If Prague is an enchanting, fairy tale of a city, red-roofed and charming, sitting pretty and proudly on the banks of the Vltava River, its buildings and bridges virtually unscathed by world wars, Berlin is its gritty comic book cousin. Almost entirely re-built, Berlin is both beautiful and edgy. Thought provoking street art and installations keep it moving forward, always reinventing its façade on both sides of the now imaginary wall. The graffiti art here isn’t hastily removed but admired, appreciated and applauded instead. Off-leash dogs, dedicated bike lanes on every street, vast green public parks and tree-lined boulevards all pleasantly surprised and I fell hopelessly in love. Berlin simply oozes style.
It all started with a simple question: “Can you recommend a good absinthe bar?”
It was our first afternoon in Prague and as we ransacked the magical city for our tour guide’s favourite bars and beer gardens on our ‘History of Beer’ tour, my travel partner-in-crime, Brian, asked the fatal question that would send us on a whirlwind, six day adventure spanning two incredible cities and countless, out-of-the-way, but highly recommended drinking establishments.
Although our Idaho born but recently relocated guide was purely a beer monger (he brewed his own), he answered unequivocally and without any hesitation, leaving us no room to question his answer.
“Oh, that’s easy,” he said, “Hemingway’s.”
Our three hour beer tour turned into a six hour good time and as we headed back to our hotel for a change of clothes, there was never any doubt that we’d end up in the suggested Hemingway’s as fast as our still-thirsty feet could take us.
Hemingway’s –Prague (Nove Mesto)
At ten-thirty in the evening, on a quiet winding street in Prague’s ‘New City’ we found what we came for and were met inside by a statuesque blond hostess who suggested we come back in a half an hour or so, as the bar was currently full. We lit a cigarette outside and waited and eventually found our way in.
Seating only about a dozen people, the place was a dark and smoky masterpiece. Classic dark wood but somewhat nondescript otherwise, it catered mainly to locals and was easily likeable. Through catchy 50’s tunes, we were greeted and promptly given cocktail menus along with a ‘Rules of the Bar’ checklist, which strangely advised against speaking to or buying drinks for fellow patrons. It was recommended all messages and any drinks you may want to buy for someone outside of your party be relayed through the bartender. Hmmm … okay.
In his good English, our waiter caringly explained the page-long absinthe list and we opted for the distilled Czech gem, St. Antoine, to start. The apparatus brought before us stood on our table like a proud trophy, working diligently, teeter-tottering to drip ice-cold water into our wormwood drinks to dilute them. When the water half-filled our glasses we shut off the spouts, clinked our glasses and jumped in. Taking a good pull from our drinks, we were immediately warmed up. And I do mean immediately.
We systematically worked our way through the absinthe page, trying another Czech offering each before moving on to their French selections and continued to chat to our busy yet friendly waiter who eventually set up our next night’s shenanigans at a place he frequents after his shifts, Black Angel’s Bar.
Black Angel’s Bar – Prague (Stare Mesto)
Surprised to find the bar directly in the touristy Old Town Square, I had my doubts. At least it was in the basement, I remember thinking, as the last place I wanted to be was in some tourist trap but alas, there we were. I almost didn’t want to like the place but the fireplace, exposed brick, dim-orange lighting and boxes of Cohibas locked behind glass on the wall gave the space enough warmth and character that we took a seat at the bar.
Pavel wore a classic white shirt, a vest and a bow-tie and was the head bartender on duty. He quickly served up a couple of drinks that weren’t on the menu and we got to chatting. Having learned the tricks of the trade as an apprentice, Pavel was an old-school mixologist, young and very charismatic. A couple of drinks in, we got to talking about our itinerary and the unfortunate fact that this was our second last night in Prague, headed for Berlin. Pavel’s face lit up.
“Really? Berlin is the best – my favourite city. I’m going in two weeks.” He offered.
It turned out that Bacardi was holding this year’s biggest mixology competition in Berlin and that he was set to compete in it. He quickly grabbed a pen and paper to jot down his favourite Berlin hangouts for us to try, beaming with excitement as he briefly explained each place he scribbled down.
Feeling warm and fuzzy, we struck up a conversation with a trio of patrons who we overheard raving about the bar we were in and how inexpensive it was compared to their hometown of London, England. Basically, a 150CZK (Czech Koruna, approximately $8CAD or just over 4GBP) two ounce cocktail would have cost double or more where we’re from. Pavel handed over his ‘must-do bars in Berlin’ list and left us with one more suggestion – his go-to spot in Prague, Bugsy’s. Armed with our new British friends, his Berlin bar list and our alcohol induced glow, we wished Pavel good luck in his upcoming competition and headed straight for the next watering hole.
Bugsy’s – Prague (Stare Mesto)
Just a five minute walk from Old Town Square, Bugsy’s is an institution. Upscale and inviting, it serves up both traditional and innovative cocktails as well as single malt whiskeys, a plethora of good rums and even some fine bottles of bubbly. Bugsy’s is the most decorated bar in the Czech Republic, having won countless mixology awards over the years. Their collection of bottles behind the bar seemed endless. When we got there, the place was fairly sparse and we all took a seat at the bar.
Jacob tended bar dressed in the same traditional white shirt, suspenders and bow-tie and was as professional as you’d want a barkeep to be. Having run out of cigarettes, I asked if the bar had any on hand. Before I knew it, Jacob had his hand out holding a newly opened pack, three cigarettes protruding waiting on my selection while his other hand waited, baited with fire to light my choice. I then fell enamoured with a drink I ended up trying at almost every subsequent bar stop, the New Orleans staple and now my beloved, the whiskey sazerac.
1 ½ ounces rye whiskey
½ ounce absinthe
1 sugar cube
3 dashes of bitters
Twist of lemon peel
Comfortable and feeling even warmer and fuzzier, I jumped in to my fluent Czech and genuinely surprised Jacob. I explained that I was born in Prague and lived there till I was eight years old before moving to Toronto. He opened up and we naturally got on the subject of hockey, which he played semi-pro with an ex-Maple Leaf defenceman in the Czech town of Kladno. And so it went. Around us, the place was starting to fill up quickly and Brian and I started to feel a tad under-dressed. Staying nearby, we ran back for a wardrobe change and returned for a few more drinks.
At around two or three in the morning (there is no city imposed ‘last call’, each bar sets their own) we stumbled over to a near-by honourable mention, bar James Dean for a nightcap. With booming rock music, a busy dance floor and caged go-go girls, it was loud and typical and didn’t overly impress. We stayed for a quick drink and left to go get some sleep before our early train the next morning.
Butcher’s Bar – Berlin (Mitte)
Our introduction to Berlin’s cocktail bar scene was through the front door of a random currywurst shop at a busy intersection. Once inside, between an old photo booth and an antique phone booth hid the door bell. We rang and waited until a young, friendly hostess let us in and escorted us to the bar. The dark, tiled and red neon-lit room was compact with maybe half a dozen seats at the bar and another six tiny tables seating two abreast lining the walls. Behind the bar, bottles of predominantly gin hung from the ceiling on thick, metal chains and a busy bartender greeted us.
My sazerac was perfect. The Bohemian crystal glass it came in was just as impressive and the Pimms Cup that followed was just as good. We could have stayed longer but unfortunately, our itinerary had more in store for us and we needed to get a move-on. As we paid up and made our way upstairs to exit, we couldn’t help but grab a currywurst to share. The sausage (served crispy-fried or boiled) is the ultimate German drinking snack. Plain with a side of rye bread would have been good enough but the house-made ketchup with curry powder sauce took it to another level and lined our bellies perfectly for our next stop.
Green Door – Berlin (Schoneberg)
Probably the easiest to find from the list of bars we were given, the Green Door is tucked away behind a boring curtain and a stunning, heavy, green padded door, but this time, no door bell to find and no hostess to wait for. Inside, a bar the length of the room with two available seats awaited us. A pack of the bar’s matches matched the green, wood grain walls and appropriately read ‘The power of positive drinking’.
The crowd a little older, it seemed like the place was enjoying its glory days, now removed from the hidden bars of Berlin list, graduating to a more mainstream offering. The service was slow but the drinks were potent. Champagne seemed to mix into many of the signature cocktails and a bottle was shared by our neighbours a few seats down. My eyes scanned the room’s kitschy black and white photos that adorned the checkered back wall. Eclectic, portrait-style images of bull mastiff dogs, seemingly random folks and simple black and white sketches of boats balanced the otherwise upscale atmosphere.
The bar became quite busy fast and we decided to change it up again.
Becketts Kopf – Berlin (Prenzlauer Berg)
By the flashing ‘Closed’ sign above the hard-to-find door, we thought our luck had finally run out. Lighting a cigarette while thinking up a Plan B, we noticed someone ringing a bell on the door we almost tried. As he waited to be let in, we walked over and pointed to the neon above us only to be told that “it’s fine” and “that’s how the bar operates.” Within seconds, all three of us were inside, cramped around a small, rectangular bar that felt more like a teppanyaki station. We were quickly handed a couple of old hardcover books of playwright Samuel Beckett’s plays, throughout which the shuffled bar menu was affixed – awesome. The most creative menu I had ever seen.
The place was tiny – twelve, fourteen drinkers max and the drinking glasses were tiny too, almost a mix between a shot and a rocks glass. The drinks that filled them packed a hell of a punch however and explained the size of the glasses instantly. The place felt exclusive. Not stuffy, nose-in-the-air exclusive but more like a secret, like it was a privilege to be there and it became my favourite. The lone host and waiter poured us the customary glass of water each and asked Brian a series of questions after Brian asked for something off the menu.
“Is there any liquor you don’t like? Sweet, tart or bitter? Do you have any ailments?”
The busy barkeeper nailed it and nailed my Old Fashioned too. This locals-only hangout was the friendliest yet, perhaps its patrons thinking we were locals for having found the place. Soon we were having a laugh with an attractive young couple, of which one worked for Montreal’s ‘Vice’ magazine, and soon after that, a couple of Berliners from down the street, one of whom lived about 10 minutes from where I do now in Toronto, a few years back. We stayed, indulged and conversed, basking in the novel concept of no last call.
Stagger Lee – Berlin (Schoneberg)
Late, we fittingly stumbled into our last haunt of the night, the busy yet relaxed, Stagger Lee. Off a main street on a quiet residential block, the bar felt like a classic, prohibition-era speakeasy with one thing missing. Could this be the first non-smoking bar we’ve encountered all trip? Nah, the smoking section was in the back, through the saloon style doors. But it was nice to have an option. Nineteen-thirty’s jazz filled the room in which we were pretty sure we were the only out-of-towners.
It may have been a travel bug, the excess absinthe or my three days of Oktoberfest in Munich before Prague and Berlin (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that) but whatever it was, my immune system was suffering and even though my fever broke a day earlier, I was still a sniveling mess. When the bartender asked us what we’d fancy, I explained my condition to which he sweetly responded with “Oh, sorry to hear. I’ve got the perfect thing” and proceeded to concoct my cure, the aptly named ‘Penicillin’ and cured I felt – until the morning anyway. I was out of gas. I drank up but I was done.
Prague and Berlin’s bar scenes served us well, maybe too well. I felt like Hemingway himself, minus the talent. I felt like Stagger Lee, if that was even a real person. But most of all, I felt like I saw and did what I came to see and do. Besides the excessive drinking, we did see the sights and had a delicious slice of each electric city, experienced it like locals and lived to tell the tale (barely). And if you’re wondering about beer, the iconic drink of both Germany and the Czech Republic and another personal love of mine, well that is a whole other story.