A night with the parrot

It’s one of the last alternative outposts in an ever-slicker Charlottenburg, and – perhaps more importantly – one of the very few 24-hour breakfast joints in Berlin. What’s kept the it shaking at Schwarzes Café for nearly 40 years?

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It’s one of the last alternative outposts in an ever-slicker Charlottenburg, and – perhaps more importantly – one of the very few 24-hour breakfast joints in Berlin. What’s kept the eggs scrambling and the cocktails shaking at Schwarzes Café for nearly 40 years? Aske Hald Knudstrup set off to find out.

17:15 Saturday afternoon – A colourful parrot rendered in neon welcomes me as I approach the entrance to Kantstraße 148. The Schwarzes Café holds a mythical status in Berlin, lauded not just for its age and history, but its open-mindedness and sheer human diversity. I’m spending the night here to experience, feel and, hopefully, understand what has made it possible for the legendary alternative meeting point to survive in a neighbourhood more associated with soul-sucking capitalism than “black” anarchy, as still inferred in its name. Haven’t Berlin anarchists long since headed East? What keeps the café ticking besides the allure of breakfast, cocktails and schnitzel 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

Despite a brief rain-shower, the five sidewalk tables are filled with people sipping coffee and beer. Once inside, you face the decision: will you sit in the spacious, more modern upstairs area or do you opt for the rustic, darker, cramped room in the back? I choose the latter, place myself by a silk-covered hole in the wall and order from the waiter, Aldo, a mild-looking guy with a samurai bun and loose pants who happily sings along to the Amy Winehouse song on the stereo.

19:50 The pervasive smell of melted butter reaches my nostrils. On my table lies a plate of spaghetti and chanterelles, covered with a generous amount of dried chilli, oil and Parmesan. By no means is it anything special, but for the price of €10, you get a fine, no-frills meal.

On the back of the hefty menu there’s a copy of Schwarzes Café’s famous anti-rape flyer from 1987, a two-page manifesto against an objectifying, violent male culture and proclaiming the café would henceforth have an entrance fee for men, which would go towards women’s shelters. (It was never implemented.) If it were another place, the old flyer might seem like a tacky attempt to capitalise on feminism. Here it’s a confirmation of Schwarzes Café’s political origin, an assurance that they still use it as a point of orientation today.

21:51 Two very German men, burly and charmingly loud, sit with their wives on the red leather benches in the corner, eating fries and oversized schnitzel. The neon parrot shines brightly in the window just as it has since the 1980s, a rebellious sign of life between dark shopping windows displaying Italian refrigerators and Danish sound systems.

If you enjoy people-watching, Schwarzes Café is the place to go. It’s a textbook example of that Berlin spirit where those from all walks of life tolerate each other. Just before Aldo ends his shift, he summarises it nicely: “A lot of things may have changed outside and inside the café. But what you can’t take away from this place is the feeling that everyone is welcome, even the crazy people that come in at seven in the morning after a night out.”

23:00 So far, this evening’s clientele is easy to summarise: middle-aged friends and couples, families and a few lone wolves. One of those, a man in his fifties with a flat cap and wool cardigan, is enjoying a glass of red wine and the latest edition of Der Spiegel. He’s not much of a talker and won’t even give his name. “Which is exactly why I come here. Hours can pass by where you are totally undisturbed,” he says.

He’s right. The waiters and waitresses seem to read customers’ minds in an instant. If you want to stare at the murals of gladiator film sets and can-can girls for hours, you can. If you want to chat with the staff, you can. Our new server, a woman with dreadlocks and a dark brown crop top, heartily clinks her glass with a beer-drinking guest who asks about Michael Dauer, the only one of the original Schwarzes Café founders who still owns the place. In an interview for the café’s 20th anniversary, Dauer called the café his ongoing battle to fulfil his ‘68 hippie dream.

As the music changes from The Beatles to Jay-Z, all played from homemade cassette tapes, the looming midnight attracts a dozen students who cramp together in the corner, constantly shifting places as they take turns going out for a smoke.

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Photo by German Palomeque

02:20 I’m leaving my newfound home, the chair by the wall, as a waitress barely manages to heave the vacuum cleaner down the stairs. Apparently (and thankfully), the staff’s cleaning duties aren’t just limited to Tuesdays between 3-10am, the only time Schwarzes Café closes to customers.

The seemingly never-ending stream of people has dwindled. Upstairs, past the huge number 78 written on the staircase, around half of the 40 tables are occupied. Some couples look like they are melted together, but mostly it’s various Berliners enjoying a night out. The fifth rose seller of the night smiles with satisfaction, finally having some success as he unloads his bouquet on a drunken man and his laughing friends for €50.

It seems rather quiet for a Saturday night. Carmen, a slim, blond waitress with a colourful Flintstones t-shirt and lots of piercings in her ears, says the mild early autumn weather has kept more people outside than usual. “In winter it can be like hell at five in the morning, drunk people everywhere,” she says, carefully delivering two freshly made cocktails to the clingy couple next to us.

When you look at the staff of Schwarzes Café, there seems to be one common denominator: old or young, fancy or plain, they’re all very happy with their job. You see them high-fiving the cooks, telling jokes and sharing stories across the counter, singing “Happy Birthday” to a young waiter before he starts his shift. Many of them hang out there even when they’re not working.

“I feel like we’re a family,” says Carmen. “We laugh and argue and share each other’s sorrows. I’ve sometimes come here feeling down about something personal, and the others make me feel better. Actually, it’s like a home.” She’s been working at Schwarzes Café for three years, full-time for the past two, and she’s not going to quit her job when she starts her philosophy studies this October. Tonight, she’s here from 10pm until 6.30am. “I don’t care about the difficult hours. The café is a fantastic place to work.”

05:00 My order of scrambled eggs with mushrooms and toast has done some rejuvenating work. It’s almost like a role-playing board game where an exhausting fight can be won with timely reinforcements from the backpack. Breakfast here is quite recommendable, only €5.30 for a big portion fried in healthy amounts of butter.

Next to me, a couple in their twenties who look like they could’ve come from a bar in Neukölln finally seem aware of the emptying café, as their snogging halts for the first time in hours. Her lipstick is slightly smeared around the mouth, his hair is unruly as a haystack. Apparently, my notebook entices her to talk. Rearranging her sweater, she tells me a friend of hers used to work at Schwarzes Café. “Back then, I was almost a regular. Nowadays it’s more like three to four times a year,” she smiles before turning back to her boyfriend. When they think I’ve stopped paying attention they sneak to the bathroom, 30 seconds apart. After 10 minutes, they return, sweat glinting on their faces, the guy’s hair even more untidy than before. These sorts of escapades don’t seem irregular here; Carmen tells me about a SPD politician who once got thrown out after he became a little too familiar with a female guest. Michael Dauer has personally instructed the staff to treat all guests equally – and to piss on the idea of the customer always being right. If anyone is rude, you’re perfectly entitled to tell them how to behave. Carmen demonstrates it perfectly as she promptly hands a bill to a rowdy group of youngsters who won’t quiet down.

I get back from a short visit to the bathroom – alone – to find the couple gone. Carmen feverishly asks me whether I saw them leave. Apparently the two lovebirds, regulars or not, don’t think it’s worth paying for their extensive use of the facilities.

06:50 It’s hard to pinpoint what triggers this feeling. Maybe it’s that I’ve spent so long here that I’ve bought into the legend. Maybe it’s just easier for me as a new Berliner to be impressed by the rather ambitious idea of being open all night in a neighbourhood that seems to pass out after midnight. But as the morning shift comes along and I say hi to waiters number 13 and 14, I can do nothing but smile. The wee hours at Schwarzes Café might have lot in common with those at any 24-hour diner around the world – where, high on fatigue, you feel your weariness mingling with the promise of a new morning. But there’s something special here. Of course Schwarzes Café is no longer the mecca for activists, artists and anarchists it once was, but there’s still an infectious aura that emanates from the shabby walls. It’s what keeps me smiling as I walk into the rising sun, the parrot not shining as brightly, but just as ready for another day.