“I’m not actually from Syria,” says the waiter with a smile, setting down a tempting array of mezze. We soon feast on plates of golden lamb parcels, heaps of tabbouleh and swirls of peach-coloured hummus. As he lays down the last bowl, he reveals: “My father is German, yes, but my mother is from Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
The setting, however, is decidedly more Syrian than the staff. Damas, a hushed Syrian restaurant hidden in the residential streets off Savignyplatz, buzzes contentedly with the hum of Levantine music, with the gentle smell of incense wafting through the air. “I’m not sure I’ve had Syrian food before,” I say to my Dad, who says he hasn’t either. In fact, this is the first Syrian eatery I think I’ve ever seen, in Berlin or anywhere else.
The Germans, as far as I can hear, are wise to it. They represent nearly all of the diners this evening — pockets of them talk calmly over their clean plates, glasses of wine half-empty between their fingers. One even strokes her bichon frise as it quietly snores on her lap. The classy crowd here knows this is good grub.
But they were nowhere to be seen last night — in fact, few people were. We’d spent an hour on a hushed Kurfürstendamm, Charlottenburg’s main drag, pacing the streets like wolves in search of food, before, like a revelation, the lurid familiarity of neon appeared, glowing onto the snow-smeared street. This was the Piccola Taormina, a confidently no-frills affair, complete with a decorative display of vintage colanders and muted Italian television. Other than the vast menu of pizzas spanning the wall, there is little evidence of Germany here: the chefs talk to everyone — be they colleague or customer — in thick Italian, a Turkish-looking fellow sips a coffee in one corner, and an elderly couple occasionally acknowledge each other in Polish, she scribbling on a crossword, he shovelling carbonara into his mouth. With a brash shout from the chef, our pizzas are lovingly plonked onto the counter for me, in true schoolboy fashion, to go and collect them, paired, of course, with a can of Czech beer from the fridge.
The more I wander through this vast, sprawling city, past the Turkish Döner stands, the Japanese joints, the fancy French hideaways and the halal butchers — not forgetting, of course, the token Irish pub — the more I realise Berlin is a many-headed culinary beast. It panders to visitors’ stereotypes almost too well, with its rowdy Bierkellers serving up hefty pork knuckles and sauerkraut, but it likes to surprise, spoiling its people with an almost overwhelming menu to choose from. Not one to shy away from local tradition, I happily stand in the freezing cold outside the cathedral, my hands warm from clutching a currywurst and paprika-doused fries, my mouth cooled by the froth of a local beer. Berliners stand around me, too, just as they’d done at Damas. Berlin is as much currywurst as it is kibbeh, it seems; and it’s equally about piping hot pizza as it is bold lashings of tangy sauerkraut.
I turn my attention back to the currywurst. Shamelessly dished up in a red carton and generously sploshed with sauce, it’s the gaudy and greedy image of Berlin I came for, but not the one I leave with.