Cafe patrons sitting at outdoor tables beneath an awning
Café Kranzler photographed circa 1938 Willem van de Poll/Nationaal Archief/Madison McVeigh/CityLab

The iconic Café Kranzler got a makeover. Now, the coffeehouse illustrates the schism in a city caught somewhere amid historic and hip.

Page through a book about West Berlin in the 1950s and ‘60s, that fabled period of post-war boom dubbed the Wirtschaftswunder or “economic miracle,” and you’ll likely see an image of Kurfürstendamm, a major boulevard bustling with shoppers eager to exercise their newfound buying power. You’ll spot the famed Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe) or “Department Store of the West,” that epitome of capitalist consumption in the increasingly heated Cold War.

You may also see a photo of a retro café teaming with patrons at outdoor tables under a red-and-white striped awning practically made for 20th-century Technicolor. What KaDeWe was to shopping, this place—Café Kranzler—was to coffee-drinking: a symbol of indulgence that meant a lot to West Berliners trapped in the midst of communist East Germany.

But late last year, in a move that puzzled some and delighted others, Café Kranzler was taken over by The Barn, a Mitte-based third-wave coffee roaster known as much for its meticulous brewing processes as for its stringent rules about things like strollers and laptops.

Kranzler’s business had been ailing for quite a while, and The Barn isn’t the first gastronomy company to capitalize on the growing trendiness of West Berlin, where Korean BBQ spots, burger joints, and bakeries from the hip east side are now opening second locations in areas they would have once shunned as bürgerlich or “bourgeois.”

Kranzler was never just an average hangout spot, though, like a run-of-the-mill mall or movie theater: In business since the mid-19th century, it was at the center of the West’s thriving alternative culture even before WWII, a gathering place for painters, composers, and playwrights. “For West Berliners, it was almost like the Brandenburg Gate,” acknowledges Felix Metzler, head of events at the Barn.

The building’s exterior—including awning, sign, and rotunda—are landmarked, but the interior has changed drastically. Gone are the somewhat kitschy identifiers of postwar affluence: no more “armchairs, fat cakes, a lot of cream on your coffee,” Metzler says. (In spite of the café’s legendary status, he adds, the coffee “just wasn’t that good.”) In their place are Scandinavian-style, lightwood stools, a built-in platform where patrons sip coffee on tiny cushions, and drinks served in ceramic cups painted in neutral swirls.

From time to time, West Berliners ascend the winding brass-and-marble staircase, or step off the elevator carrying them to the second-floor rotunda (all that’s left of the café that used to take over the whole building), and look around with confusion. Meanwhile, the young, aproned staff attempts to explain the new look while preparing AeroPress coffees and serving PB&J cookie sandwiches. One barista said interactions like these happen every day. He pointed to the "kissing corner," a nook behind the elevator that earned its name as a favorite of old couples, and bemoaned the fact that it is now behind the cashier and off limits to guests.

But not everyone is mourning the old café’s disappearance. On a recent Thursday, West Berlin café-owner Marion and her husband Axel (both of whom declined to give their last names) sat on Kranzler’s balcony overlooking busy Kurfürstendamm. It was one of those typical Berlin summer days that alternate between blazing sunlight and storm clouds rolling in.

“In the early ‘70s, this was one of the few places where single women could go out alone,” Axel recounted. “That kind of thing wasn’t so accepted. Men of means would come here too, as it was a bit more expensive than your average bakery or cafe, and in fact, this is where my mother met her partner…[of] the next 35 years.” Marion, 57, appreciates what the new proprietors are trying to do here, but also understands why, for some, it might not work: “I can see some old people having trouble with the self-service, balancing a tray of coffee to get over to their seat.”

She has perhaps hit on the central debate surrounding the latest changes in the city. When it comes to transformations, Kranzler is like a microcosm of Berlin. When the Berlin Wall fell, West Berliners streamed East just as surely as East Berliners went the other way, eager to discover the other half of their city that had long been barred to them. Businesses and developers followed, filling in the city’s empty spaces—buildings bombed out in WWII left to languish on the wrong side of the Wall. Nearly 30 years later, the former East is a well-established center of all things hip. Now West Berliners are facing the change the East saw back then.

You can’t really blame gentrification in this case. Thanks to the city’s strict tenant laws, established “Wessies” are not yet being displaced en masse. Nevertheless, residents’ views on Kranzler’s makeover seem to reflect their feelings about the “new” West. Mention it to just about anyone, and you’re likely to be met with ambivalence. In the same way, admiration for the German capital’s new luster is often tempered by critical questions of who can and can’t enjoy it, and sometimes, shame at being on the privileged side of the equation.

Markus Hesselmann, an editor at Berlin’s Tagesspiegel, tracks these kinds of changes on a neighborhood blog he writes and curates for the daily newspaper, where arguments crop up often about gentrification, privilege, and who benefits from renewal projects. Debates can be triggered by a trendy coffee company taking over an old café, or a car illegally using a designated “bikes-only” street.

With each challenge to the status quo, it’s easy to end up blaming more affluent outsiders, or to resort to dire predictions that Berlin’s development boom will turn it into another London. “Does [gentrification] frustrate people, or do people see a chance in it?” Hesselman asked. “[Berlin] hasn’t been Londonized yet…but the danger is there, and that’s what people are feeling at the moment: ‘Where is this heading?’”

But he added, remembering the city he first encountered 30 years ago: “I don’t think people really want to be back in old West Berlin with coal ovens and no showers. Even I’m not romantic enough to want that back.”

In an email exchange, The Barn’s founder Ralf Rüller outlined his vision: “To me it was important to take Kranzler’s unique architecture and turn it into an experience that could be found in NYC or Tokyo,” he wrote. “You will find some people that expect the old Kranzler to be back, [but] the main audience…is absolutely thrilled about the place and what we have done with it. Everybody is welcome—no matter what age or social background.”

There’s no denying that, to the under-40, bilingual set, the new Café Kranzler feels like home. Soft jazz plays as patrons sip flat whites and page through the International New York Times. Baristas address customers in both English and German. Should they be happy that West Berlin is becoming more hip and globalized, or guilty that they’ve pushed it in that direction, and wistful about what’s been lost in the process?

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