How Berlin is blazing a trail in zero-waste, sustainable food

Sustainability and culinary creativity are at the heart of the German capital’s most exciting restaurant experiences, from a contemporary Thai feast to herbs grown with cutting-edge technology.

By Christie Dietz
Published 26 Dec 2021, 06:05 GMT, Updated 4 Jan 2022, 09:36 GMT
Berlin Cathedral with the famous TV Tower in the background.

Berlin Cathedral with the famous TV Tower in the background.

Photograph by AWL Images

With the end of my knife, I poke the plump, creamy orb of burrata idling before me in a red ring of fermented tomatoes and note, not unhappily, that I’m going to need some of Café Frieda’s freshly baked bread.

As I sponge up the last of my luxurious late lunch with a thick slice of sourdough, while gazing out the window at a drizzly square in Prenzlauer Berg, owner Samina Raza whirls in through the door. Cheerfully sliding into a chair beside me, she offers coffee and a crumbly shortbread sandwich biscuit made with homemade chestnut miso and Franconian fig jam. Samina moved from London to Berlin to join her now-husband, Israeli chef Ben Zviel, whom she met in the queue for the toilets at the German capital’s infamous nightclub, Berghain. Together, they opened lively neighbourhood restaurant Mrs Robinson’s; its vibrant little sister, Frieda, followed in the summer of 2021.

Retro interior of Café Frieda.

Photograph by Robert Rieger

Frieda’s simple dishes showcase ingredients of the very highest quality, and Samina is uncompromising when it comes to their provenance: “‘I’m scrupulous when it comes to sourcing suppliers, and I expect them to have the same degree of integrity,” she says. “What we have in common is craft, skill and respect for what we do.” All the processing and preserving of ingredients — pickling, fermenting, baking — is done on site. The restaurant isn’t quite zero waste, but Samina tells me they use up what they can. “Our kouign-amann [a buttery, Breton pastry] is made using the offcuts from our croissants,” she explains. “With meat, we work with the whole animal. Our bread ends go back to the farms we work with to feed the pigs.” 

The atmosphere at Frieda is fun and relaxed, and I ask Samina if there are other restaurants in Berlin with a similar vibe, while still focusing on high-quality, sustainably sourced ingredients. She reels off a handful of places, including Michelin-starred Kin Dee in Schöneberg.

 Kouign-amann, a buttery Breton pastry at Café Frieda.

Photograph by Robert Rieger

My journey to the Thai restaurant — partly via crowded U-Bahn train and partly by splashing through torrential rain — is richly rewarded with chef Dalad Kambhu’s contemporary tasting menu. Served ‘family-style’ (all at the same time), every dish is beautiful to look at and lovingly made with, as far as possible, regional produce. A pair of peppery nasturtium leaves rest gently on soft patties of venison tartare made with a fiery, homemade chilli paste; shiitake mushrooms and a curl of red onion bathe in a deeply umami bowl of smoked eel broth, garnished with borage flowers grown at a permaculture garden north of Berlin. For dessert, slices of poached pear come with soft meringue and a fish sauce caramel, paired with a pale-yellow Riesling from Germany’s Mosel region. ‘Kin dee’, I learn, is Thai for ‘eat well’ — something that’s not hard to do here.

The next morning, I head to Gropius Bau, an exhibition venue set in a Renaissance-style building close to Potsdamer Platz in the sprawling Kreuzberg district. Inside the grand entrance, an atrium leads into Beba, where I meet the restaurant’s owner, Shani Leiderman, for coffee. Beneath a soaring ceiling, we sit at a small, round table, a basil plant in a glass mug between us, its straggly roots visible in the water beneath. More than a table decoration, it’s all part of the ethos at Beba: at the far side of the restaurant are four rather incongruous, brightly lit glass cabinets stacked with trays of leafy plants. These so-called vertical farms supply the kitchen with all the fresh herbs and leafy vegetables required for Shani’s menu, which, she says, draws its inspiration “from ancient traditions in different Jewish communities around the world”.

Shani points out two types of greens: pak choi (“we use it fresh in salad, it’s soft and young”) and mustard leaves (“usually they wilt so fast they’re unusable; it’s a privilege having them here alive”), as well as an array of herbs, including sorrel, purple basil and dill. The seedlings are delivered twice weekly from a central hub belonging to Berlin startup Infarm, an indoor farming specialist. Once the plants have arrived, there’s little for Shani and her team to do until it’s time to harvest them. “The plants grow in water, not soil, and get exactly what they need: pesticide-free nutrition, light and air. “They’re self-regulating; the rest is connected and controlled by the Berlin control centre,” says Shani. The restaurant can then configure supply to its demand, and Shani doesn’t need any gardening know-how herself. With a line that’s the stuff of science fiction, she continues: “the farmer is in the cloud”.

Gnocchi dish, served at Ora.

Photograph by Zoe Spawton

Leaving Beba behind, I follow a fenced-off strip of the Berlin Wall past the site of the former Gestapo headquarters — today a memorial and museum. After circumnavigating a large group of tourists, I eventually emerge onto Oranienplatz, a wide, scruffy square that’s home to Ora, a restaurant and wine bar set in a Victorian building that once housed an apothecary. The original cornicing, dark-green leather banquettes and wooden cabinets filled with wine glasses and antique potion bottles lend the interior an elegant feel. Irish-born chef Alan Micks, who runs the kitchen both here and at the Michelberger Hotel’s restaurant a couple of miles east, tells me that at Ora they “source local when it feels right. Quality is number one, and local is not always the best”. 

I scan the menu, a neatly printed, single A4 sheet of seasonal dishes and pre-lunch snacks. There’s a starter of zander crudo from the Baltic Sea, served in narrow, translucent strips with charred and pickled cucumbers and ragged-edged shiso leaves from the Michelberger’s own farm. “With our vegetarian food, we try to keep it hyperseasonal, and our aim is to have one ingredient from the farm on each plate,” says Alan. For my main, it’s slices of roasted, chargrilled pumpkin accompanied by puy lentils, their combined earthy, nutty sweetness offset by salty pecorino, a pumpkin-seed pesto and a handful of nubby, pickled chanterelles. Outside the window, Kreuzberg life unfolds: on the opposite side of Oranienplatz, a protest is in progress. Beyond, the huge stainless-steel ball of the Berlin TV Tower glints silver in the sunshine, its red-and-white antennae poking through passing wisps of cloud.

On my last morning in the German capital, I head for breakfast with cookbook writer and activist Sophia Hoffmann at plant-filled, tile-clad Isla Coffee Berlin, in Neukölln, whose shelves are lined with bottles of natural wine and cups made from recycled coffee grounds. A queue of Sunday-morning coffee-seekers has already begun to snake out the door. 

Over bowls of homemade granola with blackberries, fried sage leaves and yoghurt, we talk about how the city’s approach to food waste and produce has changed in recent years. Does Sophia think this is all part of a committed movement or a fleeting trend? “Since I published my first book in 2014, the conversation has changed,” she says. “This sort of thinking is more mainstream.” Along with her business partner, Nina Peterson, Sophia is planning to open her own certified-organic, low-waste, socially sustainable vegan restaurant, and doesn’t feel the need to prove either herself or her concept anymore. “People already understand they should consume fewer animal products,” she says. And if the rest of Berlin’s plant-based, low-waste experiences are anything to go by, she might well be on to a winner.  

Ora, a restaurant set within a former 19th-century apothecary.

Photograph by Zoe Spawton

Three restaurants to visit in Berlin

1. Julius

Expect coffees and pastries by day and a constantly evolving tasting menu by night. Julius showcases organic produce and sustainably sourced meat, fish and dairy from Berlin and further afield in small plates such as horse mackerel on brioche toast with cauliflower puree and umeboshi plum, or glazed pumpkin cooked in dashi topped with Mangalitsa speck. Wine and beer pairings are natural, too. Tasting menu €65 (£55), wine pairings €55 (£46) extra. 

2. Frea

The world’s first 100% vegan, zero-waste restaurant, Frea offers three-, four- and five-course menus of plant-based dishes made with ingredients sourced, as much as possible, from Germany. Aiming to keep its ecological footprint to a minimum, leftover vegetables go into an on-site composting machine. A pretty pear and beetroot dish features braised and poached pear and beetroot, tidy blobs of walnut-almond cream and crunchy slithers of parsnip. Four-course menu €53 (£48), wine pairings €31 (£26) extra.

3. Oshione

Aureen Aipoh started out selling gluten-free banana bread at Kollwitzplatz Farmers’ Market; today, she runs Oshione, whose brunch and lunch menus use organic vegetables from a local supplier. Offerings include soup specials and the likes of toasted banana bread with tahini-date paste, labneh and buckwheat seeds. It’s also coeliac-friendly. From €8 (£6.75).

Wine-tasting at Julius.

Photograph by Meg Sato

Five foods to try in Berlin

Eisbein: Cured, boiled ham hock traditionally served with sauerkraut and pease pudding. This is hearty stuff — leave room in your itinerary for a post-Eisbein nap. 

Chicken Gemüse Kebap: Expand your doner kebab horizons with a chicken, cheese and vegetable version, sandwiched into an oval Turkish flatbread.

Gherkins: Spreewald gherkins are a much-loved product from the state of Brandenburg. Try them in beef roulades or alongside a grilled cheese sandwich.

Senfeier: Hard-boiled eggs in a creamy mustard sauce and served with potatoes. This is a nostalgic childhood favourite for many Berliners.

Kouign-amann: Although this flaky, buttery, sugary pastry hails from Brittany, there are excellent examples in Berlin. Hunt one down and enjoy with a coffee.

Published in the January/February 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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