Thomas Altenberger

6 Feb. 2020
Old school hospitality in the heart of Berlin

Germany is a huge spirit and cocktail market. It hosts arguably the biggest industry trade show in the world. And yet, its presence on international ‘best bars’ lists is very discreet, to say the least. It is, in part, an injustice. It may also be, for some, the whole point: spend a few days bar-hopping in Berlin and you will realise that many places just don’t like the spotlights. Doors have bells, bars have rules, drinks are austere, bartenders can be unforgiving and, sometimes, you feel like you’re an inconvenience more than an opportunity. At Lutzöw Bar, ran by Thomas Altenberger, none of that applies.

There’s a reason why Lutzöw Bar is different: as Thomas tells us, it’s, in a way, a throwback to the Berlin of the 1990s when the place was one of the most famous bars in town. « After the wall came down, Berlin was an El Dorado. People came from everywhere, loaded with money. There was not that many office space and deal would be struck in bars. They spent a lot », he says. With Harry’s New York Bar, Lutzöw was then one of the few high volume bars but business took a hit with the financial crisis. Bad management decisions, changes of ownership: the following years were bleak until the space was finally taken over by one of the owners of Vesper, a Bond and Martini-themed bar, where Thomas was bar manager. « He told me he wanted to re-open Lutzöw Bar but didn’t want to do it alone. For me, it was a new opportunity, a new target ».

In a way, the difference between Lutzöw Bar and modern cocktail bars in town is dictated by space. There’s an outside sitting area and big windows, for a start. « It was — and still is, I think — the longest bar in Berlin, with 16 meters », Thomas adds. « It can easily host 150 people ». And such a huge space needs to be filled. « Most high volume bars don’t use good spirits, they’re not tight… We wanted to open a very high class cocktail bar in a high volume context. Good service, good drinks, good bar flow. » There’s a DJ on weekends so people don’t leave for clubs, fast service at the bar and a lounge area for bottles. « We combine many things in one place and we don’t take ourselves so seriously — many bars now are very serious, only making pre-prohibition drinks », Thomas adds.

For that, blame the internet. « When I started, you were trained to become a bar manager by your own bar manager. You learned from your clients. There were very few books », he explains. « Now, at 20 or 21, you know everything about cocktails — theoretically at least. With the drinks, they are superstars. But they don’t have the guest skills. Your cocktail should be excellent but it’s about how you sell it. Guests don’t know about your fantastic ice or the fact that your glass was chilled or your skills. 80% of our job is psychology. » Not drinksmaking…

Thomas’ whole outlook is obviously determined by his own background — almost 30 years in the hospitality industry, even more if you count the years spent at his parents’ restaurant. His first job was at a 5-star hotel where he « learned real old school bartending and hospitality ». He followed it with a stint at a high volume bar in Frankfurt where he « learned to work fast and well ». In the mid 90’s he worked at Jimmy’s Bar, one of the oldest cocktail bars in Germany, where his manager taught him the meaning of making people happy: « It’s to make their wishes come true before they speak them out ». Thomas also gained many plaudits when he became a manager himself: he was named bartender of the year by Gault Millau while at Berlin’s Bristol Kempinski (« I was working with the chef, putting culinary ingredients in cocktails and it was very unusual in Germany ») and, while at the legendary Lebensstern, won « Host of the Year » at the 2014 Mixology Awards.

This old school training and very long experience have sharpened Thomas instincts when it comes to delivering impeccable bar experiences. « You need to realise it’s not good enough to just do your job. Guests have to leave with a smile, no matter what they order, and they have to remember so one day they come back », he explains. At Lutzöw, Thomas is very proud of his wine and champagne selection, and doesn’t mind if long drinks take precedence. Cocktails are excellent and very much popular with the patrons but, he says, « if you don’t serve the greatest cocktails with a smile, it just doesn’t taste as good ». And if you’re doing everything well, « the client should come back without even knowing why », Thomas concludes, in one very apt summation. 

Now in his early fifties, Thomas is very happy in his bar manager ‘skin’. Many often assume that the natural path for successful bar people is to open their own place. Thomas doesn’t say he won’t, but… « I know how hard it is, how much you have to work, how risky it is », he says. And after a life spent in luxury and / or high volume settings, his ideal bar would be very expensive to put together. Better, for a while at least, to keep on doing what he does best: making sure clients come back to Lutzöw Bar without even knowing why.

François Monti