‘No tourists here.’ What makes a good restaurant?

The concierge at our hotel in Berlin recommended a particular restaurant to us. There would be, he assured us, ‘no tourists there’.

Well, there is the point, being a tourist, that I’m being insulted to my face. But leaving that aside, what I’ve never understood about this derogatory attitude towards ‘the tourist’ is that ‘the tourist’ is a resident somewhere else. What is supposed to happen exactly in this process? At home, let’s say in Melbourne, I’m an exacting connoisseur of food wherever I go, and that’s in the most exacting city in the most exacting country.

But I go to Berlin. Suddenly I’m no longer this fussy pedant. Instead I’ve become an ignorant buffoon without a clue as to what good food is. And my concierge is going to send the new food-dumb me to a place where no other foreign food nitwits will be. Just me.

What gives here? It’s too stupid for words. I will happily often rely on the opinion of a tourist rather than a local. It depends, doesn’t it. I’m not going to rely on the word of an overweight American whose tripadvisor reviews are always lamenting the absence of Starbucks or praising the all-you-can-eat. But I am likely to rely on the word of an Australian, all things being equal. Whereas if I am in Leipzig, I shan’t trust the opinion of anybody at all.

Which brings me to the schnitzel and the reason why Leipzig is to be seen as a town of hazards which need to be negotiated in the process of searching for food. After a good deal of research I felt assured that the place to go for good honest German food would be Großer Keller. For those that aren’t in the know it is in a famous old arcade in the old town.

I shan’t complain about the noise or the heat: it’s a large place full of people having a beery good time and noise and heat are going to be part of that. I shan’t complain about indifferent service, I guess staff at places like that don’t have much fun. But I will complain about the horrible food. I thought I’d be on safe ground with a schnitzel, but that was not the case.

My BREADED VEAL ESCALOPE -200g- 20.90 was not even in the ballpark of veal. Why there is a certain sort of place that thinks a huge paper thin piece of overcooked meat is desirable, I don’t know. Presumably it’s because they have a certain sort of customer. It wasn’t as bad as the worst schnitzel I’ve had – a story for another time – but it wasn’t far off the mark. I was with two others, neither of whom thought anything about the place, including the food, was acceptable.

This was a case where the almost universal online opinion was that this was a good eating experience, and if you went to look at the ‘poor’ reviews on tripadvisor (for example), the complaints were mainly about service, not the food. Even Australians – may I hang my head in shame – spoke well of it. Touristy but okay anyway!

Ha. I beg to differ. This early experience in Leipzig put me in my shell. I ventured out a couple of times while there to Hotel Fürstenhof to eat at their winter garden bar. Here I had a better schnitzel with a nice warm potato and cucumber salad which is a traditional accompaniment. It was a pleasant place to eat, excellent service and only a little more expensive than my previous night’s experience. Presumably, being a hotel, we can describe this as a touristy place too. We found the food here to be very nice on several occasions over the few days we were in Leipzig. It was a safe bet after that first bad experience.

But it was back in Berlin again that I had a schnitzel that made me happy, in particular because it was, as advertised, veal, but also because instead of being a dried out piece of cardboard in crumbs, it was a thicker, smaller succulent piece of meat. It was at the restaurant next to our hotel: The Aigner.

Wiener Schnitzel
from saddle of suckling veal
with a lukewarm potato-cucumber salad with bacon 23

All of two euros more than the first one I had, but in lovely surrounds with efficient, but nonetheless enthusiastic, waiting staff. Silver service as opposed to bar tavern. Again, one would have to say this is a tourist spot, located in Gendarmenmarkt.

On another occasion we had their specialty:

Boiled beef served in a Brass-Kettle
Sliced pancakes 1.5
Classic egg custard 1.5
Bone marrow dumplings 1.5

The Brass-Kettle
Prime boiled beef from young bull
a piece of Vienna in Berlin 26
Boiled breast of young bull
very succulent 23
Boiled beef tongue
delicate and cured 22
“Gustostückerln“ –
combination of meat 25

All sorts of beef are served in a brass kettle together with beef soup
and root vegetables. The soup is the first course and comes with
your selected garnish. The main course – the boiled beef- will be
served with creamy spinach and hash browns and with
horseradish and crème fraîche.

I’m a sucker for those Austro-Hungarian boiled meat and creamed spinach dishes. This one was notable for the lightness of the spinach, bogged down in cream it was not. The whole thing was very nicely done.

Is there a moral to the story? One can’t generalise about how to get information about eating. I mean to say, you don’t look inside the window of a Sizzler’s in the US or Australia and go through this thought process ‘Hmmm. Full of locals. Must be good.’ Tell me you don’t do that. Please. So the idea that because we see a Chinese restaurant full of Chinese people makes it good, must be flawed mustn’t it? Even if we accept the possibility that the Chinese in general have higher food standards than Americans.

By the way. Sizzler is retiring injured in Australia, closing shop. Between that and the singular failure of Starbucks in Australia, maybe it is not just pure chauvinism to find Australian opinion more reliable.

Next up: we visit a two star Michelin restaurant in Berlin.