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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris BREAD AND CIRCUSES
--AND BRASSERIES--IN BERLIN


BY CHRIS BARNETT

April 22, 2004 -- The phone call at two in the morning shattered Walter Unger's restless sleep in his New York hotel room. It was Peter Silling, Unger's interior designer, calling from Cologne, Germany.

"Walter, Walter. I found it. I found it, " Silling said. "Meet me in Paris tomorrow. We'll drive down and look at it."

Unger, 39, a wunderkin general manager for Ritz-Carlton, opened Ritz properties in Shanghai, Singapore and in Wolfsburg, Germany, inside a Volkswagen theme park called the Autostadt. Now he was eyeballs deep in designing Germany's biggest Ritz-Carlton, a sleek, 302-room, faintly Art Deco high-rise in Berlin. The location was hip, yet historic and ominous: in the new Potsdamer Platz, next door to the future European headquarters of MTV, a few steps from where the Berlin wall once separated the city and not far from Hitler's bunker.

At the time, Unger was six months away from the hotel's grand opening and he had torn up the blueprints for a less-formal restaurant that would play second fiddle to Vitrum, the property's fine dining room. With two fancy, pricey eateries, Unger thought the new hotel would seem too elegant and he'd lose the locals. So he told his interior designers to create something "fun, exciting, casual, so Berliners, not just hotel guests, would want to come in, eat and relax. Berlin today isn't stiff and formal."

Unger wanted his own French brasserie inside the new hotel and Silling had been prowling around Paris and the French countryside. The search took several months and Unger was getting nervous when Silling bumped into an old buddy who had a tip: A business broker in Burgundy knew of a brasserie for sale. Silling called the broker and then dialed Unger in New York. Unger and Silling rendezvoused in Paris and rented a car. Silling was carrying a silver suitcase, but Unger didn't give it a second thought. Three hours later, they pulled up to Desbrosses, a 130-year-old brasserie in Macon.

"It was boarded up, collecting dust, yet there was no 'for sale' sign," remembers Unger. "The owner was in his late 70s and his kids wanted nothing to do with the restaurant." At the opportune moment, over espresso, Silling snapped open his briefcase and the elderly Frenchman's eyes bugged out. "It was completely packed with euros," Unger says. "I had no idea how much money was in there. But within minutes we owned a brasserie."

Berlin today is a far cry from the drab, divided Berlin of 15 years ago. There's an energy, an avant garde style, a passion that catches you by surprise. Yet Berlin still has multiple personalities. Barriers stand symbolically, if not officially, and give the unified city a feeling of separateness. East Berlin, badly decayed under Communist rule, has emerged as the more artistic and edgier side. Bold, new glass-and-steel buildings coexist with ancient stone edifices that hide warrens of small bars, restaurants, designer boutiques and a torrid club scene. By comparison, what's still called West Berlin by old timers, is, with a few notable exceptions, architecturally dull and dreary. Taken as a whole, Berlin in 2004 is more fascinating than beautiful.

Unger's Ritz-Carlton is a metaphor for today's Berlin. It's not lost on business travelers that the German capital has an 18 percent unemployment rate. Yet when the hotel opened on a stormy night in mid-January, it was with festivities bordering on decadent. With klieg lights sweeping the dark sky, Unger snipped a blue ribbon, then stood aside as 1,600 people flowed in the front doors for an eight-hour bacchanal, a virtual orgy of food, wines, pricey Champagnes, live music, impromptu dancing, schmoozing, gossiping and wheeling and dealing. The hotel's two-level lobby, connected by a gilded, winding marble staircase, a throwback to the German imperial style of the 1800s, was flooded by a sea of revelers. A silver-haired baritone in formal whites serenaded an endless parade of glamorous Berliners as they ascended the stairs.

Festivities notwithstanding, Unger has had to scramble to fill his rooms. In fact, a get-acquainted rate of just $175 a night doesn't expire until this weekend. Nightly rates are supposed to rise into the $300 range, but the Ritz-Carlton Berlin faces stiff and flashy competition. A new Marriott about 100 feet away is courting travelers with room prices under $100. The month-old, 427-room Radisson SAS Hotel Berlin boasts an 82-foot high aquarium in the lobby and its rates start at $190 nightly. And then there's Berlin's existing luxury hostelries, including the refined, soothing and quiet Hotel Adlon. Located near the Brandenburg Gate, the Adlon's guest registry has included Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Teddy Roosevelt. (If you drop by, say hello to Raffaele Sorrentino, the most charming and charismatic concierge I've ever met. He's from Naples, but knows Berlin like a native. Plus, there's not an aquarium in sight.)

To stand out in Berlin's brutally competitive market, Unger has built a startling range of sybaritic pleasures into the Ritz-Carlton. There's a "shoeshine butler" who mans an antique, sit-down shoeshine stand opposite the front desk. The hotel also has Ritz's trademark "technology butler." (In the first few days, there were glitches in the hotel's high-speed Internet access and other tech travails that should have been caught in the hotel's pre-opening shakedown.) Physically, the Ritz Berlin surrounds you in comfort and cherrywood. Rooms are relaxing, residential-style bedrooms with little touches like piles of pillows on the bed, candles in the bathroom and turbo-flushing toilets. In the hotel's outdoor Terrace restaurant, waiters serve water pipes of flavored tobaccos. Light up and the sensation is, so I am told, trippy. The price: around $10. And, of course, a water-pipe concierge is on duty to consult and assist.

The hotel bar, The Curtain Club, is equally theatrical. Fully curtained-off when closed, it opens at 6 p.m. sharp when the curtain is pulled aside with a flourish. Behind the curtains is a warm, cozy cocktail lounge with a blazing fireplace. I half expected to see Marlene Dietrich, long cigarette holder in hand, sipping an Americano. But make sure your net worth is up to the visit because the tippling is a bit pricey. A skillfully made Afterglow (banana liqueur, mango and Blue Curacao) is served straight up in fine, shapely crystal and priced at about $17. The Enigma, a tart, tasty lime juice and vodka creation, tops $20. But then the service is gracious and attentive.

And, of course, there's the Brasserie Desbrosses, snatched up in the south of France in exchange for a suitcase stuffed with euros. It was moved, board by board, piece by piece, and reassembled off the lobby. The show kitchen, with lots of stainless steel and crimson, is brand new. But everything else is vintage, including Desbrosses' wood-paneled bakery and a wooden floor purchased by Unger from a Berlin gym.

Festooned with old French photos and accessories, Desbrosses works in its new home. A nice touch: family-style eating on old, scarred tables that Unger and Silling rescued from a Paris flea market. You fetch your own silverware--from a chest that Unger found at the flea market. (He swears that it was once owned by Cesar Ritz.) Then your waiter plops down the food in the center of the table and you serve yourself.

Don't you wonder how many euros were in that suitcase?

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.