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Nalu Diner: Land of the freefill

P'Berg's Nalu Diner is a game changer. Forget trashy Americana, it's all about authenticity here: sweet pancakes, big breakfasts (no green stuff) and as much free filter coffee as you can drink for €1.50.

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Photo by Eugénie Novellati

Opening up a restaurant serving foreign food in Berlin is always a game with Germans’ idea of authenticity. The crudest examples are those ‘diners’ in which every surface is saturated with Route 66 imagery and the food is always an afterthought. Prenzlauer Berg’s Nalu Diner – which powered up its griddle in late September – is a game changer. It’s an American diner that will first and foremost make North Americans happy because it doesn’t bash you over the head with fake Americana.

Instead, masterminds Oliver and James have peppered Nalu’s bright, smooth interior with a Nascar Mountain Dew clock, an old-school menu board with Pepsi logo (neither soft drink is sold here) and tabletop collages of US presidents and American fowl. There’s a high chance you’ll encounter low-volume Steely Dan. The food and bev equipment is also US import: from those textured red plastic cups in which they serve iced tap water to the heavy-duty Bunn filter coffee maker which pumps out their “freefill” house coffee.

“Freefill” means as much coffee as you can drink… for €1.50! Yes, you did just read that. There are no espresso drinks here. In just about every respect, Nalu is the exact opposite of that other recent Prenzlauer Berg start-up we’ve been hearing so much about, The Barn Roastery. This includes their attitude towards strollers: there are a lot of (US) families to be found here, brunching away on any given weekend morning.

Technically it is ‘Breakfast’ and served all day till 18:00 – and Nalu’s fry-up has little to do with the hipster vegan brunches spreading across the city.

There are currently four egg-centred “griddle combos”, crescendoing with the Deuces Wild Breakfast: two pancakes, two eggs any style, two “hashbrauns”, two “bacons” and two tomatoes for €8.50. One gripe: the tomatoes would be tastier if they were fried, UK style. For less food, order combo two: two eggs, “hashbrauns” or bacon and toast (€5.75). Or just put together your own meal of sides: eggs, toast, whatever.

The US-style pancakes really break the authenticity metre: large, fluffy and sweet as hell, served with butter and maple syrup. The “white or wheat” toast is custom-baked at Beckerei, the Portuguese bakery up the street. Nalu serves its toast duo as a stack with butter on top already, which can make it all a little squishy. If you prefer yours crispy, ask for butter on the side and request that your couple of slices are kept a respectable distance from each other! They also serve an awesome plate of French toast.

When the combos arrive – two or three blissful “freefills” later – they’re excitingly simple: just the stuff you ordered (hopefully) on a plate without a cornucopia of fruit and vegetable garnishes, save a minute sprig of parsley (“only yellow stuff!” as one disgruntled diner exclaimed upon receiving her order!). For former residents of North America, a bite of a sunny side up egg with hashbrowns washed down with milky filter coffee can feel like an emotional leap back to a familiar place. Which is probably why they call it ‘comfort food’, and why Nalu is already attracting plenty of Americans. Funny that head cook Bastian is a Frenchman with experience at a Parisian gourmet restaurant (to be fair, he did also work in Miami and LA for years).

Nalu means “wave” in Hawaiian – James originates from the “Islands of Aloha” – and the tropical laidback-ness seems to trickle down to the polite, friendly waitstaff. This means that in the restaurant’s first weeks (we’ve been four times), one order was missing toast, another the tomatoes, and another got lost only to finally arrive twice! Growing pains, we suspect – weekends are already quite packed and in October the whole back room was still under construction.

At the moment, non-breakfast is limited to cheeseburgers, BLTs and club sandwiches, all served in a real American plastic basket with potato chips. Unfortunately, Nalu closes at 18:00, too early for dinner – we could imagine a mean meatloaf or chicken pot pie coming out of this kitchen.