celebrating 40 years of paris bar; berlin’s original artists hangout
“Every real artist is at home at Paris Bar.”
It's known as an art centre or at least a meeting place for artists; not only the local Berlin art scene but for stars like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Madonna. Paris Bar in Berlin is above your average French brassiere. Sure, they have caviar and champagne but beyond the gastro, it has been a hub for art and film since this legendary hotspot opened 40 years ago.
As lore has it, one French Army officer during the Cold War hated German food—instead of currywurst, he wanted French Fries (maybe). One former French Armed Forces canteen cook opened Paris Bar in 1950, to the delight of many French dwellers in West Berlin, who craved foie gras and onion soup. Then came along two Austrian art scenestersMichel Würthle, who was rumoured to have worked at Paris Bar years before he took it over, and Reinald Nohal, co-ran the space in 1977. This wasn't the first project of Würthle, who ran Berlin's Exil restaurant back in the early 70s. But this Austrian duo together helped take its classy reputation to the next level, for it became really high society in a time when Berlin was truly bleak.
"Paris Bar has seen everyone come through, all the names that would make all your dreams come true," said Patrice Lux, the curator ofNew West Berlin. "Leonardo diCaprio, Jeff Koons, Yves Saint Laurent… every real artist is at home at Paris Bar."
Crowned with a bright red neon sign above its front doors, anyone can trot under its striped canopy and reserve a table. One can even drop by to peruse the tables and gaze at the art. But to really be included into the Paris Bar elite is a different story altogether. It has been called a bit of a secret organisation with its own informal rules; some would call it a gang where respect and trust must be learned before being accepted into this informal club, reserved for insiders.
This is the restaurant where thenotorious Rolling Stoneinterview with Bowie and Iggy Pop happened, where the writer described the cafe as a scene from Edgar Degas' The Absinthe Drinker, a classic portrait of depressed drinkers looking fabulously drunk. It was also where Pop was so intoxicated, he rolled around on the ice outside. And according to Bowie, it was where they served the best steak frites in town.
The wild anecdotes are endless—German painter Martin Kippenberger paid his tab by trading drawings and paintings for beer and steak frites. Then there's the regular crew of guests here include Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Claudia Schiffer, Damien Hirst, Helmut Newton, Robert Rauschenberg, Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz and Yoko Ono, who posed in a photo hugging Würthle.
Dubbed "the most famous eatery in Berlin," it's also has been called the living room of theBerlin bohème. The way it works is that many tables have a reserved sign, but who they are for remains somewhat unspoken. One legendary tale is that Madonna, who arrived unannounced one afternoon, picked out a table and was told by a waiter that the table was already reserved by Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida. "Who the fuck is Gina Lollobrigida?" asked Madonna, sitting down at the table.
As soon as you walk into the place, you notice the art. Which is everywhere. Among the dozens of paintings by Kippenberger hanging on the walls, salon-style above the white tablecloths, there are also works by Daniel Richter and a framed portrait of Yves Saint Laurent, signed by the designer himself. There are photos of Würthle, who is also an artist and has showed atLondon Frieze Art Fair, alongside Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol.
Wolfgang Müller, a Berlin author and musician who wrote a book entitledSubcultures in West Berlin, 1979-1989, remembers Paris Bar as the only place in the former West Berlin with the label of an "art bar." And it was convenient that there was Berlin's University of the Arts just steps away. "Young art students in the 80s knew that some professors went there to get in contact to gallerists, actors, theatre directors and famous people in influential circles," said Müller. "Some art students followed, hoping to reach art dealers, producers or directors."
In the 70s and 80s, it wasn't really a hub for subcultures and it wasn't ever underground. "It was a mixed place of the established culture, of famous or rich people," said Müller. "But in West Berlin, the borders between subculture and established scene were not so strict like in other cities."
It was really a place that was more than just a celebrity hotspot, as well. "The most famous West Berlin celebrities were just local heroes and completely unknown elsewhere," said Müller. "At Paris Bar, they got the chance to sit next to famous Hollywood stars or internationally-known artists. This mix created an unusual vibe."
Times have not always been kind to Paris Bar. In 2005, they filed for bankruptcy because of complications around paying their taxes. To get the restaurant out of debt, Würthle auctioned one of Kippenberger's paintings for €2.5 million.
Today, Paris Bar is still in operation but the buzzy art scene has moved elsewhere, areas like Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Mitte. Now, the streets of Charlottenburg where Paris Bar is, is lined with Gucci shops and the Bikini Berlin concept mall. The nearby Waldorf Astoria Hotel is where Lady Gaga rolls up in a limo when she's in town.Some say it has lost its cult statusto locations like the Michelin-star restaurant Borchardt in Mitte or even Grill Royal by the Spree.
Paris Bar could have hit its peak in the 80s when a regular cast of Hollywood stars would walk through the doors, as it was a convenient locale for goers of the Berlinale International Film Festival, which has its main theatre only steps away at the Zoo Palace. "Kantstrasse will be as dead as it already looks," writes oneGerman journalist. And the restaurant reviews are somewhat lukewarm once you brush off the stardust,on TripAdvisor, it's described as old school haunt with slow service but still remains busy for late night bites, although the tables are so tight, it's too close for comfort.
But it still remains legendary for its old glamour and everyone in the art and film worlds knows Paris Bar, even if it has its own eccentricities. "Once, when I went for a drink with the artist Bernd Koberling to Paris Bar, a guest asked the waiter: 'Where is your bathroom?'" recalls Müller. "Before the waiter could answer, another guest next to us said: 'Just follow your nose!' I think this might be some kind of typical Berlin humour because the bathroom of Paris Bar is in fact in good condition."
Text Nadja Sayej
Photography courtesy Paris Bar