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Berlin’s Coffeehouses

Berlin is a city that never goes to bed. Driving this high-energy metropolis are its coffee houses, open early, open late. These neighborhood clubs for caffeine and conversation are great places to get to know the locals.

Starbucks doesn’t stand a chance here. Each coffeehouse has its own mystique and draws its particular kind of patrons. But the ritual remains the same: Study the coffee menu; choose kaffee by the tasse (cup) or kannchen (pot). Select “mocha mit fischer sahne” if you like your coffee laced with chocolate and whipped cream. Or choose an espresso or cappuccino, depending on the hour. Your server delivers the cup to your table and leaves a tiny slip of paper—the hint to pay up, although you may linger on for hours.

It may take a couple of visits before fellow patrons ease into conversations with you, but it’s worth the wait. Here are a few favorites haunts I’ve discovered with the help of astute locals. For the price of a jolt of caffeine, you’re off the tour route and immersed in the city’s daily life.

Cafe Kranzler, with awnings shading sidewalk tables, is the granddaddy of them all. It has anchored the top of Berlin’s see-and-be-seen street, the Kurfurstendamm (Ku’damm to Berliners), since 1932. You’ll spot the cafe not far from the Zoo stop of the U-bahn. Its pink deco trappings look like they’ve been there forever, as do a fair share of the staff and customers. Sharing tables is expected; strangers greet seatmates with ”hello” and “goodbye.”

Cafe Savigny, in the more posh Savigny district bordering the Ku’damm, is a fastforward in time. Within the ornate facade of an antique building, all is contemporary and chic. Tiny white-on-white alcoves cradle miniature marble-topped tables where, at 11 a.m., men in sleek leather jackets dawdle over coffee, consult their Rolexes, and do sums on pocket calculators. The pencil-thin, high-style servers, with their ebony hair, and eye make-up and miniskirts to match, appear to be in deep mourning, but are open to discussing the arts scene with passion. Other patrons are quick to offer opinions.

Across the square and under the arches of the U-bahn, Cafe Aedes draws a younger, more hip arts crowd, sharing the turf with architects from nearby offices, whose structural drawings line the walls. Owner Andreas Hofmeier, who’s eager to compare the coffeehouse scene to those of America, keeps the machines steaming till two in the morning.

The nearby arch below the train tracks leads to a quieter street lined with apartment buildings and boutiques. Among them is a coffeehouse called "rost"—so low-key it boasts no capital letters. Businessmen spread out papers and consult appointment books as they sip, but they appear to be in no hurry. All it takes is eye contact, and they’re off and running about the day’s headlines and life in this fast-changing city.

Cafe Richler, farther down the Ku’damm, recalls the genteel history of this older neighborhood, where elderly couples sun themselves at sidewalk tables. Inside, they make a morning of "ein grosse tasse" amid the room’s Victoriana, genially sharing pictures of the grandkids as they relax amid the potted palms.

Cafe Mohring, another old-timer, has copped one of the best viewing corners of the Ku’damm. Regulars spend the better part of the afternoon sipping the brew of their choice as street musicians and organ grinders entertain the kids. If you return at the same time the next day, you’re automatically included in the friendship circle.

One of the prettiest of all Berlin’s cafes is the Wintergarten, just off the Ku’damm across from the grand Kempinski Hotel—a gracious old mansion shielded from the streets by trees and hedges. It’s part of Literature House—a bookstore—and, indeed, the city’s literati make the place their own. In its series of spacious rooms seriously arty graduate students sustain themselves with cups of cappuccino while they ponder their texts. But after 5 p.m. candles begin to flicker and a crowd of chic Berliners pours in to take their place.