Nightlife and fast food go hand in hand worldwide: every night, hungry clubgoers spill into the streets in the morning's wee hours on the hunt for flavours they can't find at home. The Berlin-style döner sandwich, originally invented by a Turkish immigrant in Berlin as a way to satiate Germany's fast-food habit, is the dance haven's most beloved snack (with currywurst coming in close second). Döner outsells all other fast food in Berlin combined, with much of it consumed long after midnight.
That's why, for some Canadian electronic fans, the excitement surrounding the opening of Otto's Berlin Döner in Toronto has rivaled the summer's best club bookings: the tiny restaurant is Canada's first Berlin döner spot with enough spit-roasted meat, currywurst, and Club Mate to make the Berlin-obsessed think they've died and gone to Kreuzberg.
Otto's officially opened in late July, but Nancy Chen, Konrad Droeske, Thomas Masmejean, and Matt Eckensweiler—the team behind Otto's—have been bringing that Berlin feeling to Toronto since 2011 as techno and house promoters. Drawing inspiration from Europe's— specifically Berlin's—party ethos, the crew first booked DJs in unconventional venues (including churches and a Chinatown dim sum restaurant) and at Mansion before launching Foundry, a forward-thinking music and art series that put Four Tet, DJ Harvey, Juan Atkins, Carl Craig, and many more behind their DJ booths in just two years.
So, why switch from successful party promoters to restaurateurs? "It seems like a natural course of events," Droeske says of the overlap between food and music in Toronto's restaurant scene. The same city laws that limit nightlife make opening a restaurant infinitely more simple than opening a club.
"You bring in the network of friends you made partying," Masmejean adds. "A lot of our network know the döner as a staple of Berlin."
The concept of bringing the Berlin döner to Canada had been cooking for a while, Chen tells me: "Between going to clubs in Berlin, we tried these delicious döner and wondered why it didn't exist in Toronto." When the perfect storefront opportunity in bustling Kensington Market became available, it was too good to pass up.
"In the beginning, we wanted to open a döner shop and a place to dance as well—that's the dream," Masmejean reveals. "But after looking for years for a place like that in Toronto, we gave up. We'd had problems with the city, and we didn't want to do something in the Entertainment District, which is the only area they'd let us do a dance club. We thought the döner idea was solid, and we didn't want to wait any longer."
"Rather than waiting for the city laws to catch up, we decided to separate the concepts," Chen adds. "It doesn't mean it's completely off the table, but this is our focus for now."
Toronto may offer other styles of döner kebab (including Halifax's donair rendition), but what makes a perfect Berlin döner? "Essentially it's the bread," Chen tells me. A Berlin döner's fladenbrot is panini-pressed to be perfectly crispy on outside and fluffy on the inside.
Masmejean and Otto's chef Steve Nguyen traveled to Berlin and Istanbul in search of recipes and the kind of know-how that could only be found at the sources of the döner's fast food tradition.
Droeske tells me that they sought authenticity in every aspect of Otto's, from the fladenbrot to custom sausages made locally for Otto's by Toronto's Olliffe Butcher Shop, as well as precisely herbed yogurt sauce, homemade garlic aioli, and thinly sliced, crispy caramelized meat from the spit. (So far, the veal döner is the most popular.) Otto's also offers a selection of hard-to-find German beer and little details like döner paper and currrywurst boats imported from Germany.
Chen tells me that Germans approve so far. "What I really like is having Germans come in and telling us that it's pretty authentic compared to what it's like at home … Although we've definitely taken some liberties with the currywurst, like making our own sauce."
"Germans love our currywurst sauce," Droeske chuckles.
The beer selection was sourced with similar care, though Prime Mate, a yerba mate-based soda similar to Club Mate and one of the only Canadian items on the menu, rivals the brews in popularity. Chen tells me the beverage's creator, Patrick Mocan, is coincidentally a party promoter in Montreal.
Chen tells me that while Berlin is in the forefront, Otto's takes inspiration from all over the world: Shake Shack in the US, London's Bao Bar, Bestie in Vancouver, and Holy Belly in Paris—spots she says are united by community. "Everyone's having a great time: there's good vibes and it's not overpriced food."
Unexpectedly, it's the bathroom installations that are driving part of the Otto's buzz. Downstairs, a red button and a blue button tempt patrons in the privacy of each tiny room. (Just press them, no spoilers).
Chen tells me the club-themed art installations took first priority, and it's paid off: "I love seeing random people's responses online," Chen laughs. "'Bathroom of the year'—I'll take that."