As befitting a building known for its Spiegelsaal – a literal hall of mirrors – the status of Clärchens Ballhaus has long reflected that of Berlin itself. Decadent and debauched in the 1920s, commandeered by the Nazis, besieged by Allied bombs, all but abandoned until a miraculous early-2000s revival… It’s a familiar story, right up to last year when the owners were forced out of their contract and Berlin’s most beloved dancehall came this close to being turned into a Vapiano.
Saved from this hellish fate by wealthy scion Yoram Roth, Clärchens has now undergone part one of a renovation meant to restore the crumbling interior while preserving the Weimar glam – at the expense, for better or worse, of the oughts-era chintzy charm. The heavy-duty work begins when Roth can get all the necessary permits in place, likely around 2022. Till then, Clärchens, like the rest of Berlin, is tentatively re-emerging into our weird new post-Corona reality, changed but with its soul intact.
Come to the grand re-opening this Sunday and you’ll see a lush, newly planted garden out in front, the ballroom walls stripped of their signature tinsel… oh yeah, and no dancefloor, for obvious reasons. Instead, the surface upon which countless generations once schwoofed is covered in widely spaced tables, each topped with a QR code linking to Clärchens’ newest attraction: its menu.
Wait, what? Nobody ever used to go to Clärchens for the food – the ambience was unforgettable, the dry schnitzel and mediocre pizzas less so. But with dancing limited to Zoom lessons for the time being, Roth and co. are making an admirable effort to turn their new baby into a dining destination.
Don’t expect a complete overhaul. Chef Simon Dienemann, formerly of Tim Raue and the prematurely closed Michelin aspirant Cell, sticks to classics Berliners will recognise, upgraded with the obligatory local, artisanal ingredients. The bread’s now house-baked German-style sourdough, more toothsome and flavourful than any of your quarantine experiments and served warm with fresh-whipped butter. Starters include the Buletten and Rollmops of yore, but also a simple but revelatory dish of sliced radishes topped with an earthy mixture of ground cumin, caraway and fennel, served alongside creamy goat cheese.
The pizza is gone, replaced by Flammkuchen, but the schnitzel is still there, flanked by a streamlined selection of mains – carnivores should try the Blutwurst from ubiquitous Rixdorf purveyor Marcus Benser, resting plump and queen-like atop lentils, sliced apple and potato puree. As with the Clärchens of old, vegetarians and vegans get short shrift: the veggie Maultaschen from Swabian dumpling artisan Bruno Ebermann, drenched in an overly salty consommé, pales next to its meaty counterpart, and I would’ve been impressed with the vegan braised cabbage if I hadn’t tried a similar but superior treatment at Pots back in January.
Overall, though, it’s a vast improvement, especially considering the prices haven’t changed much (starters are €3.50-6.50, mains €17.50-22, and there’s a crayon-friendly kids’ menu with dishes ranging €3-7). And again, is food really the point here? Makeover notwithstanding, a visit to Clärchens remains a trip back in time — both to the Golden Twenties, and to those bygone days of just a few months ago, when gentrification, and not a devastating global pandemic that, übrigens, is still very much happening, was the greatest threat to Berlin nightlife. Book a table for dinner (or, soon, brunch), tip your server generously, and hold out hope for a spin on the dancefloor before Clärchens’ second shuttering.