I alight from the U-Bahn train at Schlesisches Tor and clang down the ironwork stairs to emerge into Kreuzberg. I know I've arrived in Berlin's coolest neighbourhood because the 19th-century public toilet under the railway bridge is now a burger joint. Across the way is an old-fashioned Schlesi or late-night beer shop full of yellow-labelled Radlers and Berliner Kindl, which – surely strangely for a beer – features a child on its label. The street is clogged with winos, bare-midriffed youngsters and immigrants swathed in black.
I'm here to meet Dov Selby, founder of Berlin's Fork & Walk Tours. He's an Aussie expat who has lived here for more than a decade, has a German wife and found his love of food through his grandmother's Shabbat cooking. His relaxed, sociable small-group tours of Berlin's most eclectic neighbourhoods are based around progressive meals. Kreuzberg promises to deliver in spades.
Kreuzberg is a youthful, gritty district of Berlin that hasn't been as gentrified as others such as Prenzlauer Berg or Scheunenviertel. It retains the edginess it acquired in Cold War days, when it was favoured by immigrants, squatters and the alternative thanks to its undesirable location, surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall. One of the last decent chunks of the Wall sits on the Spree riverbanks and has become famous for its artworks, most notably a depiction of former East German leader Erich Honecker and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, locked in a passionate embrace.
Many Kreuzberg buildings are adorned with ever-changing graffiti, some from big-name street artists. It's just one aspect of the neighbourhood's creative vibe. Artists inhabit shared spaces and street musicians twang on every corner.
"David Bowie hung out here in the 1970s, recording his Berlin Trilogy and sharing a flat with Iggy Pop," says Dov. "His favourite club, S036, is still there and still celebrating its punk past. The nightclubs around Oranienstrasse are still going strong."
This is a good place to be on a tour. In outward appearance, Kreuzberg is one of those neighbourhoods a traveller ought to avoid. It's ramshackle and scribbled-upon, full of bare-bones bars and grubby shops and the glottal murmur of Middle Eastern languages. Yet this is its appeal, too. Pink-haired punks mix with long-haired artists, and bearded hipsters with Turkish immigrant women in head scarves, hauling shopping bags of eggplants and herbs.
Our first stop is Markthalle Neun, which Dov explains is the last beautifully restored survivor of many former 19th-century indoor market halls in Berlin. We're here on Thursday, a particularly good time to visit because of its eruption of food stands, where restaurateurs and street-food experts from across Berlin test their latest recipes on an eager public.
Our first stop is Alte Milch for cheese melts made with Spanish sheep's cheese and Hofkäse, given a wonderful kick with the addition of kimchi. The shop only offers about 10 cheeses at a time, but they're always esoteric: Corleggy raw goat's milk cheese from Ireland, perhaps, or Herve Doux rind-washed soft cheese from Belgium.
At Tofu Tussis, the owners make all their own tofu, flavoured with smoked seaweed, red wine or peanut-chilli sauce. Then we move on to Berlin Beef Balls for classic bouletten (rissoles) with onion, mustard and parsley, as well as fusion versions flavoured with lemongrass, ginger, chilli and coriander. Later, I wander past stalls serving smoked fish and soul food – German classics such as Semmelknödel (bread dumplings) and jerk chicken.
Our next stop is Goldies just a few blocks away. It opened in 2017, when two chefs working in a three-star Michelin restaurant quit to open a chip shop. They've taken chips to about as high as gastronomic level as they're ever going to get, double fried and served with creative gastronomic toppings. Our little group gets a sampling of four, with two clear winners: Beijing duck with hoisin and plum sauce; and the Odessa, with beetroot and a white cabbage and carrot salad, served with a shot of vodka.
Chips are ubiquitous in Berlin. Currywurst is the classic Berlin street snack and Curry 36 the place to go in Kreuzberg for this legendary late-night snack, according to Dov.
To outsiders, Berlin's addiction to sausage sprinkled with curry powder, accompanied by chips slathered in both ketchup and mayonnaise, seems inexplicable but it's something visitors have to try at least once.
If that's not to your taste, Kreuzberg has much more to offer. I pick Dov's food-fevered brain and return a few days later for another dose of Kreuzberg.
BRLO Brwhouse ticks every cool Kreuzberg box: it creates craft beers served inside former shipping containers beside a park created from railway wasteland. Nest Cafe epitomises Kreuzberg, too. The building is a former convent turned shared arts space, and the food – a German-Mediterranean blend – is best for brunch.
Five Elephant has possibly the best coffee in the city – it roasts Kenyan beans on the premises, and knocks up a good cheesecake, too. Beer garden Die Henne is known for just one thing: its crispy, deep fried half chicken, served with sides such as coleslaw and potato salad. It's a cult destination for Berliners, having survived since 1908 – the Berlin Wall once ran right across the front garden, where I kick back with a beer. If you'd rather have wine, head to Ottorink Wine Bar and chat to the knowledgeable bar staff about their interesting German white wines, particularly those from the Moselle region.
Our Fork & Walk tour finishes at Doyum Restaurant, a great Anatolian diner serving meyhane kofte (meatballs in tomato sauce) and a dozen types of kebab such as iskender kebap with yoghurt and grilled peppers. It's astonishing that we have room for more food, but this has been a long, slow evening. Somehow, we've digested enough to squeeze in Dov's favourite, the classic Turkish dessert künefe, sweet cheese rolled in pastry, doused in sugar syrup and sprinkled with nuts.
Doyum is off Kottbusser Tor, whose surrounding streets are referred to as Little Istanbul. You'll find some of Europe's best Turkish food here in no-frills eateries such as Adana Grillhaus, which has excellent hummus and lamb chops. Wherever you walk, kebabs turn on giant spits and hubble-bubbles burp from pavement cafes. Graffiti envelops apartment blocks. The U-Bahn stop is like the one I arrived at, reeking of hot metal tracks and sweat. Not the traditional tourist place to alight, but perfect if you have an adventurous spirit and an empty stomach.
Markthalle Neun, markthalleneun.de
Alte Milch, altemilch.de
Tofu Tussis, tofutussis-berlin.de
Berlin Beef Balls, berlinbeefballs.de
Curry 36, curry36.de
BRLO Brwhouse, brlo-brwhouse.de
Nest Cafe, cafenest.de
Five Elephant, fiveelephant.com
Die Henne, henne-berlin.de
Ottorink Wine Bar, ottorink.de
Doyum Restaurant, doyum-restaurant.de
Adana Grillhaus, adanagrillhaus.de
Fork & Walk Tours runs evening progressive dining tours in Kreuzberg district, and has numerous other food-oriented tours in Berlin. See forkandwalktoursberlin.com.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy the German National Tourist Office and Visit Berlin.