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Cold Comforts

Dreaming of French summers on the chilly Torstrasse

Author By Boyd Farrow Illustration Peter Oumanski

globetrotter1BERLIN – Quentin Wartel can barely contain his joy. His iPhone has just trilled with the news that he can legally offer alfresco seating at Sucre et Sel, his café on Berlin’s Torstrasse, and he’s already scrolling through shots of tables he covets. His reverie, however, is interrupted by a crash outside—a wind-blasted chalkboard has collapsed onto the snow, and he rushes out to pick it up. Sucre et Sel’s first spring is the city’s coldest in a century.

While in an Amsterdam coffee shop about two years ago, Wartel—a 24-year-old literature grad from Lille, France—heard that Berlin was a hotbed of opportunity. Ten days later, he arrived in weather colder than this with little German and no culinary experience. “I’d always wanted to run my own business,” he explains. His wages from waiting posh tables, minus hostel rent, enabled him to save up money while his ideas fermented. He also found time to woo a Polish girl, a translator.
In January, in the shell of an old kebab shop and next door to a place selling electrical parts, the couple opened their dinky French café, the first of its kind in this trendy area east of the city center. Its interior is barely large enough to accommodate four tables, and one scraped wall provides glimpses of a faded fresco. On the counter, cloches display pastries so elaborately piped they resemble circuitry. Wine is driven in from France by Wartel’s father, a retired teacher.

Launching the café hasn’t been easy. Days are long, and now there’s a baby that demands attention too. A stack of French movie-star glossies gathers dust, awaiting hanging. But Wartel is confident about the venture. Already, Sucre et Sel has a loyal clientele of French ex-pats, who are increasingly joined by curious tourists (some days, the bonjours outnumber the guten morgens). “We will bring a real taste of France to this area,” he promises.

The alfresco seating should help, and Wartel is looking forward to balmy evenings, ripe cheese platters and chilled rosé; he has calculated that the sun will strike his storefront between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. There will be candles and flowers, possibly a trellis. He can do anything, he says, on his sliver of boulevard, as long as a chair leg doesn’t stray outside his 8-by-20 foot perimeter. “This is Germany,” he suddenly remembers.

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