Achtung, Baby: Ich Bin the Berliner

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The Berliner’s chef Mike O’Brien shows off a fan favorite — hot pretzels. Photo by Patrick G. Ryan.

 

The Berliner — the new German restaurant at 34th and Water (K) Streets NW at the Georgetown waterfront — had me at pretzels and beer cheese, one of the many hearty selections on its menu.

In fact, heartiness seems to be a theme that runs through the beer hall, with its massive bar and long tables, creating the perfect warm oasis on a cold winter’s night.

“German cuisine and beer are two things I enjoy very much,” says chef Mike O’Brien, seated by the ping-pong area, another Berliner antidote to the winter blahs. There are also televisions for sports enthusiasts.

While classically trained in French culinary schools, O’Brien was attracted to “sausages and charcuterie right off the bat.” He explains: “And if you work with sausages, you’re going to appreciate German culture.”

The Berliner opened in mid-December, replacing the former Malmaison and becoming the only German restaurant in Georgetown. Unlike Old Europe, farther up Wisconsin Avenue, the Berliner, according to O’Brien, will focus on “German street food” at “street” prices. A small plate of that pretzel and beer cheese that enticed me is only $6. The Berliner Brat is $9.

The Berliner owner Zubair Popal with chef Mike O’Brien in the new eatery at 34th & K (Water) Streets NW. Photo by Patrick G. Ryan.

“We are close to two major universities. We want to appeal to them and the people who work in the neighborhood,” says O’Brien.

Few people do the concept “neighborhood bistro” better than Popal Group President Zubair Popal, who runs the Berliner with O’Brien.

Popal’s first and most enduring hit is Café Bonaparte at 1522 Wisconsin Ave. NW. It has been going strong since 2003. He opened a similar eatery in Adams Morgan, initially called Napoleon Bistro and now known as Lapis, which serves Afghan food.

In 2013, Popal wanted to expand on the success of Bonaparte by creating Malmaison, a bigger version with an event space, but the location (coupled with two construction projects in the area) didn’t work out. Having other restaurants serving French cuisine within a few blocks, such as Chez Billy Sud, didn’t help. When Popal needed to make a pivot, a German beer hall seemed right on target.

“We’d always seen these German beer gardens and had in the back of our minds that we’d try to open one,” says Popal. A native of Afghanistan, his international travels frequently take him to Berlin and Cologne to visit family.

Popal started in the hotel business in New York in the early 1970s, shortly after finishing a student-exchange program. He worked for the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, but the political chaos in his country eventually brought him to America.

O’Brien has been in the restaurant business for 20 years, including stints in New York, Boston and San Francisco.

“D.C. restaurants are becoming more like the markets in New York and California,” says O’Brien. “You see more major chefs coming to the area.”

Popal and O’Brien agreed that Georgetown is still the best place to be if you’re in the dining industry, forgoing offers to launch the Berliner at the Wharf.

The Berliner opens at 4 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, and is open for lunch Friday through Sunday. A brunch menu is in development.

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