AFAR chose a destination at random and—with 24 hours’ notice—sent celebrated food writer Ruth Reichl to a German city not exactly known for its cuisine.
When the man at border control asks why I’ve come to Frankfurt I give him my standard answer: “I’m here to eat.” This is usually good for a few restaurant recommendations; now it gets only a laugh. “Hey,” the officer shouts to his colleague in the next booth, “she’s here to eat!” He stamps my passport with an emphatic thwack. “Good luck to you!”
“Frankfurt?” my friends all said, disbelief vying with disappointment in their voices, “in December?” Intrigued by the prospect of my Spin the Globe adventure, they’d spent weeks imagining where I’d end up. On the morning my ticket arrived, the phone rang constantly.
“AFAR covers the entire world, and they choose Bankfurt?” said one. “It’s all banks, bad food, and cold weather.”
My husband suggested I contract a sudden illness.
But I had hope: Twitter has come through in the world’s tiniest towns, and I sent off a cheery tweet. The silence was deafening; not a single one of Frankfurt’s 700,000 inhabitants responded.
As the hours ticked by I became increasingly despondent. “Book yourself a great hotel,” my husband suggested. “If worse comes to worst you can stay in your room and write.” Somewhat guiltily I took his advice and found an online deal at the extremely posh Villa Kennedy. Then, without a single plan, I headed to JFK.
“You’re going to love Frankfurt,” he begins. “Even its image of itself is dysfunctional.”
The Frankfurt airport is right in town, and my taxi driver spends the 10-minute drive to the hotel extolling the delights of the city’s cider taverns. “No, no,” I say, visions of oompah bands dancing in my head, “I’m not looking for tourist places.”
“But I assure you,” he says, insistent, “this is where we all go.” As I count out the euros, he adds darkly, “Don’t believe what others tell you; go only to Adolf Wagner.”
At the hotel (even more luxurious than advertised), I check my messages and gleefully discover a new one. “You don’t know me,” a man has written, “but I’m an American who’s lived in Frankfurt for 25 years.” A friend of a friend of a friend, Steve suggests meeting for coffee at Plank Café.
Map in hand, I leave my hotel in the proper, prosperous Sachsenhausen district, cross a bridge and plunge into the gritty reality on the far side of the river. It is almost dark, and as I pass the gloriously gloomy train station a trio comes stumbling toward me, obviously strung out on drugs. A twinge of adrenaline shoots through me. How do I know this stranger I’m about to meet is really who he says he is?
But Plank Café turns out to be warm and cozy, and as I breathe in the scent of espresso and steamed milk, I slowly start to thaw. The people all around me have their laptops open as if they’ve been perched on these stools all day. I’m studying faces, wondering which one belongs to Steve, when a robust man with a guileless smile bursts through the door and makes straight for me. “I looked you up on the Internet,” he admits, holding out a large hand.
He pulls up a stool. “You’re going to love Frankfurt,” he begins, losing no time. “It’s such an interesting city, but nobody knows it. Even its image of itself is dysfunctional.” He starts pulling bits of paper from sundry pockets, each scribbled with the names and numbers of people he thinks I should meet.
“Ata’s always in a hurry,” says Steve. “He has so many things going on. The Museum Angewandte Kunst once hosted an entire exhibition on his projects.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s a people connector.” Seeing my puzzled face Steve tries to explain. “He’s sort of an artist, but food is his medium. In Frankfurt, food and art are intertwined. Surely you’ve heard of the Städelschule?” From a long-ago art history class I dredge up a memory; the school attached to Frankfurt’s Städel Museum has an international reputation for experimental art, and it attracts students and professors from all over the world.
“They’ve incorporated cooking into the curriculum.” He offers this like a gift. “When Peter Kubelka began teaching there in 1978, he insisted they install a serious kitchen. He says it’s impossible to make great movies if you can’t cook, so they gave him the title Professor of Film and Cooking. Kubelka’s no longer there, but the school still takes food seriously. You should go take a look.”
He pauses for a sip of coffee. “And then, of course, there’s the Frankfurt Kitchen.”
He is openly disappointed by my blank face.
“You’ve never heard of it? Everybody who lives in a 20th-century apartment has some version of a Frankfurt Kitchen. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was Austria’s first woman architect, and her 1926 designs for the kitchens in a housing project here completely revolutionized the process of cooking. One of our most interesting restaurants is named for her.” Struck by a sudden inspiration, he beams. “We’ll have lunch there tomorrow. I’ll get Ata to join us.”
By the time we part I’ve got lists of people to meet, places to go, museums to visit. “And,” Steve offers as a parting shot, “you have to go to a cider tavern. I’ve asked around, and this is the best place.” He presses a final slip of paper on me. I look down: Hof Seppche.
Walking to Margarete the next morning, I venture into the Kleinmarkthalle covered market, strolling through displays of radicchio, lovely as candy canes, and porcini so plump they make my fingers itch with desire. The cases filled with wild geese make me long for a kitchen. Then I see a long line snaking down one wall, and although I have no idea what this throng is so eagerly awaiting, I instantly join it. As we inch our way forward the scent of spiced pork grows increasingly strong, and I see that two older women are plucking thick coils of sausage from boiling kettles, inserting them into rolls, and handing them over.
“Frau Schreiber has the best sausages in Frankfurt,” says the portly man behind me. “Get the Fleischwurst. It’s my favorite.”
The sausage is pale, warm, and lightly spiced. Dipped into a puddle of mild mustard it is the most comforting substance I’ve ever eaten. I take a bite, then another, chasing the flavor, and suddenly the huge sausage has completely disappeared. I groan, thinking of lunch—it was utterly irresistible.
Frankfurt is a compact city where nothing is very far away, and Margarete turns out to be just around the corner. Yet, as I leave the bustling market hall and walk a few steps into the spare, modern restaurant, I can’t help feeling I’m traveling through time. Even the people here look different: young, thin, casual. Steve is sitting before an array of salads—lentils, hummus, feta with dates—and as I take a seat he pushes a bowl of grüne Sosse in my direction. “Try this with those hard-boiled eggs. Legend has it that it was invented by Goethe’s mother.” (This is a beloved local myth, but probably untrue. The first recipe for the delicious herbed yogurt sauce was published nearly 30 years after Goethe’s death.)
We are munching our way through the salads when the chef, Simon Horn, joins us. It’s that kind of a place. Horn is so hip and handsome that heads turn, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “I’ve spent all morning with bureaucrats,” he says wearily. “We want to create a moving restaurant on a tram. Wouldn’t it be great to roll through Frankfurt eating a beautiful four-course meal? But the paperwork!” He pours homemade pear schnapps into delicate glasses, and the aroma leaps into the air, fragrant as fruit still hanging on a tree. He’s pouring out more when Ata arrives, dripping apologies. “I had a meeting at Club Michel . . . ”
“Is that a restaurant?” I ask.
“No,” Ata replies, “it’s a whisper club.” I look at him, baffled. “You know—like a secret place for members.”
His face lights up. “Exactly. But we serve food—and anyone can belong. You just go on the website, sign up for the newsletter, and bing! You’re a member.”
“But Steve says you’re not a chef.”
“I’m a DJ. At first I created clubs, but after a while I realized I didn’t see my friends anymore. So I made a restaurant for them.”
“We’re coming tonight,” Steve informs him. Ata shakes his head. “No you’re not.” Steve looks chagrined. Grinning, Ata adds, “You’re doing something more interesting. You’re coming to the fundraiser at the Städelschule.”
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Then he’s gathering up his papers; the man is always in motion. “See you there at seven.” He hurries off but turns at the door to toss off a few suggestions. “Go look at the Freitagsküche at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s a café run by artists. And go eat at Mario Lohninger’s restaurant; he’s the one who brought cool food to Frankfurt. Most of all, don’t leave without visiting Zum Gemalten Haus—it’s the city’s best cider tavern.”
I head off for the Museum of Modern Art but find that a third lunch is beyond me. Instead, I spend the afternoon exploring the museum’s avant-garde collection, standing for a long time in James Turrell’s mysterious Twilight Arch, feeling pleasantly disoriented.
Dinner, however, turns out to be a far more disorienting work of art. As Steve and I enter the Städelschule, a young woman in traditional Korean dress hands us each a huge glass of unfiltered soju. “Go have your picture taken with our fearless leader,” she commands, pointing to a life-size cutout of Kim Jong Un.
I make my way through the crowded room, thinking how easy it is to distinguish the art patrons—all elegantly coiffed and dressed— from the scruffy artists. A woman floats past waving hands covered in extraordinary jewelry. “Have you heard?” She seems to be talking to me. “The students chose North Korea as the theme for this year’s fundraiser. Isn’t that diverting? Apparently they’re serving the dictator’s favorite food: Big Macs.”
Steve shoots me an apologetic look, and we troop upstairs, where we are assaulted by the powerful aroma of kimchi. We wade into a room filled with flickering films of a belligerent North Korea: goose-stepping soldiers waving flags, tanks rolling through streets. Between the long tables, a young man frantically pedals a stationary bicycle, powering the projector. Martial music blares as the head of the sculpture department, Tobias Rehberger, exhorts us to clap lustily when each course is served, and songs, dances, and pantomimes erupt around us.
On one side of me, the conceptual artist Heiner Blum (his title is “Professor for Experimental Spatial Concepts” at Frankfurt’s University of Art and Design) is extolling the multicultural character of the city. “We have more nationalities here than any place in Germany.” He fishes the first course out of its square cardboard box, and I’m thrilled to see that this “Big Mac” is tuna sashimi between Korean vegetable pancakes. “Typical German food,” Heiner says, his tone so dry I can’t tell if he’s joking.
On my other side, an elegant gallery owner dissects U.S. politics as she piles kimchi onto the second course, a “Big Mac” of bulgogi (Korean barbecued beef ) sandwiched into a brioche bun. Like everyone else in Frankfurt, it seems, she and Blum both speak perfect English, and by the time dessert arrives—another Big Mac, this one a cream puff stuffed with black sesame ice cream and caramelized apples—the atmosphere is so loose, these people no longer feel like strangers.
People mill around, drinking, mingling, and kibitzing with the cooks in the open kitchen.
“Most visitors don’t get to see this side of Frankfurt,” the gallery owner says. “But you must promise to go to a cider tavern, too.” She leans in to whisper conspiratorially. “Everyone will tell you where to go, but I know what I’m talking about. Apfelwein Solzer is the best.”
Over the next few days I discover that Frankfurt has a decidedly gregarious side. So I am not surprised when, at the end of an impressive lunch at his eponymous restaurant, chef Mario Lohninger comes out, sets down a huge pan of Kaiserschmarrn, and greets me like a long-lost friend. I’ve always loved the classic shredded pancake, but this one is truly remarkable, a soufflé so light and airy it seems to float from the fork. Somehow familiar? Then I remember: Lohninger served this in Los Angeles, when he worked at Spago, and again at Danube in New York. “I’m Austrian,” he says, delighted I’ve remembered, “but I love living in Frankfurt. In many ways it’s American; every third person is not German.”
Steve and I finally do make it to the whisper club. Like the city, Club Michel does nothing to advertise itself. From the outside, the modest building offers no indication that a restaurant is hiding inside. We ring the bell, open the door, and find a romantic trail of candles leading us through a dark hall and up some stairs. Ata greets us with glasses of wine. “Come in, come in,” he shouts over the din.
Casually dressed people mill around, drinking, mingling, and kibitzing with the cooks in the open kitchen. When the food is ready, we seat ourselves at the long communal tables, and while we devour a Christmas spread—rare duck breast piled onto a pilaf of dried fruit followed by chocolate cake so intense it might as well be candy—we get to know our neighbors. By the time I leave, I’ve got the names of five more cider taverns I simply must visit.
And so, on my last day, I bow to the inevitable. “But which one?” I ask Steve. “I’ve got a list of a dozen cider taverns, each guaranteed to be the best.”
“They all seem more or less the same to me,” he says. I wince. By now I know that no Frankfurt native could ever say that. “But Zum Gemalten Haus means ‘this way to the painted house,’ and even if you don’t like the food, you’ll be charmed by the murals.”
It sounds exactly like the tourist trap I’d been hoping to avoid, but soon after we arrive, I realize we are the only foreigners in the enormous restaurant, its rooms packed with feasting families. We wander through one space after another, trying to find seats. All around us people devour platters of pork and sausages and down pitchers of cider. We finally find a table, and I discover that the food is not only cheap and generous but also very good. Hours later, as we make our way out past old-fashioned paintings of a bucolic Germany, it hits me that some locals probably love these places precisely because they are more dream than reality. It’s just another sign that they might not appreciate all they’ve got here. For it is Frankfurt’s reality—far richer and warmer than its reputation—that has won me over.
You really should visit.
I know a great cider bar.