Welcome to "Taste of Berlin," one of our regular series featuring places your taste buds (and ours!) most definitely need to go.
House of Small Wonder (HOSW) is an incredible little oasis found near Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, and unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you would have seen their entranceway pop up in your instagram newsfeed as bloggers and instragrammers alike seem to flock here by the dozen. We had a chance to grab a meal and chat with the creators of this impeccably designed cafe.
Could you tell us a little bit about the history of HOSW? Its origins in Williamsburg, about you guys (creators Motoko Watanabe and Shaul Margulies), and what made you decide to open up a second location in Berlin in 2014? Williamsburg is said to have similarities to Berlin in terms of vibe and culture – is this the reason it was chosen for your second location?
Shaul: Funny enough, we decided to open HOSW in Williamsburg after years of visiting Berlin and its cafés. There used to be a fundamental difference between American and European approaches to café food. If I were to grossly generalize, I would say that in the US, value is determined by quantity, while in Europe, quality is more of a factor. We wanted to open a place where we could have a cup of coffee, a small savory bite, and a small sweet bite for under 10$ with an emphasis on quality; hence the name “Small Wonder”.
Be it at HOSW, Zenkichi, Akariba (our sake and oyster bar in Williamsburg), we like to think of our places more as an experience, a trip, a cultural insight… than a calorie dispensary. We want our guests to immerse themselves in the world that we provide and forget about what’s outside; almost like the suspended disbelief a movie provides. We believe that in order to achieve this feat, we must care for all the perceptual aspects one experiences; be it the design, the music, the service, and of course, the smell and taste.
The overall guiding concept at HOSW was a throwback to our childhood; to a time when the family took weekend trips to a friends’ or grandparents’ house with everyone hanging out in the back yard snacking all day long, while the radio was playing classics in the background. The aesthetics, the song selection and overall feel are meant to evoke this nostalgia.
Motoko: Similar to the Williamsburg of the late 90’s, Berlin today gives a tremendous feeling of welcome to anything and anyone foreign. After years of visiting Shaul’s brother here, we felt that we might have a good chance to manifest our vision in this city too.
Although Williamsburg and Berlin do have similar vibes, they are still markedly different. What kind of differences have you guys found between the two locations in terms of the city life and clientele?
Shaul: New Yorkers are seasoned and well-versed diners. After decades of experiencing a wide variety & authentic immigrant-centric culinary options, there is not much that New Yorkers would not try. Similarly, NYC has so much “street cred” that visitors almost feel obliged to “like it” cause it’s NYC and it’s cool.
Most of our guests in Berlin understand exactly what we are trying to do. Nevertheless, there are still some critics who seem to attribute value based on calorie count and not on the whole experience we try to provide.
HOSW features a lot of dishes with Japanese influences as well as western food like your incredible french toast. Would you consider HOSW a Japanese cafe with western influence, a fusion café, or do you prefer not to label yourself one way or the other?
Motoko: If we had to say, I suppose HOSW is more akin to a Western cafe with Japanese influences. However, in pursuit of serving true comfort food, we feel less bound to any particular genre. In considering Japanese influences, we forego some of the more eccentric flavors or “fusion” manifestations and just try to offer more subtle dishes that we love to eat.
HOSW meals are prepared fresh with a large focus on organic and local ingredients. The look and feel of this Berlin location is also extremely bohemian and feels like a perfectly curated greenhouse. It seems to us that there is clearly a lot of emphasis placed on the environment and being eco-friendly. Is sustainability important to you?
Shaul: We strive to use BIO, organic & eco-friendly products whenever possible and are constantly looking to improve the ingredients we are using. With regards to pushing the local initiative, while we do love to be sustainable, our focus and first priority is flavor and quality.
In terms of Japanese culture, presentation seems to be a very important aspect of many parts of life – from food to interior. Both work so harmoniously at HOSW. How did you come up with the interior layout, what was the inspiration behind it, and is design something that is taken just as seriously as the food?
Motoko: Design and ambiance play such vital roles in every project we take on. HOSW Berlin was designed by Shaul’s brother, Johnathan Margulies from Prop House, and modeled after our original design in Williamsburg. Both places seek to create a relaxed outdoors, backyard garden feel.
Shaul: As with all of our restaurants, the experience begins with a transformative entrance. From the quiet, mundane Johannisstraße to a dramatic staircase leading to this urban greenhouse. Alternatively, one can venture down a dim stairway to Zenkichi and explore the depths of true Tokyo dining.
What are the next big steps for HOSW? (More expansion, changes to the menu, etc.)?
Shaul: We are revamping our kitchen and will be introducing some different dishes this year… keeping some old favorites and making space for new ones! We’ve been fortunate these past 3 years to have found a loyal and loving community here in Berlin… which means that we can’t stop pushing and challenging ourselves. We’re never content with the way things are so you can absolutely bet that we have some tricks up our sleeves for the future!
Photography and Interview: Rae