Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Bird - The Best Steaks in Berlin?

I just had supper at The Bird Restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg. I've been there a couple of times before and had some excellent burgers, since its burgers are what it is famous for. The house burger (two patties and enough grease to oil a hippo) is to kill for, though you waddle out. And last night I had the Gonzales, a fantastic combination of burger with guacamole and salsa. Mm, just thinking about it makes my mouth water.
Their fries are excellent too. The are made from real potatoes, which are still in their skins to prove that they came out of the ground and not some reconstituted potato mush that one usually gets when eating out. All washed down with a couple of tankards of good, cold lager.
Anyhow, I'm digressing far too much as the point of this post is to say that one shouldn't just eat at The Bird for its burgers. I've been struggling to find really good steak in Berlin. Even buying good meat to throw on the grill has proved difficult (my latest is to get good French cuts at Galeries Lafayette in Mitte and haven't been disappointed). But good steak has really been a challenge.
Luckily I was there with some real steak lovers. And the meat lived up to the expectations. One of my companies, an American told me "I come from Texas and have been to Montana (where you drive past your steak in the fields on the way into town) and this was the best steak I've ever had in my life."
Would I go so far. Not having had the damned steak, and only getting tastes off each plate, I would certainly rate the steaks great to fantastic. The meat was beautifully tender and done really rare. It had full taste, good fat texture and just the right combination of searing on the outside and raw, red meat in the center.
All the cuts I tasted were good. The only trouble is that you need to take out a mortgage before eating there. Some of the steaks set us back something north of €30. So far I can confidently say that the Bird offers the best steaks in Berlin, but the best in my life, mmm, I'm not so sure.

Monday, December 28, 2009

TXL airport bus Berlin - asleep at the wheel

I snapped a picture of this bus, the TXL airport express a couple of days ago hoping to provide visitors with a useful visual clue as to what to look for if trying to get toTegel airport from the center of Berlin (or the other way round). It was only after I snapped the pic on my phone (which expplains the poor quality) that I realised the driver was asleep. He couldn't have been too far gone as he asked me if I got a good shot when I got onto the bus though I had a wriggling toddler with me and didn't quite hear what he said so only processed his comment after I got to my seat. This is the starting point for the bus just outside the Galeria Kaufhof on Alexanderplatz.
The bus takes about 45 minutes or so from here to the airport and really is the best cheap way to get to Tegel. It only costs €2,10 per person. A taxi ride would be quicker but cost about 10 times as much.

Berlin guide books: What do I use

Although I've been in Berlin for more than a year now, I still regularly turn to guidebooks. Here is a brief rundown on some of the ones I use most often. (Full disclosure - If you click on the Amazon links to buy them I will get a small commission).

The guide book I use most often is TimeOut Berlin. This is aimed at a younger to thirty-something crowd so has a decent section on going out at night, lists the main bars and clubs and also has some pretty good restaurant listings. I've generally found that the TimeOut guides seldom go wrong when recommending restaurants and hotels though they often miss out some of the cheaper or newer options. I also found it is a bit weak on showing you how to get around on public transport. The map showing trains and subways is way too small to be useful. In fact the general map is also a bit clumsy to use and I don't like the way everything is divided by area, so to find a sushi restaurant you end up trawling through half the book. The flip side is that some guide books (Lonely Planet, for instance) list everything by category but you may struggle to find something nearby unless you already know the city.

A Hedonist's Guide to Berlin is fantastic if you have a big budget, or just like to dream. This is a long shot from being a shoestring guide. But if you are looking for a special treat then this book will have it.

I've always been a rough guides fan. The guide books are always clear and easy to use, have a good section on history and the story behind many of the sights. The Rough Guide to Berlin is no exception and provides a solid overview of the city, its sights and restaurants. It also seems a bit better at listing budget accommodation than the other two books. You can't go wrong with this one, but might have a slightly less exciting time if it was all you relied on.

There are plenty of other Berlin city guides out there but I've only written about the main ones that I've used so take the time to also browse in your book store for a guide book that works for you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Free things to do in Berlin: Bearpit karaoke

Berlin is a great city to visit because it has hundreds of sights and free things to do that can keep you entertain for hours. Now karaoke may sound completely cheesy. In fact, when friends first told me about this crazy Irish guy who had set up with a bicycle and was doing karaoke on the side of a big market in part of what was once East Berlin, I ran a mile. I'm sorry to say this but I've never been a fan of talentless drunks taking to the microphone.

As it happens a couple of months later I wandered down to to the flea market at Mauerpark Berlin, which takes its name from the old Berlin wall and death strip that ran across the ground it now occupies. It was late afternoon on a cold fall's day and I looked up to see literally thousands of people sitting on concrete steps in this big amphitheater with karaoke happening down below. It really is crazy. This Irish guy really is set up with a bicycle (check out some of the you tube video below) and invites people up. Now what makes this really stand out is that there was a lot of talent in the bear pit that day. Berlin is filled with musicians and other artistic types struggling to make a go of leading creative lives. So more than a few of those who came up were practiced if not professional performers. There was real improvisation going on, not just people blindly following a bouncing ball lighting up words on a screen. This is a great free thing to do, but even if I had to pay I would have got my money's worth.
The other thing that made this stand out was the crowd. There were easily 2000 people, all enjoying themselves, clapping, cheering and encouraging the performers. Plenty of drink was going around (as well as a few less than legal substances) but everyone was well behaved with great spirit.  Most were locals although a fair number of tourists and other visitors were also about. Local market stalls are also in on the act. Some were selling gluhwein, others had sparkles and lights which came out as the sun went down. It happens every Sunday afternoon at Mauerpark, which you can get to easily from the Nordhahnhof station.

I'm tempted to say this is Berlin's best kept secret but it is not much of a secret these days. It is certainly becoming one of Berlin's best attractions and is high on the list great free things to do.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Renting cheap apartments in Berlin

If you're thinking of visiting Berlin, be it for a few days or a few months, you'll be looking for a budget hotel or accommodation. I've written a long article on another forum with tips for how to do that.
If you are just looking for a quick summary the main points here they are:
  1. Your cheapest bet is to find a furnished apartment privately. There are lots of these about with listings in the local papers or in online lists. This saves you paying an agent's commission. Choosing your area wisely will also influence the price a lot. Gentrified neighborhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg will be more than those that are still up and coming, such as Kreuzberg. The cheapest will be those parts of town that have only recently attracted the arty crowd such as Neukoelln. This will still be relatively cheap but filled with interesting bars and cafes.
  2. The next best bet money-wise, but which is much less hassle, is to use one of the many agents that are out there to help you find a cheap furnished apartment. This is especially easy if you are only planning to come for a few weeks as you can book online and the better agents have great web sites with photographs. The choice here is usually pretty good, just be sure to book early for the peak summer months.
  3. Another step up is to use a business boarding house. These have hotel-style receptions, wireless internet and take credit cards. They are great for short trips and can be quite economical if you are coming as a family or with a group of friends as many will comfortably sleep 4-6 people. All of the above will have kitchens, which give one the choice to make the trip self-catering. In truth that isn't too important as Berlin has loads of restaurants and cafes that are offer good value meals. My favorite is Flowers Boarding House in Mitte
  4. Berlin is also full of cheap discount hotels. Some are little more than youth hostels with private rooms and bathrooms. They offer pretty good deals and also have all the usual facilities of hotels such as bars, breakfast and wireless internet so you can stay in touch with home. 
  5. If you have a bit more to spend on accommodation but still don't want to pay full fare for hotels, call around as the top hotels in town often have weekend specials when the business-travelers are all back at home. You can usually get a pretty good discount just by asking.
I hope this provides a good starting point to finding a cheap apartment in Berlin, and if you want more detailed information please look at my main article.

Friday, December 11, 2009

FraRosa restaurant Prenzlauer Berg : where you pay what you t think its worth

Only in a country so orderly that people obediently wait for traffic lights to turn green, even when there is no traffic, could a restaurant like FraRosa work. It is based entirely on trust. You pay €2 into a pig to get a wine glass that you fill as often as you like from bottles of more than decent plonk on the bar, and then eat a four course meal from a set menu. At the end of it all you pay what you think the meal is worth.
It is great fun and I go there often. The food is excellent, even if the menu is limited. The wine is always an experience. Half the fun is choosing and tasting. The crowd is great and people-watching is always lively. The neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg in the old East Berlin, is full of bars and cafes so there is not shortage of places to go for a pre or post-meal drink. And the decor in FraRosa is also a laugh, mostly murals painted with women popping out of their tops. Their is at least one nipple to be seen on every wall. On my last visit they'd put up a web-cam to the kitchen so you could see the chefs at work.
If this sounds like one of my best restaurants in Berlin, that's because it is.
You can find it at Zionskirchstr. 40 - just be sure to reserve a table.