Seattle-born Cynthia Barcomi opened her first café in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood in the 1990s. Since then, her coffee, cakes and bagels have become a local legend. She takes us on a tour of the district’s best bakeries and food shops.
Sitting in her eponymous Kreuzberg café, Barcomi’s, on Bergmannstrasse with the aroma of roasting coffee wafting through the airy space, Cynthia Barcomi reflects on her success. She has often been credited for bringing good coffee and high-quality cakes to Berlin long before Starbucks landed. But building a food business here wasn’t always easy. Early on, finding funding as a female foreigner in Germany was difficult when locals were unaware of the delights of high-quality coffees and homemade muffins, bagels and cheesecakes. “I had to convince Germans to want to eat these things,” she says of her wary clientele.
Yet only weeks after opening on 31 October 1994, the café was standing-room-only at weekends – word of mouth about the delicious food had spread fast. A larger deli/restaurant in Berlin’s Mitte district followed in 1998. More recently, Barcomi has expanded her activities with a cookbook series, as well as collaborations with German food brands Schwartau and Dr Oetker.
The operation’s heart is still on Bergmannstrasse. “For better or worse, Barcomi’s was the start of the street’s gentrification,” says Barcomi, who originally came to Berlin in 1985 to work as a dancer. The street’s cafés, restaurants and boutiques now attract a more bourgeois-bohemian crowd than back then, but the atmosphere manages to reflect the area’s multicultural history.
When Barcomi arrives at her café each morning, she eats a mini bagel for breakfast that her chefs prepare with dough left over from the day before. She used to bake everything herself in the on-site kitchen, but now coordinates her business from her office above the café. For lunch, Barcomi often heads out to Bio Company up the street for a takeaway soup. “It’s the gentrification of organic food,” jokes Barcomi of the Berlin-based supermarket chain, which features a bakery and lunch items with organic produce in each of its locations.
Alternatively, she might go to Knofi, a Turkish establishment with two outposts, a café and a deli across the street from each other. The deli walls are packed floor to ceiling with pasta, dried fruit and oils, while antipasti, olives, flatbreads and spreads are served from a refrigerator under hanging bundles of garlic (“Knofi” is short for knoblauch, garlic) to customers who sit at street tables outside. “This is a real institution that reflects the neighbourhood’s Turkish population,” says Barcomi.
At the recently revamped Marheineke Markthalle indoor food market, Barcomi samples novelties from the Knippenbergs stall, which sells local and international cheeses – a favourite of hers is Montgomery cheddar. A short walk away on Gneisenaustrasse is Soluna Brot und Öl, which Barcomi claims has “the best bread I’ve ever had in my life”. From a spacious shop with a huge clay oven, master baker Peter Klann offers 30 varieties as well as homemade oils and spreads, garnering himself a loyal following in Germany and abroad.
Although Barcomi’s offers plenty of puddings, its owner does venture out for other temptations. On a pretty side street, Docura sells candies, chocolates and beverages from around the world and is where Barcomi often buys gifts. At Vanille & Marille, all-natural ice creams and sorbets – in unusual flavours such as Berlin marzipan, elderflower with mint, or marille (Austrian for “apricot”) – are made in a courtyard just behind a small hot-pink storefront.
Back at her café, which was renovated and expanded two years ago, Barcomi gets ready to head home to Berlin’s far west, where she has lived with her family since 2005. The mother of four claims she rarely has time to dine out, but often lets her inspiration take root at home. “Late at night I get into a flow. And sometimes when I put an apron on, it’s like magic,” she says.
What doesn’t change is her commitment to her recipes, and baking with the best ingredients by hand. “At the end of the day, it’s really about what’s on your plate and in your cup.”
Barcomi’s original café and coffee roastery is located on Bergmannstrasse, the backbone of the Bergmannkiez (“kiez” means “hood” in the local vernacular) in Kreuzberg, a Berlin district known for its alternative atmosphere and large Turkish population. Now a trendy thoroughfare, the street was named in 1837 after landowner Maria Luise Bergmann. The area’s Wilhelmian buildings largely survived war damage, and the Marheineke Markthalle, one of Berlin’s last indoor markets, was renovated in 2007.
Barcomi’s Bergmannstrasse 21, + 49 30 694 81 38
Knippenbergs Marheinekeplatz 15,+ 49 30 61 20 20 77
Docura Zossener Strasse 20, + 49 30 81 79 73 99
Knofi Feinkost Bergmannstrasse 98, + 49 30 694 58 07
Knofi Cafe Bergmannstrasse 11, + 49 30 695 64 359
Soluna Brot und Öl Gneisenaustrasse 58, + 49 30 6167 1191
Bio Company Bergmannstrasse corner of Friesenstrasse, + 49 30 28 47 24 74 0
Vanille & Marille Hagelbergerstrasse 1, + 49 30 78 95 47 31