SOCIETY

Greek restaurants in Berlin fulfilling their own diplomatic mission

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants good food in a relaxed atmosphere, she heads to Taverna Cassambalis, near Berlin’s central Savignyplatz. Ever since Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle introduced the German chancellor to this Greek eatery five years ago, she has become something of a regular.

“She eats here once or twice a month,” owner Constantinos Cassambalis told Kathimerini. “She seems particularly fond of the ‘keftedakia’ [fried meatballs] and our white wine,” he added, saying that discreet, polite and with a small retinue of guards who wait outside, the chancellor is an ideal customer.

Cassambalis is the successor to Ach-Vach, a Greek establishment run by Austrian fans of the country’s cuisine, which had taken over the space previously occupied by Fofi Akrithaki’s famed Estiatorion.

In postwar Berlin, which in many ways resembled a small island, almost everyone who was anyone in politics and letters had made at least one visit to Fofi’s Estiatorion.

“It wasn’t just the food; you could also cleanse your soul,” reminisced Cassambalis, who continues to pay close attention to the establishment’s atmosphere and focuses on authentic flavors and fresh fish, which is somewhat hard to come by in the German capital.

At another Greek restaurant, owner Giorgos Savvidis always welcomes his customers with a “kalispera” and bids them goodnight with a “kalinychta.” Most of Pikilia’s diners are athletes, which makes sense given that before coming to Berlin 17 years ago, Savvidis was a soccer star in Greece, playing for Halkidona in Thessaloniki. His restaurant has become a favorite with the players of Berlin’s biggest team, Hertha, as evidenced by the jersey hung up on display, a gift from the players.

The 44-year-old restaurateur from Yiannitsa does not just cater to hungry athletes, but, rather, in the words of a review in the Berliner Morgenpost, to Germans who want “to dine like the gods of Olympus.”

The menu changes often and includes specialties such as venison chops with fruit of the forest sauce or lamb fillet cooked in chocolate and served with handmade pasta, while there is also an extensive wine list of 180 labels, many of them Greek.

“At first they are bit hesitant to try Greek wines because they are unfamiliar with them,” explained Savvidis. “Once they try them, though, they are impressed and continue to choose them. They are also cheaper than the other labels.”

Savvidis tries to use as many Greek products as possible, which he also sells separately.

“I keep up to date by reading gastronomy books and magazines,” explained Savvidis as he showed me around the restaurant and pointed out photographs of Ari Onassis and Maria Callas.

One of Berlin’s newest Greek arrivals is Skala, which is located in a house on Prinz-Friedrich-Leopold-Strasse and has already become a haunt for local artists, such as members of the popular 80s band Alphaville. The owner, Yiannis Tsitiridis, a born-and-bred Berliner, organizes musical soirees with live jazz, tango and Greek music, while in the summer the taverna’s garden hosts a mini-festival featuring six ensembles.

“Artists have their own buttons,” the 37-year-old restaurateur said. “At first they keep their distance, then they start opening up and eventually they form a personal relationship with the owners of their favorite haunts.”

For his clients, the most important thing – other than good food of course – is that they feel comfortable.

Once home to dozens of retro Greek tavernas complete with faux marble columns and blue-and-white checkered tablecloths, Berlin is now seeing new arrivals that cater to a more demanding international clientele.

“The number of Greek restaurants may be shrinking, but there is a marked turn toward higher quality,” according to Yiannis Salavopoulos, the secretary of financial and commercial affairs at the Greek Embassy in Berlin.

“In total, there are around 300 Greek restaurants in the broader Berlin-Brandenburg area,” he added, saying that some of them are considered among the best in the city and have contributed to setting new culinary trends.

Salavopoulos believes that Greek restaurants in Berlin have a greater role to play than simply promoting the country’s cuisine, arguing that they can contribute to attracting more German tourists to Greece and making Greek products more popular in the domestic German market.

“We can learn a lot from the Italians who have established their cuisine and products in Germany,” argued Salavopoulos. “As a country, it is our duty to form a common strategy with restaurateurs for the promotion of Greek gastronomy. Greek cuisine can become the best ambassador for Greek products, the Mediterranean diet and tourism, so that the ‘Made in Greece’ label becomes synonymous with quality.”