‘You were at the Fish, I hear,’ a Berlin friend told me. ‘I didn’t know you were an old hippie.’ Reputations can cling to places as they do to people. Zwiebelfisch, the Berlin inn he was referring to, has not been a haunt of hippies — radicals, more like, ‘the class of ’68’ — for at least two decades. Now it is a home for all-comers; because, in the eyes of some of us who have spent years staring through a glass darkly, it is the finest bar in Christendom.
Sited on the northwest side of Savignyplatz, west Berlin, it may not strike the person wandering along Grolmanstrasse as a world classic. That is part of its charm. Zwiebelfisch does not draw attention to itself. The square is poky, with all manner of bewildered persons occupying its benches. But great pubs and bars create their own mood. Once you cross the threshold you enter a different world. ‘Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate’, reads the inscription above the door, and you don’t have to be a scholar of Dante to know what that means. Yet in 25 years of drinking there I have never seen a drunk, as opposed to somebody who might be drunk. It is a place where everybody, customers and staff, feels at ease with one another.
The foundation of a great bar is good beer. Proper drinkers do not go to a bar to drink wine or to roam ‘the top shelf’, though it is handy to have an abundance of high-class spirits, and Zwiebelfisch cannot be found wanting. The beer list, though not extensive by German standards, is more than acceptable: Schultheiss, the local brew; Erdinger, wheat beer from Bavaria; Kolsch from Cologne; and Budweiser, the great Czech pilsner.
You may sup these (all served in different shapes of glass) either in the back room, which holds about 30 people comfortably, or in the bar, where there are four spurs jutting outwards, at which drinkers congregate, and a row of tables by the window. You will have to share your space at some stage of the evening with Zappa, the house cat, who performs extraordinary feats of athleticism. (Every first-rate bar must have an original feature.)
What creates a truly great bar, though, is the sense that people have lived there; that it is connected to the lives of the regular drinkers. In this regard Zwiebelfisch is unsurpassable. Its wood-panelled rooms are devoted to posters of exhibitions, photographs of customers, and accumulated visual clutter. It is a local, rooted in the daily life and work of a great city. The locals who pop in happen to be largely people who use their minds for a living.
Like many German bars, it feels utterly natural. Nobody wants to make it more amenable to young people — or what brewing companies in this country think young people want a bar to look like. And, thankfully, the food is good, plain pub grub at decent prices.
It helps if a bar has a great guv’nor, an English word that cannot properly be translated, and again Zwiebelfisch comes up trumps. For the past 31 years the place has been run by Hartmut Volmerhaus, who was born in Osnabruck but is now very much a Berliner, with a Berliner’s quick wit and amused tolerance. There are many outstanding bars in this superb city, which grows livelier by the day, but he presides over one which continues to be primus inter pares.
A final thing. Translated into English the name means onion fish, which seems to make no sense. In fact Zwiebelfisch is a typographical term to distinguish one letter (in this case b, inked in red) which stands out from the black figures in the typeface. So it does make sense! And it makes perfect sense for all drinkers to visit this wonderful place, to see what a great bar looks like when people are wise enough to leave alone. They even serve old hippies too, if they promise to behave.