Perhaps the best thing about such a city is exploring new neighbourhoods. There's always some hidden treasure to find. Recently a friend who had lived in Cologne for a number of years, who had heard I was writing about Kolsch, took me to what may be the insider of all insider pubs.
In 25 years of visits, I thought I knew most of the secrets; but this place was a shock. The house is a half-bombed-out building. The painted facade is faded and chipped. Only the word Gaststatte, some of the letters missing, identifies it as a pub. Alone, I would have never gone in. It looked like a ruin or a criminal hangout.
We got there as it opened at 4.30. Fifteen minutes later all 40 seats were taken and the standing room was going fast. The show began. A barrel of Paffgen was rolled through the room, displacing most of the people standing, to the farthest corner and was heaved into place by our 70-year-old host.
After tapping it, his wife started pouring, and he started on his serving rounds.
The host, whose name I will not mention, is a beloved figure to his customers. He wears a perpetual sad face, as if his dog just died, and other than "Tag" and "Kolsch?" seldom speaks. He moves through the room in a systematic fashion and everything's done in its proper order. Asking for a beer out of turn is not done. Your empty glass on the table is all the signal he needs; he'll get there when it's your turn. And it works. You never sit long with an empty glass.
The inside of the pub, to be polite, I'd call "rustic extreme", its wallpaper brown from 50 years of smoke, its tables and chairs of simple unstained solid wood. I was trying to figure out what we were all doing there. We were a very mixed group, from bowtied yuppies to typical working fellows, all held together by what?
As if on cue, at 5.30 the kitchen, seen through a small serving hatch in the far wall, started producing. I had been advised to order the house speciality, Kotelette. I've never seen anything like it: a hunk of meat at least three inches thick smothered in onions, accompanied with a homemade sauce served in used ketchup bottles and a mustard so hot it could blow your head off. It was absolutly the best pork chop I'd ever had, and when I told the host that, he modestly uttered two syllables, "Oh nooo".
The beer was good, the food was great, but it's the magic that sends you singing into the night when you finally manage to drag yourself away. Unfortunately the fragility of the magic would be broken if the pub became too well known to the outside world, so I'll only say that it's on a small street in the city centre, within a kilometre of the cathedral. If you do happen to find it, go in as a group of no more than five, and please, be gentle. If you don't find it, you're sure to find many other good places to drink the wonderful Kolsch beer.