If you were an artist, actor, director or musician in 1980s West Berlin, you came to the Paris Bar. And even today, you still do. Satya, a French waiter at the notorious Kantstraße Paris bistro for 16 years, explains its unique magic.
“I’ve been working here since 2001, when I was 19. Working for the Paris Bar involves some pride; you get to identify with the place. A literally exceptional place. Michel [Würthle] is a rather authoritative boss [smiles], but he’s a charismatic figure and he knows how to get things to tick – to tune up. He’s like a conductor. And he created a vibe that’s unique. There’s the history, the legend: this is the place where Martin Kippenberger, Helmut Newton, Iggy Pop and David Bowie hung out. Over the years I’ve seen a grumpy Mick Jagger (I guess there were too many paparazzi outside), Dustin Hoffman coming in regularly when his daughter studied here, and Jack Nicholson buying dinner for the family at the next table – he had befriended the little daughter, who’s not so little any longer; she came back this year with her mum and we reminisced together. I also remember Bruno Ganz making a sensation as he entered the dining room dressed as Hitler – he was shooting Downfall and had kept his props and uniform on. Otto Sander had a table here until his death…
We get more tourists now, but the Paris Bar is still primarily patronised by regulars. Some come everyday, others every week, but you get to know them and their habits well. This and the fact that the tables are so close to each other creates a very convivial atmosphere: people get to talk to their neighbours, whom they often know. And we know them – on a firstperson, du basis. Once in a while you’re reminded that this kind of familiarity is not welcomed by non-Berliners – one older German man got so offended that he immediately asked to be waited by someone else. But that’s the exception. In Germany you have Kunden, customers, and Gäste, guests. The customer can be king, alright. But here, they are “guests” and we host them, which means hospitality, respect and a certain degree of familiarity. We want to make them feel at home, bien chez nous.
They have their tables and their quirks. One likes his whiskey served in a particular glass, another her rosé with two ice cubes and a carafe on the side. It also means that there’s trust between us and the guests – like when the new cook messed up one of the daily specials and I immediately informed every luncher who had ordered it, so that they could choose something else. ‘Respect’ is also a matter of self respect. Once I turned down an order when someone wanted a steak tartare… for his dog! I didn’t think it was right, and we don’t have tartare on the menu anyway.
The notoriety of the place sometimes brings funny things: I’m always surprised to read how many people claimed that we were their “Wohnzimmer” or “Büro”. I guess it speaks for the clout of the place, and how many people want a piece of it – fame by association! I also remember how, just after David Bowie died, we had a wave of Scandinavian tourists showing up with cameras and a new travel guide that mentioned Paris Bar as a Bowie hangout.
Of course there was a slump here when we had that financial audit and Michel had to file for bankruptcy around 2005. And there was new competition with places like Grill Royal or Borchardt in the more fashionable East… but it’s pretty amazing how Michel managed to get the place back to its former reputation. The people are back and believe me, it gets really busy.
The best thing about my job is our guests – intelligent, cultured and inspiring people. Then there’s the artwork all over the walls, much of which is associated with the artists who came here. It started with Martin Kippenberger, who’d become this “patron extraordinaire”, exchanging his work and curation for food and drinks. After his famous Paris Bar painting had to be auctioned off because of the financial problems, Daniel Richter made his own version of it. So there’s a rendition of it still hanging where it used to be, kind of a homage: “Paris Bar by Kippenberger” by Richter! Richter is still a regular, so is the painter Nikolai Makarov – he also dedicated a whole series of paintings to the Paris Bar. Then there are Michel’s own works, and the famous photographs of Bowie and Yves Saint-Laurent (below)… and some odd stuff you wouldn’t expect to hang in a place like here [indicates two black and white photos of a huge penis and a woman giving a blowjob]. I’m not sure who took them, but I do know they’ve contributed to the sexual education of quite a few youngsters – as confirmed by one mum after she finally understood why her two boys spent so much time “admiring” the art in that particular corner [laughs]. Recently Dakota Johnson wanted to buy a neon piece, [Angus Fairhurst’s] “Stand Still and Rot” – we told her Michel wouldn’t sell it, but she insisted that it was always “a matter of price”. Well, it isn’t. And this too is part of the spirit of the Paris Bar.
Romy Haag, former club owner and diva: I don’t go so much anymore, but back in the day I was there four times a week. Michel was a very charming guy. If you forgot your money, he’d say ‘Pay me tomorrow’. So it was very, very easygoing. There were a lot of artists, painters and film stars there, especially during the Berlinale – it was packed. I’d go there with ‘my’ artists or my musicians, although David Bowie and I never did go to the Paris Bar together – we’d go to Diener or something like that. But I was there with Charlotte Rampling, Michael Sarrazin, Udo Lindenberg… Everybody knew everybody, so you were sure to always meet people you knew.”
Order: Back then, there was only one thing you ordered there: steak with French fries. The rest was really – oy oy oy.
Nikolai Makarov, painter: As soon as I step into Paris Bar the waiter brings me three things: A beer to calm me down, a Fernet Branca for the stomach and an espresso to keep me awake. I don’t order it, it just comes to me. I’ve come regularly since 1980, back when if you wanted to be a part of the Berlin art scene, you had to come to Paris Bar. Most people from the old guard have moved or passed away, but I sometimes still bump into Markus Lüpertz. It’s no longer just artists, but also musicians, designers and actors, bourgeois Charlottenburgers who live around the corner… and of course, visiting celebrities. I once saw Pierce Brosnan here – I knew he’d bought one of my paintings, so I wanted to say hello. When I showed him a book here with my art in it, he randomly opened it on the middle page and exclaimed: “This is my painting. You did this?” My favourite place is in the sofas near the toilet. That way I can say ‘hi’ to people, because everyone uses the bathroom. I usually know around one-third of the guests in the room. I couldn’t even dream about not coming here. Yes, the atmosphere has changed, but it’s still fantastic – it’s cult.”
Order: The boudin, French blood sausage. It’s a very delicious specialty. And the French fries are delightful.
Uli Schreiber, director of Berlin’s Literature Festival: The first time I went there was in November 1992. Frank Berberich from Lettre International and I had a “three-step” trip ritual that took us from Osteria No. 1 to the cult restaurant Florian – Paris Bar was our second stop on what used to be a very long and jolly night. When I moved back to Berlin the following year, I started going there about twice a week – not for the food or drinks, but for the atmosphere. A lot of it has to do with Michel Würthle: not only his art, but also his charisma and caustic brand of humour that reigns over the place. We’ve become friends over the years. Before the Berlinale moved from Charlottenburg to Potsdamer Platz, the who’s who of the film scene was there, visiting stars and people like Bernd Eichinger or Peter Fitz. I remember Peter dancing on top of tables with some prostitutes he’d taken along. I did a couple of times too, and broke some glasses. The best thing about the place are the waiters: real individuals, whom you get to know and appreciate on a personal level. And Michel’s decision not to have music. Instead you have the background harmony of intermingling voices. This is a place for conversations: good meaty conversations at the highest level, with great minds and sometimes assholes too – but that’s what human beings are, a bit of both! The last time I saw someone dancing on tables? It was me. I can’t remember why… Ach ja, it was for Sylvester!”
Order: The sole meunière. Keep away from the mediocre by-the-glass wines; go for one of their great bottles!
About the Paris Bar Opened by a former French Army man in the 1960s, the restaurant at Kantstraße 152 came into its own in 1979, when Austrian art scene veterans Michel Würthle and Reinald Nohal took over and replaced the kitschy decorations with Würthle’s own art collection. It’s attracted artists from Kippenberger to Baselitz, Daniel Richter to Markus Lupertz, who came and still come for French fare like bouillabaisse, foie gras, steak frites and what’s widely reputed to be the best sole meunière in Berlin.