Laundry hangs from the walls and ceiling of Lavanderia Vecchia, an Italian eatery in Neukölln in southwest Berlin. A washing machine sits in a corner, next to exposed plumbing and a ledge dotted with retro soap powder boxes: OMO, LUX, Rinso. None of this is putting diners off their risotto with chanterelles, or their carpaccio de bresaola or any of the 10 taster starters that launch the calorific dinner feast at this former launderette. With reservations booked weeks in advance and strangers rubbing along at simple wooden tables and chairs, the restaurant's purple-hued interior is all part of the magic.
Italian food is big in Neukölln, a borough that was once a crime-ridden no-go and – post the 2009 closure of the nearby Tempelhof airport – is currently in full-throttle trendy mode. But Lavanderia Vecchia serves the best. Tucked away in a shady courtyard, with a relaxed down home ambience despite the hurrying waiters, the restaurant serves a three-course lunch (best have a lie-down afterwards) and the aforementioned set dinner menu (including half a bottle of wine, water, coffee and digestif) that feels like a culinary tour of Italy.
Flughafenstr 46, 12053 Berlin
Turkish food is popular too; not for nothing is Neukölln referred to as the German capital's Little Istanbul. Cumin-flavoured delicacies are a speciality of the neighbourhood, its sprawling Turkish street market takes place each Tuesday and Friday along the canal that separates Neukolln from its nearly-as-cool neighbour, Kreuzberg. If you're lucky enough to be Airbnb-ing it like me, buying up fresh produce – fruit, veg, hummus, flatbread – and eating it at home, or while watching the buskers singing and strumming next to the water, is an excellent way to do lunch.
Maybachufer, 10999 Berlin
Or else go Sudanese. Sahara is an unassuming African joint off Weserstrasse, the epicentre of the suburb's bar and cafe scene, serving a peanut sauce – which is poured over falafel, haloumi, chicken wrap and everything else on the menu – that's the stuff of local legend. More takeaway than cafe, Sahara's clutch of tables and chair are at a premium. Late-night, post-club queues stretch out the door.
Reuterstr. 56, 12047 Berlin
Just as they do at Hamy, a no-nonsense Vietnamese restaurant in Kreuzberg that offers meals for less than five euros, and usually in under five minutes. My coconut chicken curry, garnished with crunchy vegetables and washed down with a decent house white, felt life-affirming.
Hasenheide 10, 10967 Berlin
Back by the canal, more upmarket than the Turkish market, is Cocolo - Berlin's best place for authentic Japanese ramen. This bustling place is a favourite of my Airbnb host Elke; on a warm spring evening we lock our bicycles to the canal railings and take a seat at the lantern-lit patio, drinking rice beer, hot lemonade (really!) and slurping thick, rich ramen soup. "This place even amazes Japanese people," says Elke, which must be true; the couple next to us is from Tokyo.
Gipsstr. 3, 10119 Berlin
There are tapas places, of course: Asian-style tapas at Dr To's, an intimate restaurant whose minimalist interior reflects a menu of 20 different options arranged in groups, from The Meadow (red meat) and The Skies (poultry) to The Waters (fish and seafood). Each delicate serving is arranged just so on a small slab of granite. Home-made dumplings, salmon ceviche and shiittake mushrooms stuffed with prawns and ginger are followed by palate-zinging green tea ice-cream which we eat with teaspoons, keeping things suitably dainty.
Weichselstr. 54, 12045, Berlin
You'll find classical Spanish tapas at Gaston Berlin (try their Sunday paella) and Spanish and Italian-style tapas at the super cool restaurant and cocktail bar Fuchs & Elster, the more pricy menu offers everything from octopus salad to sliced dry-aged flap steak (matured for 35 days) with rosemary-baked oven potatoes and wild herb salad. No matter that the menu and wine list are only in German: "Ask me anything," says Elke, though the waiting staff, with their undercuts and helpful smiles, all speak English, too.
Gaston; Weichselstr. 18 12045 Neukölln Berlin and Fuchs and Elster; Weser Road 207, 12047 Berlin
Of Neukölln's many bars, most of which serve food, Beuster Bar and Vin Aqua Vin stand out. The former, a newly opened gastro pub, has the rough-hewn interior (complete with ceiling mural) so common to the area; cocktails are made with fresh ingredients and the kitchen serves everything from a four-course meal to simple club sangers. Vin Aqua Vin is a wine shop and bar owned and run by Cologne-born chef Jan Kreuzinger, a thirtysomething roué who has created a fine-dining vibe with an accessible price tag. His monthly steak nights, with their grass-fed organic cuts, are allegedly the biz.
Beuster Bar; Weserstrasse 32, 12045 Berlin and Vin Aqua Vin; Weserstr. 204, 2047 Berlin
So many eateries, so little time… There's traditional German cuisine at the cosy, candle-lit Kokolores (schnitzels as big as your head) but I feel like eating clean. Back home at Elke's I read about Sauvage, Berlin's sole pioneer of 'paleolithic cuisine': organic, sustainably sourced low-carb ingredients with no grains, dairy or refined nasties, a la the healthy diet of our overbrowed ancestors.
"That sounds good," I say, as we kick back on the couch. "Is it far?"
"Nope," says Elke. "It's just around the corner."
Kokolores; Weichselstraße 3, 12043 Berlin and Sauvage; Pflügerstrasse 25, 12047 Berlin
The writer stayed with Airbnb.