), Höferlin landed at Dean, the Mitte bar/club formerly known as Delicious Donuts, bought and given a posh makeover by the Amano Hotel. [Asphalt has since closed due to bankruptcy.] “It’s more adult, more sophisticated,” Höferlin says of his new home base. He took with him “the whole scene that’s been with me since 90 Grad. People from the east side would laugh – but there is this chic scene.”
Along with Dean, he says, Avenue on Karl-Marx-Allee is 90 Grad’s spiritual heir. “They have a good door. They’re more selective. The people they let in... they spend more time in front of the mirror, I appreciate that. But really it’s about having the right smile in the eyes.”
‘Look,’ he says in English, ‘you don’t fit.’ He launches into a mini-litany of things that are wrong with me. My shoes, for one...
I find out first-hand what that means two nights later. Avenue, owned by the people who once ran Department in Mitte, is turning one year old, and manager Florian Preuss gives me a guest list spot for the birthday party. I arrive around 12:30am, directly from a gig at a dive on Friedrichshain’s Rigaer Straße – where my fancy vintage-style getup stuck out as slightly overdressed. I give my name to the bouncer, but I’m told I’m not on the list. I suggest he look for Preuss. “What, and leave my post?” (There are three doormen on duty and no queue.) I ask if he could call instead. “Oh no, I don’t have his phone number!” He’s obviously enjoying this.
Eventually another guy steps in. “Look,” he says in English, “you don’t fit.”
When I press for details, he launches into a mini-litany of things that are wrong with me. My shoes, for one, with their paltry 2cm heel. The bit of my dress he could see below my coat. My guitar. “I was gonna leave it at the coat check,” I mumble. But I know I’ve already lost the battle. This feels more personal, somehow, than getting rejected from Berghain – my Berlin best isn’t good enough. “What am I supposed to look like?” I risk. “Well... her!” He waves his arm at a nearby pert blonde and she walks in, smiling.
I try on at least five different outfits before heading to Dean the next day, but I needn’t have worried – the bouncer barely even looks at me before letting me in, and I’m relieved to see a few girls in flats and even jeans. It’s small, almost intimate, all black and gold and mirrors with a Watergate-esque LED ceiling over a miniature dance area ringed by reserved tables. The crowd’s mostly well-dressed thirtysomethings.
As I debate whether to order a drink, a blonde German girl puts one in my hand, then beckons me to join a group that includes her Israeli expat boyfriend, a few of his buddies and some other women they’ve invited. On top of the table: a silver cornucopia containing a €140 bottle of Grey Goose, plus sodas. “Bottle service is still important at Dean,” Höferlin had told me, admitting it made up around 30 to 40 percent of the club’s income. “But there it’s for adults who want to share a drink with their friends.” I start to settle in. Maybe I could get used to this?
That’s when the boyfriend starts talking to me. Apparently he’s a start-up millionaire – he’s invented an app that’s like Uber, but for home cooking. Also: “I have a drinking problem,” he says animatedly. “Last month I bought a brandnew Porsche. I wrecked it two weeks later.” He’s getting uncomfortably close, and I’m relieved when he suddenly motions his girlfriend over and kisses her. “You see that? You better back off!” he says, jabbing me in the face. Not a problem.
“These days it’s all mixing up,” says Höferlin. “I see people who come to Dean and then go to Berghain on Sunday afternoon – after changing their shoes, of course. Those ‘East clubs’ have the same structures that I’m working with. They are commercialised, they have sponsorship deals, even if they don’t show the logos.” He brings up Marcus Trojan, founder of Alexanderplatz techno club Weekend, which last summer reopened as the swankier “House of Weekend” complete with table reservations and earlier opening hours. “It’s more of a ‘West club’ now. He’s talking about having bottles, he works with my promoters...”
Höferlin’s about to move his own scene to Hauptbahnhof when the Amano Grand Central – a new outpost of the hotel with a rooftop tailor-made for clubbing – opens this summer. “It’s gonna be the hotspot. It’s gonna be huge.”
I take the U-Bahn home from Dean, somehow exhausted even though it’s only 2am. When I get out at my Neukölln station, I narrowly avoid a head-on collision with a girl dressed in rainbow-coloured rags, carrying a Club Mate and what appears to be a taxidermied goat head. I wonder, very briefly, if the club entry and drinks and drugs she’s about to spend money on over the next 12 hours would add up to the minimum bottle service charge at one of the places I’ve just been to, and determine that it probably would. But who cares, I think. I’m home. Back in Berlin.
Originally published in issue #135, January 2015.