“Kringelein had gone hot and cold under the supercilious gaze of three waiters while he stared at the cart of hors d’oeuvres which had come to a stop in front of him.” In her 1939 novel “Grand Hotel”, this was how novelist Vicki Baum described the protagonist, an assistant bookkeeper called Kringelein, who, after various twists of fate, had been left marooned in a luxury hotel in Berlin, summoning all his courage to dine in the hotel restaurant. “Kringelein was by no means stupid; he was very willing to learn; and it had not taken him long to see that he was dressed incorrectly and did not know how to make proper use of the array of knives and forks before him. During the entire evening he could not rid himself of a horrible nervous tremor. Embarrassment over tips, and wrong doors and puzzled enquiries kept him in a constant state of painful confusion.”
Things, it would seem, have not changed all that much. Here in Germany, we’re still not quite sure about hotel restaurants. Are you even allowed in if you’re not staying at the hotel? Won’t it cost an arm and a leg? For a long time, hotels were the exclusive domain of the upper classes; ordinary people needed a good reason to set foot inside. The threshold was lowered somewhat by rising prosperity, the West German economic miracle of the 1950s and a new-found love of travel among the masses. “Anyone who travels extensively knows the charming, vibrant feel of hotel life and adapts accordingly”, wrote etiquette guru Erna Horn in 1954. “Eating at the hotel is not compulsory, but it is viewed favourably. If you are staying with full board, you will need to turn up for the meals otherwise the money you paid will be forfeit.” Staying in a hotel was therefore always in the context of travel.
More than sixty years later, hotel stays have become second nature for Germans, who still love to roam. However, this is not necessarily the case when visiting a hotel restaurant, which is still fraught with the same kind of problems experienced by Vicki Baum’s character Kringelein. Am I properly dressed? Can I even afford it? There must be something I’m doing wrong…
For the last four years, Maximilian Specht has been working at the Excelsior Hotel Ernst, which enjoys a prime location opposite Cologne Cathedral, right next to the city’s main train station. Eighteen months previously, Specht (33) took on the mantle of head chef there, his previous positions having included Schlosshotel Lerbach in nearby Bergisch Gladbach. The family-run hotel has two restaurants of its own: the Michelin one-star restaurant Taku, where Mirko Gaul showcases his Asian-inspired cuisine, and Hansestube, a stately establishment with dark wood furnishings and a thick carpet in an understated zebra pattern.
Anyone entering the Excelsior will first pass the blue-uniformed porter. To get to the Hansestube restaurant, you need to take a right through the main entrance and go through the bar and past the in-house shops to reach the “desk” at the entrance. “It’s quite a trek”, says Maximilian Specht, “but I don’t think that puts our guests off. Eighty percent of them are regulars who have been coming to us for decades.” Some families pass down their visits to the restaurant like a kind of heirloom. As Specht recalls: “There is a 90-year-old grandmother who comes with her 60-year-old son who also brings his 30-year-old daughter.” He also notes, however, that more and more people have been coming into the hotel in recent years just to eat at the Hansestube. And because the clientele is getting younger, the restaurant is also tentatively making adjustments to its image. “We still serve classic cuisine but make a point of adding a few younger touches here and there. There will always be fillet of beef on the menu, but we also try to include contemporary dishes that haven’t been part of the French haute cuisine tradition for the last hundred years,” says Specht. A prime example is its pairing of blood sausage and scallops, which older customers — even in open-minded Cologne — often need to be cajoled into trying. The uniqueness of the Hansestube lies in the details that are rarely found in other restaurants these days. A literary guide to Cologne restaurants in 1967 enthuses that “the beef brisket served from a trolley is one of the highlights of any day”. More than half a century later, this is still very much the case. As Maximilian Specht explains: “We still have the traditional silver service — the silver trolley with meat and fish at lunch time, a different dish every day. Our silver service staff spend ten minutes just tending to a single table; it’s quite a sight to behold.” In the near future, he would like to have steak tartare prepared at the table again or to put the restaurant’s flambé trolley back into service. Specht dismisses any suggestion that the Excelsior Hotel is a stuffy establishment: “There are some guests here who order schnitzel every single time.”
In the Hyatt Regency on the other side of the Rhine, it has always been necessary to cross the lobby to reach its Glashaus restaurant. As Marketing Manager Janique Weber explains: “Many customers find it rather unnerving that they have to locate the restaurant first. Restaurants usually have a separate entrance, but in a hotel, you have to look for it or ask at reception. For some people, this might be asking too much.” Weber, originally from the Netherlands, emphasises that this is not necessarily typically German: “Some hotels might maintain a certain distance at times, so they are not seen too much as being part of the public sphere. Many hotels have a restaurant, but it’s not one of their core functions.” It is nonetheless interesting to note that many chefs train in hotels before going on to work in independent restaurants.
As it happens, two additional restaurants were opened in the Hyatt last year. As Janique Weber explains: “We have tried not to set the bar too high and made a point of not branding either Grissini or Sticky Fingers under the Hyatt name. Both restaurants have their own websites and can be reached directly by phone without having to go through reception.” With these new additions, the hotel is bridging the gap that was tentatively covered by its beer garden, putting an end for the time being to speculations about a new restaurant for the Rhine boulevard in Deutz.
With pasta and a selection of meats and fish dishes, Grissini serves up straightforward Italian cuisine with a picture-postcard view of the Rhine, the Hohenzollern Bridge and Cologne Cathedral. The name Sticky Fingers is not only a respectful nod to the title of the famous Rolling Stones album released in 1971, but also describes the street food that it serves to guests, who can eat it with their fingers on the steps of the Rhine boulevard. All of which, one imagines, would have been frowned upon by Erna Horn back in the 1950s. Janique Weber: “Because it doesn’t bear the Hyatt name, it is able to have a completely different style. A street food restaurant doesn’t really fit with the hotel, but it’s perfect for the location.” Both new restaurants, together with their more conservative counterpart Glashaus, cater to a very wide target group. According to Weber: “Nonetheless, even people who are staying at the Hyatt on business visit these two new restaurants. It’s a way for them to leave the hotel bubble and get a bit of fresh air without having to walk very far.”
At the 25hours Hotel in the Gerling Quarter, this ‘hotel bubble’ is actually part of the concept. The names written above the individual alcoves in the lobby read like a trendy shopping street in Berlin: 25hours Things, Record Store, Bike Corner and Co-working. There is often loud pop music playing during the day, and guests who check in in the evening will occasionally have to watch out for staff members cycling around the circular lobby. “Up to 6,000 salaries used to be paid here”, says Marketing Manager Feray Özcan in the former main hall of the Gerling Group. “This building is something of a local institution and roots us firmly in the city.” In September 2018, the hotel opened with what the 29-year-old manager describes as “a shout from the rooftops that echoed for six days”. As Özcan recalls: “I had an opening budget that I could have used for advertisements and so on. Instead, we simply invited lots of people round to eat, drink and stay in our hotel rooms. It was a whole lot of work, but I’d definitely do it all over again.” More than 1,500 neighbours, restaurant and bar owners, industry experts and friends were invited to test not only the hotel rooms, but also the eighth-floor Monkey Bar and Neni restaurant on the roof of the old Gerling building. Feray Özcan: “It’s probably the longest route you’ll have to take to reach the restaurant in any hotel in Cologne. First of all, you have to go through the Gerling Quarter, then walk through 650 square metres of lobby and take the lift to the eighth floor before you finally arrive.” Neni is a cooperation with Vienna-based restaurateur Haya Molcho, who specifies the recipes and chooses most of the suppliers. The five Neni restaurants that she currently runs with her four sons serve up classic cuisine from Israel and the Arab region, such as falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush and lavash flatbread. This is currently all the rage, as is the deliberately relaxed and informal atmosphere.
Feray Özcan: “At the same time, though, we are far removed from local falafel shop on the corner. Our prices are significantly higher — but you get what you pay for in terms of quality and freshness, not to mention the whole vibe and surroundings.” After all, Neni has a view of Cologne Cathedral as well. In spite of this — or perhaps even because of it — Özcan estimates that up to 90 percent of guests come from Cologne itself. “We know this because the proportion of our takings that is charged to guests’ rooms is relatively small.”
Back in the post-war period, Heinrich Böll’s 1959 novel “Billiards at Half-Past Nine” describes the everyday life of Robert Fähmel, son of a prominent local architect, whose days regularly included visits to cafés, watering holes and hotel restaurants. Even though the author did not base the story explicitly in Cologne, certain places and institutions can be identified. For example, he devoted seven full pages to describing lunch at the fictional “Prinz Heinrich” hotel. “Nettlinger’s voice sounded as if he had taken a course on ‘How to Become a Gourmet’. He still could not bear to interrupt the well-rehearsed ritual, and was murmuring to Schrella, ‘Entrecôte à deux, blue trout, veal médaillon’.”
In all likelihood, this was based on Cologne’s venerable Dom Hotel in its 1893 heyday. Today, it resembles a war ruin all over again: owing to extensive difficulties renovating the building, there is still no indication of when it will reopen. Whatever happens, it will be sure to house at least one restaurant at its location, which happens to be right across from the Excelsior Hotel Ernst. With its own entrance, a view of the Cathedral, proximity to the train station — and, one would presume, another concept designed to entice non-hotel guests to come in and see what the menu has to offer.
(by Johannes J. Arens | Photography by Marcel Wurm)