Unusual Tastes: The Restaurants of Weimar Germany

Postcard advertising the Residenz casino in Berlin
Postcard advertising the Residenz-Casino in Berlin (via)

Let’s enjoy the carnival of the inflation. It’s loads of fun and paper, printed paper, flimsy stuff — do they still call it money? … Krupp and Stinnes get rid of their debts, we of our savings. The profiteers dance in the palace hotels.

–Klaus Mann (1923)

The capital of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919–1933), Berlin alone was home to some twenty thousand eateries. The immense number reflected not so much a diversity of tastes for cuisine as a panoply of preferences for entertainment. In keeping with the spirit of the times, those latter tastes often ran to the grotesque and the perverse. Many of the metropolis’s restaurateurs augmented their bill of fare, top-heavy with hearty German staples, with marvels astonishing and often terrible to behold. A restaurant’s real draw was not so much the tenderness of its roast pork nor the pungency of its sauerkraut as it was the arresting spectacle of its stage show.

There was, for example, the resident hunger artist of the Hackepeter, a restaurant that took its name from its signature dish of raw ground pork seasoned with sundry spices and served twenty ways. Known as Jolly, the hunger artist earned his living and his fame by displaying his wasted frame as patrons tucked into or awaited their meals. Stark was the contrast between the fleshy epicures and the gaunt feature attraction — a contrast made starker still by the glass booth to which Jolly was confined. The effect was something of a cross between an anchorite and a museum specimen.

From this booth Jolly looked off into the distance, absently smoking cigarettes. Any diner seized with a devious impulse to slip Jolly food found himself turned aside by two attendants, clad in black, who flanked Jolly’s booth expressly for discouraging such pranks. A record of how long Jolly had denied himself food was kept, and, whenever he’d reach a new milestone, an announcement was made by a diminutive gentleman. Diners who found the update sufficiently impressive registered their approval by banging silverware and beer steins on their tables. Some of the noisiest bangers were women. Jolly worked on them a romantic charm by looking the very picture of a melancholy Christ. So winning was this impression Jolly left on the fairer sex that he was eventually lured from his booth by a member of the Rockefeller clan, who persuaded him to elope with her to the United States.

Jolly’s hunger act wasn’t the only one in town. A competitor plied his version of aesthetic inanition at a Berlin eatery by the name of Zum Goldener Hahn. His was a more dignified mien. Like Jolly, he took languid pulls from a cigarette as diners looked on. Unlike Jolly, however, he wore a dress jacket. He was also similarly confined, only his clear-walled prison was a giant bell jar rather than a glass booth. Enclosed with him was a marble table on which sat a glass of water. The resident hunger artist would gaze at it as if contemplating a sip, and the pose delighted diners as they put away plates of schnitzel and fried potatoes. A blackboard displayed near the performer’s bell jar kept a running total of his days without food.

Strange as Weimar-era hunger artists seemed, they were among the tamer attractions that the city had to offer. Berliners could seek other, more immersive respites from their intolerable reality. Some restaurants featured waiters dressed as celebrities — Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, or Sandra Bernhardt. Others conjured entire exotic locales. The restaurant Heaven and Hell invited a patron to choose between being served by angels or devils. (In celebration of their moral decay, many chose to dine with the latter.) “Every nation under one roof,” read the motto of Haus Vaterland, an immense complex of twelve theme restaurants. Patrons could sip whiskey in a Wild West saloon while being waited on by servers in ten-gallon hats, or they could take tea beneath the cherry blossoms of a Japanese garden. Those who hankered for something more familiar enjoyed sausage in a Viennese cafe, where they could gaze upon an artificial panorama of bosky hills entwined with rail lines and canals upon which steamed trains and boats.

As impressive as these feats of imagination were, nothing could compare to the Vaterland’s most impressive restaurant of all: the Rhineland wine terrace. Here a 70-foot panorama of the Rhinish countryside took center stage. An artificial river flowed past castle ruins, and each hour an ingenious contraption produced a rainstorm, complete with thunder and lightning. At the storm’s climax, a downpour gave way to sunshine and rainbows. “These five minutes were said to be the best theater in Berlin,” one devoted patron of the establishment attested.

Vaterland may have offered the best theater, but it was the Residenz-Casino that offered the best chance for diversion of the more sumptuous kind. Built in 1908, this wonderland of dance halls and dining rooms, known popularly as the Resi, accommodated up to a 1,000 people on several floors. Diners and dancers could gaze heavenward at ceilings painted with exotic flora and brightly colored birds, or marvel at geysers that spouted colored water above which dozens of mirrored balls twirled and split open like sparkling flowers. If these scenes didn’t sufficiently awe them, they could beguile the evening hours in a wine room, shooting gallery, or even a carousel upon which the young at heart clung to the necks of gaily painted horses.

Yet these rooms were a mere foretaste of the main attraction: vast dining halls featuring tables at which telephones and pneumatic tubes had been installed. Here would-be Lotharios could call up some fetching lady across the room. If she showed herself receptive to this initial overture, the suitor could order a trinket from a menu containing some 135 items (perfumes, cigar cutters, chocolates) and send it via an elaborate system of pneumatic tubes. Attached to the end of each tube was a basket to catch the bauble. Evenings at the Resi were whiled away sending and receiving messages and gifts. And lest things becoming too bawdy, messages were waylaid by censors for inspection before being sent to their destination.

”We want narcotics and kisses to forget our wretchedness.“ Such was the sentiment of interwar Weimar Berlin as summed up by writer Klaus Mann. Restaurants of the period offered both. Unfortunately, the diversions they offered could not halt history’s march. Allied bombers destroyed the Resi in 1944, and the other restaurants fared little better. Yet their memory lives on, a testament to the ingenuities that can arise amidst human misery. Our own dreary moment has yet to give rise to such fanciful haunts, but should you wish to create a Resi of the mind, try this recipe for fried pork cutlets from the Henriette Davidis Kochbuch (1920, published in Berlin).

Scheinekotelettes gehackt (Fried pork cutlets)

Season two pounds ground pork with some pepper and finely chopped onion. Then form them into patties and dip into egg and breadcrumbs. Fry in butter or lard on both sides until nicely browned.

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