Cologne is very much a democratic city. Showing off their wealth and splurging on opulent meals isn’t really how the locals roll — despite the fact that the cathedral city features in the Guide Michelin with one 2-star and nine 1-star restaurants. But such accolades have done little to change Cologne’s attitude to dining out.
So, in times of hunger and thirst, the first port of call is usually a “Brauhaus” (brewery). After all, according to Jean-Paul Sartre: “All food is in some way symbolic”. Brewery pubs can be found all over the city but, for historical reasons, most of them are in the Old Town where, for every tourist, you’ll find at least two traditionally brusque “Köbesse”, or waiters, whose cheeky gags have been carefully internationalised over the years. But the term “Brauhaus” is somewhat misleading: most of these establishments only serve the beer, the actual brewing happens elsewhere. The laudable exception is Päffgen, located on Friesenstrasse since 1884. Many locals regard it as the most classic of all Cologne’s breweries, home to an almost socialist drinking culture that encompasses all classes and backgrounds, where the quick-witted waiters treat all thirsty patrons with exactly the same surliness. The food on Friesenstrasse isn’t really worth a recommendation, but it tastes all the better at another brewery pub that also serves Päffgen beer: at Haus Töller on Barbarossaplatz, officially mentioned as a building for the first time in 1343, Cologne’s most beautiful coffered ceiling and skew-whiff furniture come free with your Kölsch. The melt-in-your-mouth knuckle of pork is renowned beyond the city and the tartare is also sensational.
At some point after the umpteenth round of beer, your inebriated self might be forgiven for thinking you’re in Italy. Cologne, after all, is known as Italy’s northernmost city: fifty years ago, it was a popular destination for migrant workers from bella Italia. In every neighbourhood, you’ll come across numerous pizzerias, trattorias and ristorantes catering to every budget and taste. If you want to experience the cream of the crop, you should opt for the city’s only Michelin-starred Italian ristorante and take a seat — in what are probably the most comfortable chairs far and wide — at Alfredo next to the Opera House. Here you’re also paying for the location, history and reputation. Alfredo has meanwhile been replaced by Roberto. He’s the son of founder Alfredo Carturan and also happens to be a trained singer. His Friday evening after-dinner soirées are unrivalled. But it doesn’t always have to be Schubert and turbot; less discerning Italophiles won’t go hungry either. At Veltri for example, just a stone’s throw away, but slightly tucked away at Kolumbahof, you can enjoy a superb antipasti counter, excellent pasta, noteworthy secondi, plus distinctively brash service and a lovely terrace. If you’re out and about in the north, simple meals can be found at places like Bar Celentano and Sant’Angelo, both down-to-earth and inexpensive with best-ignored décor and local regulars aplenty. When in the south, head to the wonderful Teca Di Biase at Eifelplatz and dine al fresco in the sunshine.
Fans of food and architecture shouldn’t miss a visit to the riverside Rheinauhafen in the south of Cologne. The impressive glass upside-down L-shaped Kranhäuser structures and the Siebengebirge storehouse, which has been turned into an apartment building, are distinctive testimonies to modern architecture. Despite being home to several interesting culinary establishments, the city’s prime waterfront complex still isn’t exactly a hive of bustling activity. Its newest arrival is Daniel Gottschlich’s restaurant Ox & Klee where clean-cut Scandinavian design meets linear gourmet German fare that has none of the heaviness of the typical French-style, Michelin-starred cuisine. Another unique feature of the first-floor restaurant: they only serve tasting menus so there’s no à la carte menu in sight. The best place for an apéritif is the Bayleaf bar on the ground floor, also run by Gottschlich. After dinner, it’s time for a stroll by the Rhine towards the Cathedral. And if you gaze into the distance, you’ll already be able to spot the first breweries on the horizon... Prost!
Päffgen, Friesenstrasse 64–66, paeffgen-koelsch.de
Haus, Töller Weyerstrasse 96, haus-toeller.de
Alfredo, Tunisstrasse 3, www.artisti.de
Veltri, Kolumbahof 2
Bar Celentano, Maybachstrasse 148
Sant’Angelo, Aquinostr. 1a, st-angelo.de
Teca Di Biase, Eifelplatz 2, lateca-koeln.de
Ox & Klee/Bayleaf Im Zollhafen 18, oxundklee.de
(by Christian Meier-Oehlke)