Modern Berlin is a transient city. The waters of change flow swift. A young population drifts in and out. Those who leave are replenished anew. Trends thrive at the expense of established local business. For years now, the old Kneipes (Berlin’s answer to London’s pubs and Paris’s bistros) and restaurants have been displaced – usurped by burger joints or fusion kitchens kitted out with simple wooden furniture, low-hanging light bulbs and exposed brick. Their shelf life is short, and they themselves will soon be replaced by a new brunch spot, a third-wave café, a Korean BBQ place, and so on.
So it goes.
There is one constant, though. At the heart of the city’s historical centre, there is one restaurant that will outlast them all.
It is older than most of Berlin’s iconic historic monuments. It outdates the Brandenburg Gate by over 150 years, and is older than both the French and German churches on Gendarmenmarkt. When Moses Mendelssohn came to Berlin in 1743, it had already been open for over a century. It predated the Kingdom of Prussia, and outlived her as well.
It’s name is ‘Zur letzten Instanz’.
This eldest of elder statesmen sits just beyond Klosterstraße U-Bahn, a stones throw from the Nikolaiviertel, the oldest part of the city before its obliteration during the Second World War, and has been open since the early 17th century. The plain townhouse adjoining the medieval wall dates back even further, to the 13th century. A former equestrian servant of Georg Wilhelm I, Elector of Brandenburg, had the foundations laid for the restaurant, opening a gin-mill, the Biedermeierstübchen, in 1621. In 1924, the opening of a courthouse on nearby Littenstraße earned the restaurant its present name – guests came from the courts to drink ‘in the last instance’.
During the Second World War, when allied bombs reduced much of the city to rubble, the building that housed Zur letzten Instanz was damaged, but much of the original interior decor and furniture survived in good condition. The facade was restored, and the restaurant reopened in 1963.
The list of famous patrons is long: Silent film icon Charlie Chaplin; Germany’s first iconic film star Henny Porten; painter Otto Nagel. In the early 19th century, having conquered Prussia and wiped out the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, ‘Man of the Century’ Napoleon Bonaparte dined next to the restaurant’s central ornate tiled stove – now, at over 200 years old, the most famous feature of the interior.
The rest of the space retains a sense of history too. Dark wood panelling, weathered by the passing centuries, surrounds much of the space. Shelving atop the panelling provides a vantage point from which trinkets from bygone eras – clay drinking vessels, antique advertising signage and even a pointed Prussian army helmet – peep down on diners. The terracotta tiled floor and robust furniture lend the dining areas an appropriate air of permanence. Elegantly threading its way between the two dining rooms is a steam-engine green, iron-wrought spiral staircase in the baroque style.
From the outside ‘Zur letzten…’ is understated, the green shutters and flower boxes below the second floor windows adding a welcome lick of charm. A beer garden out back on the cobbled old-town streets allows for outdoor dining and drinking in the shade of overhanging trees.
On the menu, as you might guess, is traditional fare which, as German cuisine tends to do, errs on the side of the rustic and robust. For those of daintier appetites there’s light meals – cold cuts with accompanying breads, juicy pickled pork brawn with sauce gribiche, and the classic Berliner Boulette (a meatball of minced pork), for example. Heartier meals include pork knuckle, either grilled or boiled Berlin-style, veal with apple, spring leeks, and carrots, and a monster 1 kg coté de boeuf to share between 2-3 people. All ingredients are sourced locally from Berlin and surrounding Brandenburg.
If you’re a vegetarian, be aware, your choices will be, putting it politely, limited. If you’re searching for the traditional Berlin dining experience, though, and want to soak up a little history while you sate your hunger, you won’t find any other place in the city with richer heritage.