When you come to Berlin you have to eat a Döner Kebap, it’s as simple as that. The warm meat sandwich with Turkish origins, in all its messy and juicy glory, is an integral part of Berlin’s food DNA. And with over 1000 Döner restaurants (some say 1500) scattered across the city, the next Döner shop is never more than a stone’s throw away in Berlin. Be it for a quick lunch, between work snack, or the 5am stomach filler after a night out, you can always count on the Döner to save you.
“Be it for a quick lunch, between work snack, or the 5am stomach filler after a night out, you can always count on the Döner to save you”
My personal relationship with the Döner Kebap is a very intimate one – some might even call it an obsession. I’ve spent the last decade combing every Berlin district for great Döner sandwiches, trying far more than 100 of them, and for this 2020 update of the best Döner Kebaps in Berlin, I left no stone unturned and no lead unexplored. I travelled to Munich and to Nürnberg and even as far as to Turkey to understand the origin of the mythical meat skewer dish, only to learn that the actual origin of the dish is a lot more unclear than Turkish-Germans claim. I went down a Döner rabbit hole of research (the longer summary of that can be found within my article “A brief history of the Döner Kebap”) but in a nutshell it can be concluded by saying the Döner Kebap was most likely not invented in Germany – as the common story in Germany goes – and that the Döner Kebaps sold in Berlin differ a lot from what you’ll find in Turkey.
The classic Berlin Döner consists of thinly sliced beef and/or veal from a vertically rotating skewer (occasionally laced with lamb fat), served in a triangularly cut and toasted pocket of flat bread with the (optional) condiments of salad, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, red cabbage and your choice of three sauces: Kräuter (herbs), Knoblauch (garlic) or Scharf (spicy). The beef döner can also be split into subcategories of “Kıyma”, which refers to ground meat (the most common variety, since it’s cheap) or “Yaprak”, which translates to “leaf” and refers to the practice of stacking thin slices of meat onto one, large skewer. Yaprak style is usually the sign of a quality Döner, especially in Berlin, so as a rule of thumb you want to look for skewers with visible layers of meat and somebody cutting meat off these skewers with a knife, not a machine.
Since the late 90’s, there has also been the increasingly popular subcategory of Chicken Gemüse Kebap, where Yaprak chicken döner is served with salad, tomatoes, onions, sauce, fried vegetables (potatoes, peppers, onions etc.), crumbled cheese and lemon juice in a pide bread. And although we’re talking about two very different dishes, I have decided to lump classic beef döner and chicken gemüse kebab into one list.
“…these mayonnaise- and sugar-laced monstrosities serve no purpose other than disguising low-quality, dry meat…”
Having eaten at over 100 döner shops in Berlin and over a dozen in Istanbul, I have, over the years, developed a strong aversion to the kräuter-knoblauch-scharf trinity of sauces used in Berlin. Even when made in-house, these mayonnaise- and sugar-laced monstrosities serve no purpose other than disguising low-quality, dry meat and hydrating the overly thick and crunchy döner bread style that’s common in Berlin. Over the years, I have developed a habit and principle of eating and testing döners the same way: meat, tomatoes, onions and chili flakes – nothing else. This is also the common way of eating Döner in Turkey. No salad, no sauce and definitely no red f-n cabbage. One mayor issue eating your Döner the Turkish way in Berlin is that the pide bread usually are very thick and dry as they are designed for the use of salad and sauce. Breads used in Turkey are usually softer and thinner, and for a Berlin Döner without sauce and salad not to be exorbitantly dry, you need to look for unusually high meat and bread quality and this is the case for only a very small percentage of Döner kebaps in Berlin. Most of them, you will find on the list below.
How you eat your Döner is, of course, up to you, but I encourage you to consider stepping outside your regular Döner habits. Why not skip the sauces next time? And why not skip the salad another time? Consider eating the Döner as it was meant to be eaten, with a full focus on the quality of the meat and without any distractions.
This list is a guide to the very best Döner restaurants in Berlin, from Neukölln to Wedding and Charlottenburg to Friedrichshain. As always with a BFS top list, there is no ranking between the places on the list. They are all great in their own ways and you have to read the descriptions for the nitty gritty details. Go forth, eat kebaps and hold your local döner joint accountable in terms quality. But do remember: the strongest mechanism towards a better Döner culture is your willingness to pay just as much for your Döner as you pay for your gourmet burger.
MUSTAFA DEMIR’S RETRO KEBAP
MUSTAFA’S GEMÜSE KEBAP
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