The Oberhafen Kantine, an iconic Hamburg port restaurant, has gotten a new lease on life. Tim Seidel and Sebastian Libbert, owners of the über hip Hamburg Restaurant Rialto, have taken over the traditional harbour canteen with both its history and future in mind.
While the duo is leaving the eatery’s traditional décor and northern German menu largely as it is, they have plans for the former customs office adjacent. Until now, the Zollamt has been used as a storage space, prep kitchen and coat room. But that is about to change.
“There is not a lot of free space here in Hamburg for young artists to show their work,” Seidel said. “We have 150 square metres of space just sitting here – perfect for exhibitions and other cultural events. It offers a great view of the canteen and the harbour.”
The inaugural exhibit, entitled “Ein Pfund Hack auf Drei Brötchen” or “A pound of ground meat on three rolls,” was a photo-documentation of the last few months of the life of the Oberhafen Kantine’s original proprietor, Anita Haedel.
Only 12 years old when her father built the Kantine, Haedel was pulled out of school to work its kitchen. She spent her entire life behind the joint’s counter, serving coffee and Frikadelle, a popular German meat patty, to dock workers on their way to Hamburg’s bustling port.
Photographer Dagmar Hanneger met Haendel while working on a fashion shoot in front of the Kantine in 1996. Taken by her grit, dry sense of humour and fascinating stories, Hanneger and colleague Andreas Tobaben spent the next few months documenting her daily life. But Haedel died in 1997, shortly before the photographs were to be shown. Now, more than 13 years later, these photographs were displayed in the Kantine’s new exhibition space.
The Oberhafen Kantine sits slightly askew on the bank of one of the many tributaries of the Elbe River in the Hamburg harbour. Over the course of the last 85 years since its construction, this little blue-collar eatery has survived massive floods, relentless British bombing during the war, and an attempt by the Deutsche Bahn to build train tracks right through it. Floodwaters and the passage of time given the little building its characteristic tilt – like a miniature Hanseatic leaning tower of Pisa.
Since Haedel’s passing, a number of intrepid restaurateurs have attempted to follow in her footsteps including Christa Mälzer, mother of famous TV chef Tim Mälzer.
“You have to understand how the place ticks,” said Seidel. “You have to love the place the way Anita did in order to make it work.”
For Seidel this means accepting the fact that the kitchen is often underwater when the Elbe River swells, and knowing how to handle such flooding. It also means honouring traditions that were important to Haendel.
“Anita was very proud of the fact that her canteen was the only one in the harbour that had real silverware and porcelain,” Seidel said. “And she was proud of the food she served. Like Anita, we want to offer really good traditional northern German dishes”.
Focusing on some of her favourites, the Oberhafen Kantine’s menu today includes the classic northern German sailor’s staple, Labskaus: corned beef, red beets, pickled herring, and potatoes hashed together and topped with a fried egg. Though at first glance it may look like steak tartar, the mound of protein has a subtle yet distinctive fishiness. Served with a side of black bread, radishes and sweet pickles, this dish is Hamburg’s culinary mascot.
In 2008, the canteen reintroduced the Hamburger Weißwurst – a northern German history lesson in intestinal casing. The white sausage made of veal, pork fat and herbs is the Teutonic cousin of the French boudin blanc, and another version is better known as a beloved breakfast tradition in Bavaria.
Popular in Hamburg in the early 19th century after being introduced by French occupiers, the northern Weißwurst was once considered a more gourmet version of the Bavarian sausage. Innovative Hamburg cooks compensated for the lack of some of the necessary meat by adding herring to the recipe.
But despite having a menu steeped in tradition, Seidel still believes there is always room for innovation.
The Oberhafen Kantine, Stockmeyerstrasse 39, Hamburg. Open daily from noon to 10 pm. Tel: 040/ 32 80 99 84