Berlin’s changing Japanese foodscapes

by Cornelia Reiher

Over the past six years, the number of Japanese eateries in Berlin has not only increased, but they have also diversified in terms of menus, ownership, prices and customers. While only a few restaurants closed during the pandemic, some moved to other parts of the city where owners expect more affluent customers and turnover while others have changed their opening hours. According to some of our research participants, food entrepreneurs and chefs realized that they prefer to work less in order to improve their work-life balance and that this is also feasible from an economic perspective. Therefore, some Japanese-style eateries are only open on weekends now and many have reduced their menus for economic reasons. In addition, take-out services established during the pandemic are still in place and this service has changed eating practices from eating out to eating at home more often for many people.

Window displays of Japanese restaurants in Berlin
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

Japanese restaurants in Berlin are still mostly family-owned neighborhood restaurants run by Japanese entrepreneurs or part of restaurant chains owned by people with diverse nationalities ranging from German to Vietnamese. Most sell food they call Japanese for an average price. The menu often features home-style food (katei ryōri), noodle soups or sushi. There also exists a small group of high-end gourmet restaurants, but currently, the Michelin guide only features two Japanese restaurants in Berlin. Catering services operated by self-employed Japanese who also sell their food at markets, online or in pop-up stores is another field of activity for Japanese food entrepreneurs who contribute to the city’s culinary diversity.

Restaurant signs and decoration of Japanese restaurants in Berlin
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

Different ownerships of Japanese restaurants also brought about changes in the way restaurants welcome and seat their customers. Some food entrepreneurs who ran Japanese eateries in the US before coming to Berlin introduced counters and queues to Berlin, a practice that is rather uncommon in Germany. Instead of taking a free seat right away, customers have to approach the person behind the counter who tells them to wait for a certain time and then stand in line waiting. This style has become more common in the hip and popular districts of the city and makes these places look more desirable because of the long waiting lines.

Communication with customers: restaurant windows show awards for best eatery issued by several gourmet and city magazines in Berlin and some restaurants display political messages
Copyright © Cornelia Reiher 2022

All Japanese restaurateurs in Berlin we talked to emphasized that they wanted to serve delicious food to their customers. They have high standards with regard to the quality of the food they create. All embrace local and fresh ingredients, but adjust it to their needs as Japanese food entrepreneurs, workers and chefs abroad and acknowledge that Japanese food served in Berlin is always fusion to a certain extent. Thus, the substitution of ingredients is a common and creative experience and practice among Japanese food producers in Berlin.

While the number of Covid-19 infections is still high in Berlin, restaurants operate based on the 2G+ rule I have introduced in my previous post. However, unlike in the two lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, customers can enjoy Japanese food in restaurants and many do so. I am looking forward to follow-up on future changes and challenges for food entrepreneurs and workers in Berlin’s Japanese foodscapes together with my students in the upcoming summer term.

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