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I was recently reading the excellent book Mac B, Kid Spy: Mac Saves the World by Mac Barnett. It is set in 1989, and Mac crosses the Berlin Wall to infiltrate the Television Tower in East Berlin.

I was surprised that he came across a luxury restaurant in the top of the tower, with a maître d' and fancy dress. This doesn't seem consonant with Soviet ideology—which I would assume applied in East Germany as well.

Some searching has revealed that there were "high-end" restaurants in the Soviet Union, but what I've found was designed to be within the reach of the common workers; expensive but not extravagant (on the order of 10-50 rubles), and apparently accessible.

What I am wondering about is more "haute cuisine", the kind with a dress code, rules for which utensils to use, food for a "discerning palate", etc. which in the west is strongly associated with social and economic class.

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    On general principles, I'd imagine that in the old USSR, the old Eastern Europe, and the current Russia, while many fancy Western-style [sic] things are pretend to not exist at all, or are certainly inaccessible to 99% of the population, the kleptarchs/oligarchs did and do have their own special pipelines for the material... and their own special places for deluxe treatment, chefs, etc. Mar 29, 2022 at 0:55
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    I do seem to remember something about there being fancier places in the USSR, theoretically catering to foreigners, that traded only in dollars, which meant only the elite with access to a lot of that currency could go to them.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 29, 2022 at 1:10
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    The “Soviet model” said a lot of things that then ignored. Western tourists were always an important dollar-source in Eastern Europe, and protocol, prestige also demanded some “high-end” places. High end restaurant just as high end hotels, high end prostitutes etc all existed for Wester visitors.
    – Greg
    Mar 29, 2022 at 1:43
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    @T.E.D. : not just the USSR, but in several Eastern Bloc countries as well. The term "dollar store" meant something completely different than it means to Americans. Instead of being a store for cheap items "only costing a dollar", it was a store for "tourists" where otherwise unavailable goods were sold but only for dollars (which were nigh-impossible to be acquired legally by the ordinary citizen).
    – vsz
    Mar 29, 2022 at 13:00
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    @paulgarrett oligarchs have their own pipelines in the US as well, see maralagoclub.com/dining
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 29, 2022 at 19:03

2 Answers 2

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Yes, there was 'luxury' in gastronomical areas in East-Germany.

This yes comes with a slight caveat: that was more rare than in the West and also in a 'reduced amount', often catering to international guests spending hard currencies, or rewarding loyal workers and party members, with ordinary workers very seldom enjoying the offerings, which were subsidised for them, but still expensive, despite the restaurants probably still not always sorted into the same categories like for example top-notch 'French cuisine' ones in the West of that time.

On top of the East-Berlin TV-tower there was a 'Telecafé', a rotating platform for viewing Berlin: coffee was served, very limited food offerings (menu, from 1976), the queues were usually gigantic, and after a full rotation completed in 60 minutes all places had to be evacuated, swiftly. Offerings probably wouldn't count as anything luxurious for the western palate. For Easterners things might be remembered slightly differently, as the otherwise still prestigious place always had 'real coffee'; compare 1977 East German coffee crisis.

Most of the food hospitality in the GDR's 26000 restaurants (33000 including pubs with food) during the 1980s was indeed quite simple and that showed already in the cutlery: aluminium was standard, stainless steel was seen as higher end.

Local and seasonal food in traditional dishes might have been quite good, and very affordable, but more 'international' appeal often required the usage of canned food and otherwise rare ingredients that were many times just 'unavailable'. Or a lot of fantasy and creativity. The latter often covered up by sneakily exchanging true specialities of decent quality like 'dark brewed beer' without any warning with 'coloured light beer'.

"DDR-Gastronomie: Bienen vom Grill", 21.11.1982, Der Spiegel 47/1982. A news magazine article reporting on a West-German food critic writing his version of a 'Guide Michelin for East Germany' and coming up with 55 very good restaurants and "1500 recommendations", mostly on local specialities… A verdict many Eastern chefs proudly enjoyed (the highlight in the article's title details the jokingly offered 'Japanese specialty of grilled bees' one chef would have served the critic if only he knew that a Westerner would come and wanted to really taste the best that was on offer… ;) while the official bureaucrats regarded this pamphlet as nothing but an insult. Compare the above to the reaction the GDR publishers put out with

There were many elegant restaurants in the GDR by the 1980s, and some attention was now given to local specialties and historic atmosphere. Manfred Otto’s Gastronomische Entdeckungen in der DDR, published in 1984, listed 100 restaurants and offered recipes from each of them. The book was organized by historic region rather than—as in the more down-market Restaurants und Gastätten der DDR—by administrative district (Bezirk). Gastronomische Entdeckungen seems to have been directed to foreign (i.e., West German) tourists, however. Even if almost anything was available for a price by the 1980s, it is not clear which GDR citizens could afford it.

— Freedman 2013, link added, see ref below, and cf. Küche der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (East German Cuisine)

Things even Westerners would consider upper class were usually restricted to said Westerners in things like an

Interhotel was an East German chain of luxury hotels. It was founded in 1965 as a chain.

These were catering to an international audience with a clear focus on Western palates, and Western money.

But when Honecker took over in 1971 his New Socialism or "Einheit von Wirtschafts- und Sozialpolitik" ~ 'Unity of Economic and Social Policy' included 'more spending for the workers' and meant that indeed 80% of the rooms were reserved not for non-socialist foreign guests, but loyal FDGB members at heavily subsidised prices. Restaurants serving local communities were usually required to serve at fixed prices and include at least one complete meal at the 'affordable for everyone' 'price index level 2'. Price index levels ranged from the lowest 'class 1' to the highest 'class 5', with the rare possibility of an extra 'class S', there with even 50% surcharge on the maximum price allowed.

Some examples of menus from back then here, with the first object emphasising the local tradition, with fairy tale theme, and indication of the standard 'price level III' and for comparison the price 'level S' in the most prestigious Palace of the Republic with its offering for the last Sylvester/New Year's Eve evening menu 1989:

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You might also compare the special occasion menu from 1989 above with a very much more conservative listing in the once 'biggest gastronomy project complex in the whole of the GDR' in Dresden for the same occasion in 1981, where we can discern one method of differentiating price levels from III to S1, merely portion size:

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A small but colourful collection of the gamut of GDR menus over the years is depicted here. Note that even the otherwise robust and lowly worker's pub of price level 2 in Leipzig offered the extraordinary & quite expensive little caviar dish, or how the cruise ship menu from 1988 offered things like kangaroo-tail meat, a really rare 'catch' in East-German fields, woods and forests.

Not just to reward them, but also to show western guests that indeed 'ordinary' East-German workers were able to enjoy 'real luxury' in 'real socialism'. Certainly not always, but also certainly way too often heard and remembered, the menus almost always continued to look very impressive, only when guests then ordered their choice exactly that choice was 'just went out, sorry'. The grain of salt to take with these stories is of course that these things happened all the time, more often in the East than in the West, but that in the East with its more limited choices and changing scarcities still nobody was sent home hungry, once seated, and that the 'upper class' venues changed their menus often enough to react somewhat more flexibly to patrons' choices in light of those suppliy issues that crept up on them occasionally.

These restaurants were also open to non-hotel guests, albeit queueing for these places atthe table in the then quite expensive dining halls was the usual nightmare. And the offerings were still somewhat 'provincial' during the 1970s:

The 'International' in Dresden had 1974 the following menu:

Hackbraten mit Letscho und Pommes Frites — 3,80 M
Rostbratwurst mit Sauerkraut und Kartoffeln — 3,45 M
Sauerbraten mit Klößen und Paprikasalat — 4,85 M
Kaninchenpfeffer mit Pommes Frites, Apfelmus — 4,00 M
Hühnerfrikassee m. Risotto, Blumenkohl u. Fleurons — 4,80 M
Ente ausgelöst, gebackene Früchte, Pommes Frites — 5,90 M
Warme Küche v. 15–17 Uhr geschlossen

That first item is: meat loaf with lecsó and French fries… And do not expect to be served warm meals between three and five.
But meals improved later.

But the Neptun was pure luxury. Built by Sweden for foreign currency, it was originally intended to be a hotel for foreigners only, or so Ulbricht had thought. The best waiters and cooks had been prepared there "for the absolute luxury show" for guests from the "non-socialist currency area". And then this: in September 1971, the Politburo announced that the most beautiful hotels in the Republic would be handed over to the FDGB for use.

One of the great gestures of the patron Erich Honecker, downright revolutionary: the proletarians in the luxury hotel! Honecker must have felt as he did in heroic times when it was rumoured that houses of worship were being converted into horse stables under the Soviet star! In the Neptun, now owned by the people, eighty per cent of the guests were FDGB holidaymakers and twenty per cent foreign currency guests from capitalist countries - the tennis players in their Lacoste shirts could see that the little people in the workers' and peasants' state lived like princes. […]

Mr. W., the hotel manager, adjusted to the changed circumstances and now took on nothing more ambitious than to prove that service is possible, even in a hotel that is mainly used by ordinary people. He wanted to teach the working class the culture of eating, to open up the enjoyment of service to them. He kept his HO waiters - unusual enough in the gastronomic lottery economy - firmly in check between control and reward. He abolished the still common division between black and white, between waiter and cook, confectioner and server. He sent the cooks to the restaurant, the ice cream confectioners were allowed to bring their sundaes to the tables personally.

W. demonstrated to his guests what it meant to eat healthily, had the chambermaids put toothbrushes in their bathrooms in case one of them, for whatever reason, had not brought one. And he forbade them to shuffle through the hotel lobby in their bathrobes and slippers.

— Jutta Voigt: "Der Geschmack des Ostens. Vom Essen, Trinken und Leben in der DDR", Aufbau Verlag, Berlin 2017. (translated)

The Hotel Neptun in Warnemünde showcases that these higher end gastro-services were not purely concentrated to the socialist 'shopwindow of East-Berlin' or the somewhat equally international Trade Fair city of Leipzig, but to be found in smaller cities as well, often tourist destinations, nationally as well as internationally, not just administrative centers.

These tendencies were certainly not widespread in the early years, but came to some fruition in the 1970s and eighties:

Two aspects of privileged dining in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) during the 1970s and 1980s are discussed in this essay: state dinners given for visiting foreign dignitaries and meals served on vacation cruise ships run by the Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (FDGB), the umbrella union organization. The guests at the official occasions were members of the ruling elite, but their experience of gastronomic luxury was similar to that of the guests on the cruise vessels. In fact, such boat trips represented a modest but significant level of social distinction. What was served to the fortunate workers and other loyalists picked for these voyages resembled the selections that were presented to foreign leaders as exemplary of the culinary ambitions of the GDR. Despite the notorious shortages and food supply problems of East Germany, there was a general aspiration for gracious, varied, and interesting dining. This was reflected in the growth of restaurants and in the changes in recipes proposed to the majority of East Germans, who usually cooked at home. […]

After the 1950s there was a more than adequate supply in general, but food remained hard to acquire and often of poor quality, while service in stores and restaurants was, for the most part, dreadful. Basic items such as butter or sugar were in constant danger of disappearing and so were hoarded. There were periodic crises like the sausage shortage of 1963, the unavailability of coffee in 1977, and butter and cheese problems in the fall of 1982. Except for apples and red cabbage, fresh produce was difficult to buy in decent condition because the transport and storage systems could not effectively handle perishable goods. As Jutta Voigt wryly notes in her memoir Der Geschmack des Ostens (The Taste of the East), fruit and vegetables were, in effect, “class enemies” that “sabotaged the building of socialism as much as they could.” […]

By the 1980s distinctions based on access to hard currency were obvious, unavoidable, and resented by those consequently shut off from the enjoyment of even minor indulgences. At a luxurious but officially egalitarian French restaurant located within the Palace of the Republic complex, the seat of the GDR parliament, East German currency was usually accepted, but even here special offerings such as the “Pfeffersteak à la Toulouse-Lautrec,” flambéed in Calvados, had to be paid for with West German marks. At issue in this instance was the expense of the imported Calvados. […]

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a turn toward a more eclectic and international style, something that did not happen in the USSR: Arab, Cuban, and Vietnamese recipes proliferated—thanks, in part, to the influx of migrants from allied Socialist states. Curry, pizza, and fondue were popular, a delayed response to their diffusion throughout Western Europe.

Authenticity was not vitally important:

“Soy sauce? No problem! Erwa-Speisewürze tastes the same: you only need faith.”

A 1979 menu from the main restaurant of the Palace of the Republic featured nasi goreng, an Indonesian rice dish.18 On the inserted menu of the day (Tageskarte) for the week of 13–19 February 1979 was an intimidating Double Rumpsteak Mexican Style (for two persons), accompanied by pepper strips, tomatoes, pickles, artichoke hearts, beef marrow, and peas, all in a potato nest, along with anchovy butter and French-fried potatoes. Slightly more convincing Mexican cuisine was available at places like the Tampico, a restaurant in the Chemnitzer Hof Hotel, where an undated menu (likely from the 1980s) included chili con carne and the “Tampico Mixed Grill” with tortillas. […]

Notwithstanding rising living standards or anxiety over the rapid growth of the Federal Republic’s consumer culture, there was no strongly expressed “culture of gourmandise”; […]

Official dinners, which usually consisted of four courses, displayed a cau- tious sophistication, something between ordinary East German specialties and international taste. The menus of the cruise ships, like those of the nicer resort hotels in East Germany, included the best that was available to persons of mod- est but temporarily privileged status. These two types of menus represented different forms of elite dining, but, as indicated, the offerings were very similar. […]

The menus for the dinners at the Palais followed an unwavering order of hors d’oeuvre, soup, main course, and dessert. The hors d’oeuvre was accompanied by vodka (usually from the East German town Wilthen) or Nordhäuser “Feiner alter Korn,” a schnapps whose origins go back to the early sixteenth century. The wines were most often from the two small recognized East German wine regions: Saale-Unstrut and the tiny Saxon terroir on the Elbe near Meissen and Dresden. The ability to enjoy these was itself a mark of substantial distinction because their exiguous production made them virtually unknown to ordinary East German citizens. Dessert was occasionally accompanied by sparkling wine (Sekt) from Freyburg, often of the Rotkäppchen label, a celebratory beverage whose resurgent popularity since unification has practically effaced its former reputation as a symbol of the GDR’s gustatory mediocrity. Brandy (usually from Wilthen as well) was served with coffee after the meal.

— Paul Freedman: "Luxury Dining in the Later Years of the German Democratic Republic", in: Mary Fulbrook & Andrew I. Port (eds): "Becoming East German. Socialist Structures and Sensibilities after Hitler", Berghahn Books: New York, Oxford, 2013. worldcat

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  • The sentence about "Restaurants serving local communities" had me tripped up a bit. Price levels are quite relevant for this topic, but price level 2 in a restaurant around the corner seems less so
    – Jan
    Mar 29, 2022 at 10:08
  • Now one other interesting aspect would be how those restaurants were distributed. Did all Bezirk centers have one or were they heavily concentrated in Berlin and (Messestadt) Leipzig?
    – Jan
    Mar 29, 2022 at 10:10
  • @Jan 2 (II) would be an everday Restaurant, often with selfservice. In some areas (Alexanderplatz) the selfservice was actually 3 (III). So it could vary based on location. Mar 29, 2022 at 10:18
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    @Jan The 'level 1' is of course meant as most basic, '5' top-notch, with S even higher, should that be made more clear? // The distribution of higher end places was of course somewhat concentrated to economic centers Berlin, Leipzig, but the example from Dresden shows other tourist destinations come in not that far behind, with some lesser well known spots like the "Neptun" mentioned in Warnemünde near Rostock, so not even just Bezirksstädte… Mar 29, 2022 at 10:30
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    You may want to check your Wikipedia link to "Economic System of Socialism". Even though that page is listed as the English version of the German "Einheit von Wirtschafts- und Sozialpolitik", it describes the later stages of the pre-Honecker Ulbricht era between 1968–1970, which probably isn't the period that you want to refer to.
    – Schmuddi
    Mar 29, 2022 at 14:00
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In addition to @LangLangC answer, some background information.

Restaurants were clasified into Preisstufen (price levels) which were clearly specified outside on the shown menu. The higher the number, the more expensive/specialised it would be.

The most common was level III, depending on location often with selfservice and simple meals.

In Berlin, they were based on the Aschinger restaurant modul, which was taken over in 1947. The Ostschrippe/DDR Brötchen (recipe in German) (GDR rolls) were in reality the original Aschinger 'Schrippen' that were baked at the Backfabrik (Baking factory) at Saarbrücker Straße 34/38 since 1912 until around 1990.

The Tele-Café, in the Television Tower in Berlin, had the price level S.


Here is a general summary on how the price level system worked (english translation further down):

Die Preiliste aus einer „Goldbroiler“ Gaststätte in Ost-Berlin – Das Kraftfuttermischwerk

Die DDR Gastronomie war in ein Preisstufensystem eingeteilt, dass die Preise und das mögliche Angebot festlegte.

Innerhalb der Preisstufen I,II,III,IV,V/S,S1 gab es qualitative und quantitative Unterschiede, wodurch die Preise reguliert werden konnten.

Die durchschnittliche Preisstufe war III.

Objekte dieser Preisstufe wurden als Restaurant eingestuft. Hier gehörten Tischdecken, Servietten, ein Kellnersystem mit Inkasso zu den Grundanforderungen.

Die Preisstufe IV gehörte bereits zum gehobenen Service, es war ein höheres Preisgefüge vorgegeben und die Gaststätten bezogen mehr Ware aus „Sonderkontingenten“, wozu z. bsp. Edelfleisch wie Filet gehörte.

Die Preisstufe V/S war für Hotels gedacht und Restaurants mit internationalem Besucherverkehr wie in Leipzig zur Messe.

Zu besonderen Anlässen konnten die Gaststätten auch zeitweise hochgestuft werden. In Leipzig erfolgte die Hochstufung generell zur Messe.

Die Berliner Gastronomie nahm eine Sonderstellung ein, da man hier dem Massentourismus und der Nähe Westberlins Rechnung trug. Berlin hatte ein höheres Aufkommen an Gaststätten der Preisstufe IV als die anderen Bezirke der DDR.

Ab den 1980er Jahren wurden die Gaststätten der Preisstufe IV auch mit »Delikatwaren« beliefert wie Edelkonserven. Ab Mitte der 1980er Jahre auch die Gaststätten der Preisstufe III.

Die fachliche Ausbildung in der Gastronomie war durchaus marktfähig. Die Köche und Kellner hatten die Möglichkeit im Personalaustausch in andere Länder zu gehen und hier ihr know how zu verbessern. Das es vorrangig andere „sozialistische“ Länder waren, tut der Sache zunächst keinen Abbruch, da es sich um internationale Hotels handelte, die auch stark an der westlichen Kultur orientiert waren. So fand ein reger Austausch mit Bulgarien, Rumänien, Ungarn und Tschechien statt. Darüber hinaus konnten „Partei“ Mitglieder auch in Finnland oder Schweden eingesetzt werden. Dieser Einsatz erforderte natürlich von den Köchen und Kellnern eine international marktfähige Ausbildung und gute Fremdsprachenkenntnisse, die generell ab der Preisstufe IV erwartet wurden.

The GDR gastronomy was divided into a price level system that determined the prices and the possible offer.

There were qualitative and quantitative differences within the price levels I,II,III,IV,V/S,S1, which allowed the prices to be regulated.

The average price level was III.

Objects in this price category were classified as restaurants. Tablecloths, serviettes and a waiter system with debt collection were among the basic requirements here.

Price level IV was already part of the higher service, a higher price structure was specified and the restaurants purchased more goods from "special quotas", including e.g. E.g. noble meat such as filet belonged.

The V/S price level was intended for hotels and restaurants with international visitor traffic, such as in Leipzig at the trade fair.

On special occasions, the restaurants could also be temporarily upgraded. In Leipzig, the upgrade generally took place at the trade fair.

Berlin's gastronomy took on a special position, since mass tourism and the proximity of West Berlin were taken into account here. Berlin had a higher number of restaurants in price level IV than the other districts of the GDR.

From the 1980s, restaurants in price category IV were also supplied with "deli goods" such as fine preserves. From the mid-1980s, price category III restaurants were also included.

The professional training in gastronomy was quite marketable. The chefs and waiters had the opportunity to exchange staff in other countries and improve their know-how here. The fact that it was primarily other "socialist" countries does not detract from the matter at first, since these were international hotels that were also strongly oriented towards western culture. There was a lively exchange with Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In addition, "party" members could also be deployed in Finland or Sweden. Of course, this assignment required internationally marketable training and good foreign language skills from the cooks and waiters, which was generally expected from price level IV.


Sources:

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  • Given the stated price level S for Tele-Café: the menu I linked to seems rather low-priced (or is that because of the age of the menu?)? So, can you find pics or descriptions for the portion sizes (or later menus/ changes in price levels)? My guess is that solid, warm food served there (at least in 1976) would be quite smallish in portion size? Mar 29, 2022 at 12:21
  • @LangLang In 1971, the only time I went up and had only coffee, the prices were still listed in MDM. This shows the prices in M which in 1974 was then commonplace. Berliner Pilsner is listed as M 4 (In the Preisstufe III on Alexanderplatz it was M 1.23) Speisekarte Tele-Café The menu doesn't show the Preistufe. This source states that it was Preistufe S: PDF: IN OBJEKTEN - DDR Museum Mar 29, 2022 at 12:54

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