Berlin’s restaurants will reopen to customers this Friday after two months of lockdown, but the strict conditions are making some owners question if reopening is worthwhile. We learn how some of city’s best restaurants are coping.
Until a few months ago, Friday nights at Chez Michel were busy. Cooks would serve up no-nonsense French cuisine to scruffy Kreuzberg types and local Frenchies while owner Michel le Voguer oversaw the action, bouncing from table to table to greet guests between visits to the kitchen. With space for around 35 people, Chez Michel is a local favourite, packed most weekends with a steady flow of regulars and first-timers. “It was rocking pretty well,” says Michel. “By 8pm, there would be a crowd.”
The scene will be different this Friday evening when, under strict hygiene conditions, Chez Michel opens its doors to guests for the first time in months. Forced to close with the rest of Berlin’s restaurants in March, Chez Michel, located on Kreuzberg’s Adalbertstraße a short walk from Kottbusser Tor, has been out of action for almost two months, only running at a limited capacity by serving takeaway. On Friday, rather than dishing out orders to cooks and shaking hands with regulars, Michel will be hunched over a stove, back to the one-man operation of his restaurant’s early days. Despite being able to reopen, he’s been forced to let go of his three core staff members, two of whom were with him for over eight years. Instead of serving as lifeline, the hygiene regulations were the latest in a string of blows to his business. Michel estimates that, despite reopening, he’ll still lose up to 70 percent of his revenue.
“I kept my three employees on Kurzarbeitergeld,” he says. “And used the money the state gave me to top up their salaries to around what they were earning before. We kept going for three months, but the expenses are too much to be in this in-between zone.”
Any restaurant reopening on Friday must adhere to strict conditions. Tables must be placed a minimum of 1.5m apart, and employees must wear masks. Generally, only diners from two households should sit together, self-service is prohibited and the city strongly recommends recording the names of all guests and keeping them for four weeks, perhaps through digital reservation systems. Even the opening hours are limited, which means diners must be out the door by 10pm, a tough proposition for establishments who specialise in evening meals. Where Michel was once able to host 35 diners at once, from Friday he’ll only be able to accommodate 12 – one-third of the usual amount.
Where Michel was once able to host 35 diners at once, from Friday he’ll only be able to accommodate 12 – one-third of the usual amount.
But as guests takes their seats at Chez Michel on Friday night, the dining area of Cookies Cream, a world-famous vegetarian spot on Friedrichstraße, will be quiet. Its kitchen will still churn out takeaway meals for drivers to disperse throughout the city, but the dining tables will stay empty while the restaurant’s managers ponder the new regulations required to reopen, which they plan to do next Thursday, May 21. “It’s a bit of a joke,” says Heinz Gindullis, Cookies Cream’s cheerful founder. “If you do everything correctly, there are some ridiculous parts.”
In usual times, Cookies Cream has space for 130 guests. The team is now preparing to host around 25. But as Gindullis explains, there’s more to worry about than distances between tables. “There are lots of questions,” he says. “The waiter has to keep 1.5m from the guests, so how are we going to do this? You’re serving drinks, food – how should you do it? This is the question everyone is asking, but no one’s giving answers.” Caught between a rock and a hard place, Cookies, like many others, will still take the gamble: “I think we’re going to be making a loss, whether we open or not, for the next months,” Gindullis says.
From Sonnenallee’s family-run falafel joints to candle-lit, Michelin-starred restaurants on Torstraße, this sense of uncertainty touches every food spot in Berlin. It’s hard to be optimistic in the face of such conditions, especially for those restaurants that have spent years building customer bases. That includes Max und Moritz, the huge, traditional German restaurant on Kreuzberg’s Oranienstraße, not far from Chez Michel. A good night will see hundreds of diners, many of them tourists, devour German classics like pork knuckle and currywurst between gulps from giant beer glasses. But like many restaurants, Max und Moritz isn’t rushing to reopen. They plan to return in two weeks, on May 29, and have plenty to do beforehand. When they do reopen, no walk-in customers will be allowed – reservations will need to be done by phone or email. “It took so much work to close the business,” says Gloria Dullin, Max und Moritz’s manager. “Now we have a lot of work to reopen.”
The waiter has to keep 1.5m from the guests, so how are we going to do this? You’re serving drinks, food – how should you do it?
That work includes rearranging the dining area’s layout and installing sheet glass between some tables, like those located back-to-back, as required by the new regulations. “We have to pay for that,” says Dullin. “Every day there’s different information, which is why we’re doing this preparation carefully.”
Opening a restaurant this Friday will be a tough balancing act. With permission to serve just a fraction of their usual clientele and strict regulations to navigate, reopening isn’t the simple fix it may seem to outsiders. Come Friday night, many owners will be crunching numbers at home, not at their restaurants, deep in spreadsheets and accounts, struggling to make sense of their new reality. But on Adalbertstraße, at least, you’ll find Michel le Voguer perfecting plates of his famous steak frites in Chez Michel’s kitchen, pausing every now and then to greet a long-lost regular from across the countertop. “Now it’s a question of survival,” he says. “Because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”