Berlin's iconic sites, it seems, are giving way to gentrification one after the other. But one Berlin staple, a cozy Tajik tearoom, is here to stay. Mum's the word: It's a local secret!
I'd first heard whisperings of the Tadschikische Teestube, or Tajik tearoom, two winters ago. They told me to look in a secret room, hidden away in a building called a palace, where I'd find fairytale readings and teas from around the world. Always on the hunt for the unexplored, I was curious. My curiosity turned to intrigue when I did some research and discovered it was a hangover from East Berlin, though not the kind that lingers with a sad story, or leaves more questions than answers.
The tearoom was first displayed at the Leipzig fair in the Soviet Pavilion back in 1974, when the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was part of the Soviet Union. Afterwards, it was given as a gift to the Society for German-Soviet Friendship. It had everything: secrecy, some Eastern Bloc history, tea, and fairytales.
It had been on my to-do list for some time when, one cold and rainy evening, I made my way to the Palais am Festungsgraben; through big heavy doors and up a marble staircase, to a tiny room down one of many echoey corridors. Shoes were piled up outside and Marlene Dietrich's recorded voice wafted faintly through the door. Inside, people lounged on Persian rugs, feasting on pierogi, blini, and rum raisins from low tables lit with candles.
Colorful paintings of rural Tajiks engaging in tea ceremonies hung from the wall. Carved sandalwood columns stretched up to the ceiling where they exploded into a beautiful mass of even more sandalwood, all organized in painstaking detail. I ordered rose petal tea from a seemingly endless list, and sat on a pillow on the floor. Looking out the window, I could swear I saw winter's first snowflake fall.
Despite being in most of Berlin's guidebooks and blogs, the tearoom still retained an aura of secrecy. Completely invisible from the outside and with no obvious signs pointing to its location, you only knew about it if you knew about it. Nevertheless, it was incredibly popular. Fairytale nights were often sold out, and reservations were imperative on certain days of the week. Much like Berlin even now, the tearoom felt like everyone's little secret, even if it wasn't.
Then, suddenly, on April 30, 2012, it closed. A collective moan rose from Berlin's tea-lovers. Another one of Berlin's favorite places - gone. A tea-less summer passed. But then, quietly, at the end of November, the tearoom reopened in a different location: the KunstHof on Oranienburger Strasse. Despite the mystery that seemed to surround its closure, the real reason is relatively uninteresting: The lease was up, and the Palais was going into some reconstruction, so the tearoom had to find a new home.
At home again
As soon as you've kicked off your shoes and taken a seat at one of the familiar low tables, it's easy to see that that new home is a success. The walls are the same blue-green, and the sandalwood columns and ceiling have been replicated in exact detail. Every aspect, from the paintings to the rugs, tables, decorative samovars in wall nooks, and candle-lit lanterns, is the same.
"That was the plan," Aris Papageorgiou tells me. The tearoom has been in his family since 1997 when he took it over from the previous owner. Papageorgiou is Greek, and has been living in Berlin since 1975. In a quiet and welcoming voice, he explains that reconstructing the tearoom to look exactly like it did in its old location was very difficult, but imperative.
He points to the light brown wood columns that were shipped in from Tajikistan. "Every piece of this wood [had to be] numbered, and this is 3,000 pieces of wood here." They were then carefully transported to the Kunsthof, making sure nothing had broken, and were put back together again.
According to Papageorgiou, the tearoom's appeal is two-fold. First is "the interior and the atmosphere. The second, and very important element, is the tea and all the ceremony around the tea."
Indeed, one of the main highlights of the tearoom is the feel it gives visitors. On a cold winter's night, the tearoom was a perfect place to enjoy a steaming meal and a cup of tea, and the communal vibe creates a cozy sense of belonging, even when you don't know the other guests. Locals lounge on the floor among the tourists. Couples squeeze in on pillows alongside families at a large table, and unexpected conversations abound. The tearoom brings people together, and the new location aims to follow along the exact same lines.
According to some, it may even do a better job.
Giulia Pines, a New Yorker living in Berlin and long-time lover of the tearoom, sees the new location as an improvement. She believes that the Kunsthof setting makes more sense from a business perspective. The large windows that face the courtyard will make the teahouse more welcoming in the summer months, and the restaurant will probably get more foot traffic because it's easier to find.
Papageorgiou concurs. Since opening, he has noticed a new, largely international clientele kicking off their shoes and snuggling up against a wall for a cup of tea. But being somewhat hidden from the bustling street is still important for Papageorgiou. For this reason, he is very happy with the new place, as are the old customers: "When they come here, first they are really surprised that it's the original, that it's the same old Teestube."
Papageorgiou tells me that in the roughly six months they were closed, they had about 400 emails and countless phone calls from customers asking where and when they would open again. Clearly, the tearoom was and is a Berlin institution, welcomed back by Berlin's tea-enthusiasts and secret-seekers alike. Berlin may be in a constant state of change, with icons like Tacheles or Bar 25 closing all too often, but the reopening of the Tajik tearoom proves that some things are here to stay.