The bartender leaned over the bar and put his face close to
mine. I could smell garlic and cigarettes and see black pores on his nose.
“I know of a restaurant,” he said softly, his German accent
clogging the ends of each word, “where you can eat food that you can eat
nowhere else. Very special. Very private. Is this something that you might be
The words sounded gently menacing. I felt the hair on my arms
stiffen. “Food you can eat nowhere else?” I said. “What do you mean? Are you
talking about, like, tiger or something? Endangered animals?”
The bartender smiled and leaned away from me, swiping at the bar
with his towel. “No,” he said, “not endangered animals. That would be illegal. This
is not illegal, per se. It is_” he
paused and searched for the correct word – “questionable.
Controversial. I cannot tell you much about it here. But it is a
once-in-a-lifetime experience.” The towel wiped at unseen spills on the bar. “Or
so they tell me,” he added.
I looked around the dark room. The only other customer was an
old man sitting alone at a table in the rear of the room, half asleep. He
looked like some sort of war veteran, with scars for ears and a missing arm. I
turned back to the bartender.
“You’ve never eaten there?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “it is not for me. I am not the adventurous
But many are.”
“Where is this place?”
“Nowhere, and everywhere,” he answered, and chuckled. “Like
said, it is very special. Very secret. The location changes. Very few know
where. Even I do not know where it is. But I could connect you with those that
I stared at him, frowning. I didn’t understand. I had told him I
was looking for a new eating experience, away from the usual tourist joints. I
was looking for unique, not extreme. Nowhere, and everywhere. Before I could
ask another question, he spoke.
“You think about it,” he said. His blue eyes shined even in the
darkness. “Go back to your hotel room and think about it. If you want to try
something incredibly special, come back tomorrow night. Eleven o’clock again. I
will be here.” He took my plate and set
it behind him. “But now I have to close.”
I drained the last of my beer and reached into my pocket for
some German marks, which the bartender helped me count out to pay for the meal.
“Okay,” I said. “Well, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow
night.” I got up and headed toward the door.
“Only come back if you are serious,” he said. “It is a
commitment. Not to be taken lightly.”
I nodded uncertainly and went out the door.
I was on what I poetically
thought of as a “journey of restoration.”
Others might call it a midlife crisis, or a gentlemen’s vacation, or
perhaps just plain old running away. I preferred my version. I had come to
Germany for change.
After twenty-plus years of raising a family and building a career
I had been hit with a shitstorm of change:
my wife had found being married to me “unfulfilling” and had filed for
divorce, my children had gone off to start their own lives on the other side of
the country, and the firm that I had labored for tirelessly for most of my
adult life decided I was an unnecessary expense and cut me loose. I found myself
living in a cheap, gray
apartment with rented furniture and moldy-smelling carpet. The severance package
I had been given when I was unceremoniously canned was not bad, but I foresaw
it quickly dwindling in future attorney fees and alimony payments. I figured I
had a choice: be the responsible guy my
parents had raised me to be and start over – find a new job, raise some cash,
buy a new home, maybe start dating again – or start drinking heavily.
I chose the latter. I know, I know – I was disappointed with
myself, too. I had never been a quitter. I was a bootstraps guy, a self-made
man. But the weight of all that crap – spousal hate, employer disregard, filial
disdain – had beaten me down like nothing ever before. I bought two liters of
Grey Goose and locked myself inside my malodorous apartment.
Halfway through the second bottle it came to me – I needed to
get away. A long trip would be just the thing. I could rent a place on a beach
or fly down to one of those all-inclusive resorts in Costa Rica or the
Dominican and just bake and drink myself back into shape. It was an exciting
idea the way all drunken ideas are. I immediately grabbed my laptop and began a
search of vacation spots.
I had been thinking beaches and drinks with umbrellas, I had
been thinking sun and sand and surf, but somehow my vodka-addled brain ended up
booking a flight to Germany. When I awoke the next morning I found, in addition
to a half-dried pool of alcohol-reeking vomit on my kitchen floor, an e-mail
confirming my flight to Berlin and a one-week reservation at an old downtown
hotel. The flight was for the following day, and I tried not to look at the
cost I was charged for the last-minute booking.
Why Germany, you ask? I wondered the same thing. I had taken
German in high school but barely remembered a word of it. I had never been
there before, so perhaps that was part of the reason. I had had my share of
beach vacations over the years but had never been to Europe aside from one
quick business trip to Paris. So perhaps my drunken mind had chosen Berlin because
it was new.
The old me – the pre-divorce papers and pre-pink slip me – would
have quickly cancelled the flight and hotel and used it as a funny story at the
bar Friday night. The old me would have gone directly from Expedia to
Monster.com or one of the other job-hunting sites to make up for the guilt of
my drinking binge. But that me was gone.
I took a swig of the remaining Grey Goose and pulled out a
suitcase and began packing.
The next night at 11:00 found me standing nervously outside the
quiet bar. I felt very foreign at that moment, as if I didn’t belong. I grabbed
the door handle and turned, but it wouldn’t move. It was locked. Blinds were
drawn across the windows and the place looked more desolate than it had the
night before. I wondered: had I
misunderstood the bartender? Or had he purposefully misled me, having some fun
with the American? His mysterious demeanor of the night before now looked like
a farce to me. Still, he had told me to return only if I was serious. Perhaps it
was a test, to see just how serious I was.
I knocked on the door and waited, then knocked again. Eventually
I saw the blinds on the window to my right shimmy as if someone were peering out
at me. Then the door opened and there stood my bartender friend, smiling.
“Come in, come in,” he said, stepping aside. “I had thought
might not come.”
“I’m here,” I said. It was very dark inside; the only light
dim bulb at the rear of the bar. He closed the door behind me.
“So, you have thought it over, yes?” the bartender said. “You
wish to try this dining experience? You are serious about it?” He nodded
his head with each question,
seeming anxious and nervous himself.
“Yes,” I replied, “but, I want to make sure – this
dangerous, is it? I won’t be eating anything poisonous or anything, right?”
He smiled at me and nodded. “Yes, yes, it is all right. Nothing
poisonous. These people don’t want their diners to get ill, they don’t want to
poison their diners. Where is the profit in that?”
I nodded. “Okay, then,” I said,” I’m ready. Let’s
He led me to the back of the bar and through a door into an
office. There was a desk with a lamp and cases of liquor stacked randomly along
the walls. Behind the desk sat the old, deformed man I had seen at the bar the
night before; the one I thought was a war veteran.
“This is Mr. Mueller,” said the bartender. “He is with the
Dinner Club. He will get the process started for you.” He nodded and backed
his way out of the room.
I turned my attention to the elderly man and tried not to stare at his missing
ears. This felt like a detour. I had expected to be partaking in a new culinary
experience, not standing in a back room with – with whatever this guy was.
“Do you speak English?” I asked, trying to look at only his
“Ja,” he answered in a slow, phlegmy voice. “Enough.” He seemed in no hurry, but I wanted to get on
“So, what do we do now?”
Mr. Mueller squinted up at me and ran the index finger of his
remaining hand around the inside of his ear hole.
“You are sure you wish to have this meal?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, I’ve been through this with the bartender,” I
I felt like I was getting a run-around. “I am sure. It’s a commitment, I
understand. I’m serious about it, whatever the hell it actually is.”
“Good,” he said. It sounded like goot. He pushed some
papers and a pen across the desk to me. “Please complete. I will also need to
see your passport.”
I picked up the papers and read them – they were printed in both
English and German. It appeared to be an application of some sort.
“I’m not trying to open a bank account,” I snapped. “What
this? Why do you need my passport?” I
looked back at the papers. “Why do you need my hotel room, my cell number? Is
this some sort of scam?” I threw the
papers back onto the desk.
“No scam,” Mr. Mueller said calmly. He coughed into his hand and
wiped it onto his slacks. “You say you are serious. We must verify. If
everything is okay, then you can eat.”
I retrieved the papers from the desk.
“Verify what?” I asked as I shuffled through them. “And
this? A release? Or, wait – it’s a what? A contract? What does this mean?”
Mueller pulled a cigarette out of a pack on the desk and placed
it in his mouth, then lit it with a lighter he retrieved from his shirt pocket.
“It is legal, binding agreement,” he explained. “We are
secret, yes? You agree never to speak of us, of our food, of our Dinner Club. Of
me. If you do, this says you agree to pay us the sum of one million dollars.”
“A million dollars?” I laughed. “I don’t have a million
This is crazy. This is a scam; you’re
trying to extort money from me.”
“Is not a scam,” he insisted.
“How would you get me to pay a million dollars if I broke this
“Of course,” he answered, “you are correct. Not everyone
this kind of money. We take what we can get. Whatever you might have.”
I stared at him. “Like my ears?” I asked. “Or my arm?”
Mr. Mueller smiled. “No, no, you misunderstand. We are not animals.
We have never even had to enforce such an agreement. It is, what? – insurance? I
think yes, it is insurance.”
“All this for dinner?”
He smiled and I saw brown, stained teeth. Then he nodded and looked
at the papers.
“Alright,” I said, sitting down in the chair across from him.
I’ll give you all my information. What do I care anyway? What the hell.”
I began filling out the forms – my name, home
address, all the details of my life, as well as the name and address of the
hotel I was staying at now. I signed the agreement and pushed everything back
across the desk to him.
“You have cash, or
“Yes,” I answered. “Well, not a lot with me. I have traveler’s
checks in the hotel safe. How much is this going to cost?”
“Nothing now,” he answered. “You pay when you eat. The cost
American, about five thousand dollars.”
He shrugged as if this was a great deal.
“Five thousand dollars? What are you serving, solid gold?”
Mr. Mueller smiled. “Not gold, no. The fee is – what is the word?—
commensurate with the food. You will find it worth the price, I think.”
I thought about that. One dinner was going to cost as much as my
entire vacation. I would need to call my bank and have them wire some money –
this was beyond a trip to the lobby ATM. It was insane – I didn’t even know
what I would be eating. What if I paid the five grand and they served me a
hamburger? I had signed the contract. What could I do about it? This had all the
hallmarks of a great, big rip-off.
The old me would have walked away from this, would have run away. But the old me would never
have taken this trip. I swallowed and made up my mind right then to see this
through to the end.
“So now what?” I asked.
“You may go,” he answered, picking up the papers and looking them
over. “If everything is okay, we will contact you.”
“When?” I asked, annoyed. “I’m not going to eat tonight?
will you contact me? I’m only here for a few more days. How long will this
“You will hear when we are satisfied,” Mr. Mueller explained.
cannot say when.”
“Well, what if I’ve already left for home?”
He took a drag of his cigarette, and the smoke seeped out
between his grubby teeth as he answered.
“Then you will not eat.”
For three days I moped around Berlin
and saw the Wall, and Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate. I ate pork
and veal with spaetzel and wondered about what I might secretly eat later, and
if I even would. I returned to the bar, but the bartender was some young guy,
and even the old, deformed fellow wasn’t around. I began to think that I wouldn’t
hear from these mysterious Germans again until I returned home and found my
identity had been stolen and my bank accounts drained.
Despite my misgivings, I had withdrawn
five-thousand dollars from my savings account and was carrying the money in cash,
in a tight roll in my front left pocket, wherever I went. I had never walked
around with so much money before, and I felt like a mugging about to happen. Every
face I saw looked like that of a thief, and everywhere I went I anticipated a
knife or pistol in the small of my back. I was afraid to leave the money in my
room, and I didn’t want it locked up in the hotel safe in case I was contacted
and needed quick access to it. By the third day I was so stressed I couldn’t
make myself go out on the street, and I spent most of the day huddled in my
hotel room. I laughed at the idiocy of my situation: I was in a European city
full of wonders and
afraid to leave my room.
I was laying on my bed on this third
night, bored out of my mind after having spent the day watching German television
and eating room-service. It was about eight o’clock and I had just called down
to order dinner – a steak, potatoes, the day’s vegetable, and a couple bottles
of beer – when the room phone rang. I picked up the phone and said, in the minimal
amount of German I had picked up, “Guten tag.”
“Are you ready for your meal?” a lightly
accented voice at the other end asked. I glanced at the nightstand and saw my
wad of money, my five-thousand dollars rolled up tight with a rubber band.
“Yes,” I said. “Ja.”
“There is a cab waiting for you in
front of the hotel. It will take you to dinner,” said the voice. “Okay?”
“Ja,” I managed, “okay.” My mouth was suddenly
dry. It was really
going to happen. Or something was
going to happen. In the back of my mind, I still expected to be robbed,
kidnapped, sold into slavery, or something even more dramatic. Did they use
middle-aged men as slaves? I thought probably not.
I found the cab waiting at the curb
and got in. The driver pulled out immediately into traffic and we zig-zagged
our way through downtown Berlin, passing from the trendy high-end section into
a poorer, industrial neighborhood in just a short time. The ride was frenetic
and brief. The cab driver pulled the car to the curb in front of what looked
like an old warehouse. There was no other traffic on the street and no
pedestrians – it appeared to be a desolate area of the city. When I hesitated to
get out, the driver turned to me and said something in German, and then made a
shooing motion with his hand. He nodded to encourage me. I smiled at him and
“Where do I go?” I asked him through
“Okay,” he shouted as he drove off.
I was standing before the sole door of a gray, 1930s-era
warehouse. An old industrial metal lamp hung above it, but there was no sign. I
knocked and a man in a black tuxedo answered the door. He was tall and had a
shaved head. He looked at me silently.
“Hi,” I said. “I – I don’t know what
I’m supposed to say. They didn’t give me a password or anything.”
The man only stared at me.
“I’m here to eat,” I tried.
“You are here for the club?” he asked in perfect English.
“Yes,” I answered. “The Dinner Club.”
He smiled. “Wonderful, sir,” he said as he opened the door wider
and motioned me inside. “Please come right this way. We have a table ready for
I followed him down a dimly lit hall of concrete block walls and
painted masonry floor. Two-tube florescent lamps hung from the ten-foot ceiling.
We passed several closed metal doors, took a left turn onto an adjoining hallway,
and then stopped before another door, as gray and nondescript as the others. The
man knocked twice, quickly, and then that door was opened from within.
“Have a wonderful evening, sir,” the tuxedoed man said to me,
and then turned and walked back the way that we had come. Inside the room the
light was dim. I could see some small square tables with white tablecloths,
napkins, and silverware. Each table had a lit candle on it. It looked like I was
going to eat after all, rather than be robbed or assaulted. At one of the
tables sat two men, one young and one older. The other tables were empty. The
only light appeared to be from the candles on the tables and in a few wall
Another young man in black slacks and a shirt approached me. “Right
this way, sir,” he said, “your table is over here.” He led
me to a table in a corner, pulled my
chair out for me and unfolded my napkin. The silverware looked expensive, the
candlesticks heavy and antique.
“My name is Carl,” he said. “I’ll have the chef begin
your dinner. Can I bring you a drink while you’re waiting?”
“Vodka,” I said. I wasn’t sure what to expect and felt some
liquor was in order. Carl left to get my drink and I surveyed the room. There
were only four tables – the one with the two men, two empty tables, and mine. The
walls were the same concrete block as the hallway; there was no decoration of
any kind. Only the dim light made it less severe.
Carl came back with a heavy crystal glass and set it on the
table in front of me, and then returned to the kitchen, wherever that was. While
I sipped my vodka, I watched the two men at the table on the other side of the
room. Only the young man was eating, I noticed. The older gentleman was just
sitting there, watching. He didn’t even have a plate or a drink in front of him.
He simply sat there and watched the younger man eat. Neither man spoke.
The younger man ate his food slowly, almost carefully. Occasionally
he looked at the older fellow while he chewed a mouthful, but beyond that there
was no contact between the two. It was almost as if they were strangers.
I finished my drink and examined the unattended tables. They
both had only one chair. I guessed most of the guests of this “Dinner Club”
were single patrons – at five-thousand dollars a pop, it was no surprise.
Eventually Carl entered the room again carrying a tray and came
straight to me. Finally, I was going to see what the big secret was all about,
and what five grand was getting me. Carl took a silver dome-covered plate from
the tray and set it in front of me. As he was doing that, another waiter
appeared from the back pushing a woman in a wheelchair. She was approximately
my age and wore a beautiful silver evening gown. Large emeralds laced in silver
hung from her ears. The waiter wheeled her over to my table and pushed her up
to the side opposite me.
“I’m sorry,” I began, confused, “I – I don’t
know this woman, I
think there’s been a mistake.”
“No, everything is fine,” explained Carl. “This is your
companion, Liesel.” He lifted the silver
dome off the plate and a delicious scent wafted upward with it. “Your meal
tonight is kidney two preparations. On the left you have it sliced, poached in Madera
wine, and then seared with shallots and garlic. On the right, a play on the
traditional kidney pie – kidney, mushrooms, baby heirloom carrots and onions en
croute, topped with a small salad of micro-greens. There is also a pea puree and
some grilled native squash. Enjoy.”
The food looked intriguing and smelled delicious, although I had
never been much of a fan of kidneys, or any organ meat for that matter. However,
I had committed myself to try anything. And it was making my mouth water.
This strange woman still disturbed me, though. Before he left, I
grabbed Carl’s sleeve.
“Carl, I’m sorry,” I said, releasing his sleeve, “I
what this woman is doing here.”
Carl tilted his head and smiled at me, and then frowned. “Oh,”
he said, “perhaps you do not understand. Liesel is the donor. This is her
kidney you will be eating.”
“What?” I said, horrified. “What?” I knew I must have misunderstood him.
“Please calm down, sir,” Carl continued. “Perhaps we could
away for a moment, so as not to upset your dinner guest?” He led me to
a nearby corner.
“The premise of this restaurant is based upon the diner and the
donor sharing the eating experience. We recommend that you try to look your donor
in the eye as you eat of her, and she will do the same as you eat.”
“That’s cannibalism!” I nearly shrieked and saw the men
other table look at me. Liesel stared at the table.
“For lack of a better word, that is correct, sir,” replied Carl,
unfazed. “Many of our diners, as well as those who have donated, report that
they find it almost a religious experience. Imagine watching a part of you
being voluntarily consumed, or alternatively, imagine eating a piece of someone
while sitting across from them and looking into their eyes. Some say they are able
to touch the other’s soul.”
I nearly wretched. I strode back to the table, grabbed my glass,
and drained the last of the melted vodka-tainted ice.
“Would you like another drink, sir?” Carl asked.
“God, yes,” I gasped. Carl took my glass and left while I sat
For the first time I really looked at Liesel, the woman in the wheelchair. I
saw that there was an IV bag attached to a bar above her head, with a tube
leading down to the back of her right hand. She looked terribly pale; the
emerald earrings were unnaturally green against her bloodless skin. Her eyes
watched me without expression. I suddenly felt as if I had insulted her, or
perhaps at the least hurt her feelings. If she had willingly given a kidney for
me to eat, she must at least be disappointed in my reaction. It was absurd, but
I felt it.
This was her, Liesel, on the plate in front of me.
Carl returned with my drink, and I gulped down half of it in one
swallow. I took a deep breath and tried to relax and looked at Liesel’s face again.
She gave me a weak smile.
“Do you speak English?” I asked her. She knitted her eyebrows
and shook her head.
“Liesel speaks only German,” Carl answered for her.
I looked at Carl. “Does she really want me to do this?” I asked.
“Does she want me to – to eat her? Her kidney?”
“Of course, sir,” replied Carl. “She has gone through much
trouble to be a part of this experience. Yesterday afternoon she was on an
operating table, and now tonight she is here to watch you eat. She is likely in
some pain, so soon after the surgery. But she chooses to be here. It is the
I stared at her, hoping to confirm this information in her eyes,
but I could read nothing.
“Our donors are not paid, sir,” Carl continued. “They donate
part of them to be eaten, and in exchange they live the experience. It is
certainly not for everyone, but we have a wide variety of people who volunteer.
It is not life-threatening – for practical purposes, it could not be. People
donate a couple of ribs, or some muscle from their thigh or arm, a small slice
of liver, a kidney as you have here, even a uterus. These people continue to
live normal lives, but lives greatly altered by the dining experience. You
should honor your donor by eating and enjoying your meal. I guarantee that you
will not regret it.”
“How can you do this?” I asked. “I mean, from a practical
standpoint – how are you allowed to do this?”
Carl cleared his throat. “No one here is forced to eat or to
donate. It is all purely voluntary. Still, you are correct, there is a concern about
public attitudes and opinions that are less enlightened, who may not understand.
We have two surgeons in Berlin sympathetic to our purposes. We have several
excellent chefs we work with, and as you are aware, we take great care to
protect our privacy. The restaurant is never in the same place. Tomorrow this
will be an abandoned warehouse again. We are entirely exclusive.” With
that, Carl left.
I looked again at Liesel. She looked tired but gave me a small
smile again. A religious experience, Carl had said. Fine, I thought. What did I
have to lose? Perhaps I would touch her soul.
I picked up my knife and fork, cut a tiny piece of kidney and placed
it in my mouth. It was delicious. I chewed it, swallowed, and managed not to
gag. The flavors were utterly amazing. I looked at Liesel and she smiled again;
her eyes closed down almost to slits like a lazy cat.
I finished everything on the plate. It was worth the
Since that time, I’ve visited Berlin annually. I found a new well-paying
job that allowed me to afford a yearly two-week vacation there. I look a little
thinner now, my silhouette having been altered by the removal of my bottom two
ribs. My left arm is fairly useless now – I offered up a chunk of bicep to an
angry-looking man from some small Eastern-European country, and three fingers
to a middle-aged woman from Scotland. I’ve dined a few more times as well.
I’m still trying to decide what to donate for next year’s vacation.