For some Berliners, there’s only one restaurant in the city that’s worth frequenting: Borchardt, on Französische Straße. Named after a Huguenot wine merchant who opened a delicatessen on the premises in the mid-19th century (he even supplied the Kaiser himself with imported goodies), the restaurant was reopened as a Parisian-style brasserie in 1992 byWest Berlin restaurateur Roland Mary, who fell in love with the cavernous dining space.
“It’s a typical Parisian brasserie room: it was built by the Huguenots. I grew up in Saarland, so I often visited France with my parents – that’s where I saw spaces like this. You didn’t have that kind of thing in West Berlin.” At the time, the area around Gendarmenmarkt and Friedrichstraße was still largely a wasteland, but Mary had a hunch that Mitte would boom in a reunified Berlin. “It was an opportunity to make a new city – after the Wall came down, Berlin was a completely different city. I had this chance to make a more metropolitan restaurant, and we thought the centre of Berlin would get busy again, like any normal city.”
He was right. Nicknamed “Promi-lokal” (“celebrity joint”) or “canteen of the Republic” by the German press, for the past decade-and-a-half Borchardt has been ‘ground zero’ for the new German capital’s political, cultural, media and business elite. Mary takes pride in the diversity of his clientele. “I had a restaurant in West Berlin, in spiessig Charlottenburg, but I sold it in 1990, shortly after the Wall came down. I was sick of it. It was just one group of people, a monoculture: guys with big cars and good-looking women. I was more interested in the good-looking women… But that’s the way Berlin was at that time. If you had a restaurant in Schöneberg, you had the freaky people; in Kreuzberg, you had the politicians and anti-people; in Charlottenburg, you had more of a yuppie style. They didn’t really mix together.” And now? “Here [in Borchardt] everyone is all mixed together. That’s why I love it.”
It’s precisely this mix that makes Mary’s restaurant so lively. During Fashion Week, it’s packed with international designers (it probably helps that Borchardt does the catering for Bread & Butter); every February, as the Berlinale rolls through town, Hollywood stars converge at ‘the schnitzel place’. “Schwarzenegger once came and ate almost 10 of them at once,” Mary says. Contemptuous of fancy ‘nouvelle cuisine’, he swears by classic brasserie food: fresh oysters, quality steaks, grilled fish – “quick, simple cuisine made with high quality products”
From commune-dwelling experimental actor in the 1970s to globetrotter in the 1980s, Mary’s professional trajectory has been anything but conventional. “I made music; I worked as a mechanic, as an optician… I’ve forgotten everything I’ve done. I studied physics for two semesters in Siegen, but the people were too strange and it was boring. After that I went to Hawaii – hangin’ loose, surfing.” Mary even had a ‘new age’ spell in India, where he studied meditation. “I first went to India because I thought it was an interesting country. The second time I went to see Pune, to check it out. Meditation is a funny thing… It’s not my thing, I’m too engaged in life.” Mary, who boasts he’s never more at ease than in the company of others and claims that superficiality is one of his best qualities, does not believe in soul searching: “In India I understood that there’s no need to search. There is nothing to be found!”
Today, the man who was once kicked out of a West Berlin bar for singing The Internationale – “it was at Harry’s New York bar in the Grand Esplanade Hotel, I think” – is the boss of a gastro empire with more than 600 employees: he also owns the Café am neuen See, Panasia and San Nicci. Is the former dropout a good boss? Would he work for himself? “That’s a difficult question. I’m not sure… I think I’d fight with myself.” Mary exudes the tranquil, self-confident charm that comes with a ‘been there, done that’ CV. He’s a bit of a jaded bon vivant – a man who expects little from life, but relishes a good bouillabaisse (his current fave on the Borchardt menu). “Now when I fall in love and travel, it’s déjà vu.” Borchardt is undoubtedly one of the new Berlin’s big successes – and Mary has become an accomplished businessman. But has it made him any happier?