Since the wall came down in 1989, Berlin has been the locus of some of the biggest hype—and the biggest cranes—in Europe. A who's who of architectural greats have staked claims on Potsdamer Platz, the new center of unified Berlin. But now the country is in a recession, and most of the building has come to a standstill. "During the boom, no one stopped to measure content," says nightclub impresario Markus Orschiedt, who owns Lore, a fashionable bar in East Berlin. "Now that the boom has passed, it is what has survived that is significant."
Nowhere are the innovations of the last dozen years more apparent than in the city's kitchens, where a handful of young chefs are repairing the city's lingering reputation as a culinary void. Thomas Kellermann, the 32-year-old Bavarian chef at Portalis, cooks simple food brilliantly, bringing Germanic notes (roulade of oxtail and sautéed cabbage) to traditional French dishes (consommé of venison with semolina dumplings). At Facil, chef René Conrad creates French dishes that stand up against any in Paris (his impeccable foie gras with duck and Armagnac plums is spoiled only by a smileless sommelier). Our favorite is Margaux—a seductive combination of a brilliant wine cellar, inventive fish dishes, and chef Michael Hoffmann's three-course weekday lunch menu that includes a terrific brill with frozen olive oil and Himalayan salt. And for German comfort food, there is only one address: YVA Suite, a stylish West Berlin hangout that opened last June, where Boris Becker is known to take his Wiener Schnitzel.
The flux of Berlin's last decade has also sparked a cultural awakening. The Gemäldegalerie has been restored, as has the Alte Nationalgalerie, which features a strong collection of 19th-century paintings (don't miss Böcklin's The Isle of the Dead). In the Mitte district, an enclave in the former Communist quarter, contemporary art galleries such as Liga, a quirky consortium of 11 Leipzig artists, have been sprouting up like grass in spring. Other big names in the Berlin art world, including photography specialist Bodo Niemann, have also moved shop to Mitte. But more experimental art is being made in Friedrichshain; Berliners think this neighborhood will eclipse Mitte in two years. Then there is Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum. It is a remarkable experience, the emotive architecture itself a reason to visit, combining gray concrete with sheets of zinc to awesome effect. Add to this last September's arrival: Sir Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic. To hear the maestro conduct ranks as one of the best nights out in Europe.
However, with this cultural vivacity comes a dose of Bohemian grit. Berlin is not beautiful. At night it's ill-lit. It's also struggling, with former Internet kings now mixing martinis. Most ironic of all, Potsdamer Platz, the most famous urban makeover in years, has emerged the white elephant of Europe, an artificial center to an unsettled capital. "Maybe it's a question of time," says a local taxi driver. "But for now, Berlin has two, three, maybe five different centers." Says Orschiedt: "The most people you will ever see in Potsdamer Platz is thirty tourists queuing at a bus stop."
What's good about the new Berlin is not necessarily what's conspicuous. There is a private side to the city, discovered in lounge bars like Greenwich, which has no telephone number, no sign, and only a soft green light where a red velvet rope might be. Inside, chic Berliners sip cocktails surrounded by taupe rubber walls. Next month, a members' club opens on the roof of the Hotel Adlon (still the only place to stay, with an unbeatable concierge; ask for a room facing the newly restored Brandenburg Gate). Called the China Club Berlin, it has a bar and restaurant evoking the silk-and-lacquer decadence of '30s Shanghai. From its leather club chairs you can look down on a city alive with dissonance and possibility. "The appeal of Berlin is its ability to reinvent itself," says Kellermann, the Portalis chef. "My restaurant isn't full, but I'd rather be in Berlin than anywhere else."
• Berlin: Open City is an intelligent, authoritative guide to Berlin architecture. It provides walking tours through fascinating pockets of East Berlin that are a smart way to stray off well-beaten paths. $16 at local bookstores.
• Order monogrammed porcelain from Berlin's premier manufacturer, KPM. You can also pick up near-perfect factory seconds at a 20 percent discount. Look for red price tags. At 100 Strasse des 17 Juni; 49-30-39-00-92-15.
• For the best panoramas of the city, visit Norman Foster's mirror-and-glass Reichstag dome. It also provides a view of the national government conducting business below. (Avoid lines by coming either at 9 a.m. or 10 p.m.) There is also a small roof garden restaurant. Lunch, $50. In the Platz der Republik; 49-30-22-62-99-33.
Portalis Dinner, $120. At 55-58 Kronenstrasse; 49-30-20-45-54-96.
Facil Dinner, $155. At 3 Potsdamer Strasse; 49-30-59-005-12-34.
Margaux Dinner, $130. At 78 Unter den Linden; 49-30-22-65-26-11.
YVA Suite Dinner, $60. At 52 Schlüterstrasse; 49-30-88-72-55-73.
China Club Berlin At 77 Unter den Linden; 49-30-22-61-13-61; www.china-club-berlin.com.
Lore At 20 Neue Schönhauser Strasse; 49-30-28-04-51-34.
Greenwich At 5 Gipsstrasse.
Hotel Adlon Rooms, $380-$8,200. At 77 Unter den Linden; 800-426-3135, 49-30-22-61-11-11; www.hotel-adlon.de.
Alte Nationalgalerie At 1-3 Bodestrasse; 49-30-20-90-58-01.
Gemäldegalerie At 40 Stauffenbergstrasse; 49-30-266-21-01.
Liga At 9 Tieckstrasse; 49-30-28-09-65-88.
Galerie Bodo Niemann At 19 Auguststrasse; 49-30-28-39-19-28.
Jewish Museum At 9-14 Lindenstrasse; 49-30-30-878-56-81.
Berlin Philharmonic At 1 Herbert-von-Karajan-Strasse; 49-30-25-48-80.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.