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On my second trip to Berlin, I wanted anything but the typical tourist experience. I had hoped, without spending hours researching, to explore Germany’s capital city like an insider. With lifestyle tour operator, Berlinagenten, I did just that.
“The best way to get to get acquainted with a city is to know someone who already lives there,” said Gabriella Cysek, a tour guide with Berlinagenten. “For those who live abroad, the off-the-beaten track tours that Berlinagenten offers, whether culinary- or art-themed, are great because they visit local favorites. Sometimes, we even become friends with our guests and take them out after the tour is over.”
After looking over Berlinagenten’s tour offerings — which range from urban architecture and design to shopping and nightclub tours — my travel companion and I settled on the Gastro Rallye tour with an English-speaking guide, who would take us to three hip restaurants for three distinct courses.
Cysek, our guide for the evening, met us at our hotel, Nhow Berlin, located along the River Spree in an up-and-coming area of Berlin. As we walked to the first restaurant of the evening, she pointed out points of interest along the way — including the gothic towers of the Oberbaum Bridge, the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery and a trendy electro club, Watergate, which offers views of the river — all the while telling stories about the region’s past and present.
Cysek noted that our first stop, the riverside Riogrande restaurant, is located near a concentration of the city’s “beach” bars. These themed bars have gained popularity in the past few years, with their sand-topped floors, palm trees, surf decor, tropical drinks and chill out music. Those who book the summertime Gastro Rallye Riverside tour will see the beach bars at their peak and have an opportunity to visit a floating restaurant, such as Freischwimmer or Klub der Visionare, along the Spree.
The Riogrande restaurant occupies a restored building in the historic Osthafen ship port, and the views of the river banks and the Oberbaum Bridge make for a romantic setting. Specializing in Austrian fine dining with regional flair, Riogrande, has become quite the hot spot (had we tried to dine there without booking through Berlinagenten, we would have had trouble getting a reservation).
The chef treated us with an amuse-bouche of a zucchini-wrapped fish meatball (a contemporary twist on Berlin’s popular meatball dish, bulette) in a horseradish foam sauce. A butterflied king prawn topped the dish, which proved to be a meal in itself. Next, we were served either wild garlic pasta with rabbit or homemade cannelloni with a ragout of artichoke. As we sipped white wine and savored the first course, our guide regaled us with stories about post-war Berlin, anti-fascism and the gentrification of the city’s Mitte district.
We wrapped up our first course and took a cab to Restaurant Horvath in Kreuzberg, passing the area’s Turkish restaurants, cafes and kebab stands. Dimly-lit Horvath features the cuisine of Austrian chef Sebastian Frank. Rumor has it that his restaurant will receive its first Michelin star this year.
Although we were starting to feel full by the time we took our seats, chef Frank started our second course with an amuse-bouche of sturgeon on a bed of sauerkraut confit. Afterward, our server presented a veal filet with a semonlina strudel and, for dramatic effect, delicately poured veal aus jus from a sauce boat onto our oversized plates. Rounding out the meal with a glass of dessert wine and a few sips of espresso, we prepared for our final course at restaurant/nightclub, Sage.
Sage was the quintessential Berlin experience — edgy, unassuming and unique. Located in a former silk mill, Sage is somewhat hidden and would be virtually undetectable to those who aren’t looking for it. Once inside, I was impressed by the dining room’s monochrome tables, chairs and place settings as well as the brick-exposed walls accentuated with traces of graffiti.
Dessert consisted of a frozen blood orange marshmallow and a tart made with South American tonka beans, which tasted similar to vanilla. Blood orange segments and a sweet citrus sauce helped pair the two desserts.
Over coffee, Cysek told us about a number of special events, nearby clubs and restaurants that we might want to visit during our stay in Berlin. Thanks to our guide, my companion and I started to feel like we knew a thing or two about Berlin. With a little more German practice and a bit more exploring, perhaps we could even pass for locals.
Gastro Rallye tours last approximately four hours, and most tours involve walking. Prices range from about $160 to $260 per person, depending on the group size and type of Gastro Rallye tour booked. Prices include a dish at three different restaurants and either wine, beer or a soft drink with each course.