In the southside of Cologne, near an ancient tower (inscribed in stone: 1238 A.D.) sits a little street called Im Ferkulum. If you get off the Ubierring tram at Chlodwigplatz and walk through the arch of the stone tower past the Turkish restaurants and German hofbraus you will find an unassuming nondescript little building. The front is all glass (the better to see and be seen although regulars say it is to see if someone you are avoiding is already there) and the tables are black and chrome.
There is no sign on the door or the exterior of the building. You wouldn’t know what it was called if someone didn’t tell you. Many a taxi driver has responded with a quizzical expression when asked if they knew the location of Chin’s Bar Americano. But these are merely obstacles designed to keep the Sunday Christians at bay. The truly devout will saunter down the street, their little hearts pounding ever faster as they approach …6, 12, 14 until finally you reach 18-20, Chin’s Bar Americano.
As you enter, the kitchen bustles behind the bar on the right. The restaurant sits like a big flat “L”. You enter the long part of the L at the base and walk through the restaurant towards the patio. The patio is a staple of all good restaurants in Germany. The annual opening of the patio is a significant event. From October through March it is far too cold to even consider sitting outdoors. Smoking is allowed indoors. In Germany, second hand smoking is a team sport.
But it is winter and the few tables available indoors are beginning to fill. You are hungry and you need sustenance and a cup of coffee. But a drink might be nice, after all the evening is quickly descending upon us. As the sun sets in the dark and gloomy Cologne winter sky it seems we need so many things. It is good we’re at Chins because here you can find all of them.
From the kitchen emerges a man in a waiter’s white apron His demeanor is a bit brusque but he moves through the restaurant with grace and quiet efficiency. When he passes within earshot, you ask for a menu and he points at the blackboard two meters long and one meter wide on the wall.
You try to make out the German words. It’s time to refer to your handy German phrase book. Schweinfleisch is pork, rindfleisch is beef, kalbfleisch is lamb. Don’t these people ever eat chicken?
The man in the apron reappears and you ask for a suggestion. His English is perfect, though he seems to speak with a slight Irish accent. He suggests the pot roast. It arrives and is sublime, big hunks of beef cooked to perfection with potatoes roasted in drippings.
After dinner, a digestif. Armagnac or calvados? It doesn’t matter; the point is to “ease on into the evening” as Al Hansen often said. When you speak the name “Al Hansen” in Chin’s, the man in the apron comes over and introduces himself. His name is Hanjo Scharfenberg, half owner of Chin’s and a dear friend of the late Mr. Hansen. He pulls up a chair and orders a bottle of good French Medoc. A waitress brings it over and glasses go all around. It seems appropriate to begin the first of many toasts with a toast to Al, and then another.
Chin’s is more than a bar, more than a restaurant, more than an art world pit stop. If Cologne was Al’s home for the last 15 years of his life, then Chin’s Bar was the fireplace around which he sat nightly; it was his domain, his tiny kingdom, his emerald isle set in a silver sea. It was where he kept his heart and soul in case he needed them.
Hanjo tells stories of Al and all the great times they had there at that table. He remembers the long discussions about art and life, Germany, the US and Ireland, where Hanjo spent his youth. They discussed the million myriad ways to make money in the art world, the restaurant business and life, all of which eluded them.
Al could talk endlessly and the only person who could interrupt him, because actual dialogue was impossible, was Hanjo Scharfenberg. Fueled by wine and lust for life both Hanjo and Al never ceased creating. Ideas, places, people, everything fascinated them and a seat at their table could be an invitation to a marathon listening party. Other times they drank too much and talked too much and loved too much to stop.
Before you realize it the sun has set, the crowds have come and gone. The wine bottle never seems to end and the waiters and waitresses are cleaning the tables and placing the chairs upside down on the tabletops. It doesn’t matter. You are at the “house table” and more friends arrive.
Hanjo introduces you to Amedeo Balestrieri from Napoli, now living in Cologne. Amedeo is an artist and a man of the world. Then there is Gio di Sera another of the Napolitani. None of them would be there if it wasn’t for Al. He encouraged them to visit Cologne to do a show at the school he founded, the Ultimate Academy. They did the show and remained in Germany.
More wine, more stories, and more fun. Hanjo’s ex-wife Barbara Pellini enters and all the men rise to their feet. This is the sort of effect Barbara causes wherever she goes. She takes a seat and orders a sekt (dry champagne). The restaurant is closing, the staff wants to leave but there’s no cause for alarm. We simply move downstairs to the real “bar” part of Chin’s Bar.
Tabs are calculated and money exchanged; you’re never quite sure which wine you paid for or which you ordered, all you know is, you drank it so you put your trust in Hanjo and it’s not a bad call.
You exit the restaurant take two steps to the right, through a door and down steep stairs to the dark red room with recessed lighting and music that makes you want to cry or drink or both. The saddest music in the world plays in the bar downstairs at Chin’s. Music to Prepare for Suicide, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Edith Piaf.
There’s no rest for the wicked at Chin’s and it’s rumored no one has ever heard the words “last call”. As long as you would like to drink, Kei — the brilliant bartender, will gladly be of service. It’s time to order. Unlike the restaurant, “Chin’s Bar” has a printed menu. There are over 150 cocktails listed as well as French, Italian and German wines but there is only one beer.
In Germany, the brewers control distribution through exclusive contracts. It is assumed that if you prefer Früh Kolsch to Dom Kolsch you will visit the appropriate bar serving your beer of choice. In practice everyone drinks everything always, and usually, while smoking.
What is kölsch? (pronounced kuhlsh while pursing the lips like a supermodel). Like any language many things have different names in their own language than they do in English. Cologne is called Köln and people from Cologne are Kölners. Because the local dialect is also called kölsch there is a joke that goes: What is the only language you can drink? Kölsch.
The danger of kölsch is that it tastes so good. It’s a very light beer; smooth, tasty and almost a little sweet, like spring water. So you decide to slow down and have a kölsch. But 21 centiliters doesn’t go very far so you order a “grosse kölsch.” And the artist Stefan Wewerke walks in with Luisa and Mimi Klein from Munich and Stefan starts telling stories.
He was also an old friend of Al’s and that requires another round and another toast. And of course it is November and the Cologne Art Fair is in full swing so Hans Hermann T. walks in with some Italian gallerists from Modena. Hans is an artist. In addition to his own oeuvre, he makes exquisite editions in collaboration with other artists like Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys. He knew Al and loved him dearly. Al often stayed at his villa in the north of Italy near San Remo. More drinks.
A few minutes (or is it hours) later the American Artist Jack Ox enters with collector Joyce Ann Scheuch and she begins railing against the latest art world evils which have beset her. But through it all she survives and even prospers. Al loved that about her.
Finally, just when you swore you could see the sun rising (there are no windows and you are in the basement) in walks Francesco Conz, the collector from Verona with his friend the curator Wayne Baerwaldt. Francesco was one of Al’s early supporters and collected him for years. Francesco orders a round for everyone in the bar (does he even carry money?) and the party goes full tilt.
Kei the bartender is smoking and keeping three conversations going while mixing four drink orders in five languages, the journalist from Wales is talking madly away in loud British English, several women are crying (no one knows why), the music gets louder, the smoke gets thicker, you can hardly see across the table.
Edith Piaf is shaking a tremolotov cocktail in her throat, Francesco is rolling around on the ground and mumbling something about museums and through it all a single figure sits remotely unaffected by the drama.
His name is Sing Ling Chin; the calm center of the raging storm. Chin’s namesake and part owner sits at the far end on a stool like a customer; he is having a quiet conversation with his girlfriend the lovely Susanna. Like the chambers of a revolver, the guilty parties spin back and forth in a “hash booze miasma” around and around like the figures of the clock that chimes in the City Hall in Munich.
It’s time to leave and you gather your coat, scarf and gloves from the chrome coat rack by the bathroom door. You say goodbye to those whose names you remember, and wave goodbye to the rest. Your head is spinning and you realize why handrails were invented as you make your way up the stairs.
A deep dark blue becomes brighter as you ascend and you can make out a lighter shade of Prussian blue on the horizon. You begin to regret the evening, the kölsch, your life, and then you realize that might just have been the best night of your life.
The last strains of Piaf follow you down Im Ferkulum toward the taxi stand at Chlodwigplatz.
I wonder who’s going to be at Chin’s tomorrow night?
Ed note: Chin’s closed some years ago. This was written before that.