It’s been months since you’ve dined out with a loved one, especially that special someone in another town. Now that restaurants and borders are opening up again throughout Europe*, it might be time to reconnect and rediscover places that nourish your stomach and soul.
Ever heard the saying that one good deed sparks another? Plenty of food and drink establishments across Europe have truly taken this saying to heart—from a zero-waste restaurant in Helsinki, Finland, to a brewery that employs ex-convicts in Oxford, England, to a celebrated Spanish haute cuisine restaurant that trains and employs people with disabilities.
A restaurant that serves Syriously good meals
It’s a late February evening at Kreuzberger Himmel, a restaurant tucked away next to St. Boniface Church in one of Berlin’s hippest districts. Owner Andreas Tölke has just arrived as we sit down for a chat. The former journalist employs only refugees at this Middle Eastern restaurant. He is so passionate about helping others, specifically refugees from war-torn nations such as Syria, that he has personally housed more than 400 migrants in his own apartment since 2015.
“We had 1,200 refugees arriving in Berlin on a daily basis who were not supported by the government as they should be,” Tölke says. So he took matters into his own hands, starting the Be an Angel foundation with other culture workers in the capital to help newcomers with paperwork and support.
The restaurant is a gamechanger in the neighborhood, serving high-end Syrian cuisine in an inviting atmosphere and evolving from a meeting point for locals and refugees into a workplace for the latter. Boasting 100 seats, the restaurant is fully booked every weekend, thanks to its lively atmosphere, altruistic bent and passion for good food.
“Food brings people together that wouldn’t normally meet,” he says. “Food doesn’t need any language—it’s how we get to know each other.” Hearty, handmade Syrian dishes can be found on the vegetable-centric menu such as fatteh makdoush, a layered eggplant dish, and kabse, a mixed rice plate.
Despite the plethora of Middle Eastern eateries in the city, Tölke believes Kreuzberger Himmel is on a different level. “It’s the only place in Berlin where you have the chance to experience homemade Arabian [sic] food in a super stylish setting.” Admire works by photographer Peter Lindbergh and artist Lena Peterson, all of which were donated by the artists themselves.
Everything in the venue was donated including the massive Bocci light installation that is a work of art on its own.
As as an effect of COVID-19, the restaurant has made sure to put safety measures into place with sanitizer available at all times, a menu that can be checked on visitors’ phones via a barcode on each table, thorough disinfecting of tables and chairs after each guest as well as strict hygienic rules in the kitchen and bar.
Zero-waste equals good taste
Sustainability is an empty word if there is nothing to back it up. Nolla, a zero-waste restaurant housed in an Art Nouveau building in the city center of Helsinki, Finland, lives and breathes sustainability. From an onsite microbrewery to a high-tech compost bin, Nolla uses groundbreaking measures to avoid producing waste and is recognized as one of the most sustainable restaurants in the world.
Carlos Henriques, one of the restaurant’s three founders, believes that sustainability and great food go hand in hand and wants to break the common misconception that this means cooking from garbage. “We don’t cook from waste–we cook by not producing waste,” he says, emphatically. “Anything that goes to waste we take as a failure to our procedures.”
The well-priced and seasonal menu combines locally sourced fish and produce with the owner’s penchant for southern Finnish staples. Order grilled sunchoke with mushrooms or white fish with celeriac and apple.
Born in Portugal and trained under the masters at Michelin-starred Chez Dominique and Olo, Henriques says opening Nolla in the Finnish capital has been their biggest challenge and their biggest success. “If you can [open a successful waste-free restaurant] in Finland, with [its] long winters, then you can do it anywhere. Helsinki is a city where people understand the idea of sustainability and are willing to work with foreigners,” he says.
Henriques hopes that Nolla’s strict adherence to reducing waste will become more common around the world but more aggressive measures are needed. “Many companies are unwilling to change their packaging or habits. The challenge is to explain what we do here and get others committed to what we’re doing, from suppliers to farmers,” he says.
Despite the challenges running a zero-waste restaurant pose, Henriques is hopeful about the future. “There is a very positive force and a lot of good intentions. I’m very glad we opened a restaurant in this city but I hope we can do even more in the near future.”
Nolla is ensuring that customers can eat safely in their restaurant and has put COVID-19 measures in place such as reducing the amount of dinner reservations, adding space between diners and only accepting cards as a payment method on top of their usual strict hygienic measures.
A criminally good craft brewery
If you’re feeling thirsty and don’t mind drinking for a good cause, The Oxford Tap Social Movement, in Oxford, England, is a brewery and community space that grew out of a passion for good beer and social justice. Here, the power of craft beer and community provides ex-convicts with training, support and employment during and after prison sentences. The brewery was founded in 2016 and the business just keeps growing with a brew school opening up as well as two new venues in summer 2020.
“We wanted to do something about the vicious cycle of reoffending, to offer real job opportunities and to encourage conversation around the criminal justice system,” says Tess Taylor, one of three founders. “Having worked in the criminal justice system for several years, we’d all seen the lack of support and opportunity that people face upon release from prison.”
The brewery specializes in bold and flavorful beer. Sample sours such as the Bleeding Heart Numbskull series or Grebe’s Procession, a toasty oatmeal stout branded with artwork developed from prisoner art. Locals and tourists alike are more than welcome to visit their taproom, a cozy communal space that has become the heart of the brewery where you can try their beers or enjoy live music, cooking performances, yoga and award ceremonies.
“Our taproom has become a really exciting and vibrant place that brings together all sorts of people. We’re a real community space and want people to feel at home here,” says Taylor.
Since COVID-19, strict guidelines have been put into place and the brewery currently only offers spaced seating outside. Group sizes cannot exceed six people, visitors must line up responsibly in a one-way system and hand sanitizer stations are available.
Helping out never tasted this good
Another establishment with a passion for social justice is Universo Santi in the city of Jerez in southern Spain. The elegant and refined eatery features arching, floor-to-ceiling windows, ornate chandeliers and its own chapel. Boasting a pond and 173-acre garden, Universo Santi is named for the late chef Santi Santamaría who was the first Catalan to achieve three Michelin stars and who lived by the motto, “haute cuisine, but social justice.” Friends and family of Santimaría joined forces with philanthropist Antoni Vila—who runs a nonprofit that helps employ people with disabilities—to open the restaurant in 2016.
“All his great friends, disciples and family thought there would be no better tribute than a social project that bore his name that would honor the values of which his professional career was based: that haute cuisine should be socially responsible,” Vila says.
Apart from serving Spanish haute cuisine, the restaurant socially integrates and employs people with disabilities so they can lead fully autonomous lives. Vila and others hold classes in the restaurant’s onsite academy to train new employees in everything from service to plate prep. Guests can dine on Iberian salchichón tartare (made of summer sausage) in lentils as well as bluefin tuna tartar from their Mediterrenan menu.
“It’s a project that was born without paternalism where we require the maximum from workers and understand that we have to provide the same service if not better than other restaurants included in the Michelin guide. It took us just 18 months to get included in the guide thanks to our quality in service and food,” Vila says.
The hard work is paying off in more ways than just awards and great reviews. “Alejandro Jiménez, a 22-year old boy with Downs Syndrome, came from Malaga to Jerez and has, thanks to his training at Universo Santi, been able to return to his home with a job in what he is most passionate about—cooking,” Vila says.
Universo Santi is currently working on implementing the strictest possible safety measures in accordance with COVID-19 regulations for the safety of their employees and customers. They will reopen in September, with individual seating rooms so that diners can eat privately and safely on premises.
*This article was produced pre COVID-19. Since the pandemic, travel regulations are in constant flux. Borders and businesses may close temporarily or permanently. Please travel safely and check out the Open Travel Index for up-to-date information on restrictions and regulations.