Going out in Basel
Here's the lowdown for the show down at Art Basel: places to eat and drink and be merry in your time out from the fair.
In the (art) world, Basel has a peculiar position. Modest in size and cosmopolitan buzz, it is tucked away from the rest of Switzerland by the Jura mountains at its most north-western tip and surrounded by France and Germany on the three other sides. Then suddenly in June, this beautiful city is invaded by an armada of some of today's most privileged, well-travelled and fashionable people from all over the world. So much money to make! So much money to spend!
Many of Basel's inhabitants, the so-called Bebbis, observe the spectacle with a typical Bebbi mix of passive-aggressive indifference and outspoken disgust, yet they don't mind making a few extra francs by renting out their homes for the equivalent of several months’ rent or charging eight Francs for an espresso. Others, like this author, secretly feel an affirmation of the true potential that their beloved city suddenly reveals, which the rest of the world has miraculously missed out on during the other fifty-one weeks of the year. This is because Basel has somehow managed to preserve much of its authenticity and charm, including plenty of stubbornness and, of course, Fasnacht, the local carnival.
Throughout the year, much of the city’s charm can be found in Kleinbasel (“small Basel”) on one side of the Rhine, which was traditionally the poorer, working-class district, opposed to the bourgeois Grossbasel (“big Basel”) with its grand mansions, avenues and museums. Today, Kleinbasel has a vibrant mix of cultures with an immigrant population of fifty-five percent as well as people who follow alternative lifestyles, students, families, and millions of moody elderlies and bums. Basel is not a place where you move if you want to be hip or explore the world. It is more a nonchalant mélange of comfortable unpretentiousness, sophistication, and familiarity. Together with its deeply rooted tradition of subtle philanthropy, this small town has a tendency for an almost ridiculous – at times claustrophobic – quality of life and art.
Bebbis like to take their time. Both in making food and when they serve it. Hence, during the busy working week, many places don't serve breakfast and close their lunch kitchen sharply at 2pm. And forget about a decent brunch during the week. Luckily, Basel's Italian community introduced a strong coffee culture long before bearded DILFs were roasting organic beans elsewhere. At Da Graziella on Feldbergstrasse, Italian retirees blend with neighbourhood regulars of all kinds, artists, and young families. Coffee is strong and comparably affordable. Its sfogliatelle and jam-filled cornetti are legendary. They also have outposts in the Gundelingen neighbourhood and a shop in Drachen Centre at the Bankverein.
Relatively new but highly successful is Bäckerei Kult. Having taken over Basel's oldest bakery on central Riehentorstrasse and despite the slightly silly name, this group of dynamic young women produces some of the city's best breads, croissants, and Wähe – savoury or sweet flat pies with experimental but always very tasty combinations.
Kult uses local, seasonal, and fresh ingredients without pretension. There are a few cute tables out on the street in Kleinbasel as well as a larger cafe in St. Johann, the hip part of Grossbasel. It’s not cheap but worth every Rappen and extra pound for post-Basel days. If dehydrated, their allegorically named “Fountain of Youth” coconut water is a deluxe cure.
Basel’s best Schoggi-Weggli (chocolate buns) as well as old-fashioned pralines and tiny but exquisite sandwiches can be found at Confiserie Bachmann, which has three locations in Grossbasel. Just like their offerings, Bachmann’s clientele is also charmingly frumpish: elegant older daig (“dough") ladies, who are the scionesses of Basel's discreet and philanthropic patrician caste – the driving financial force behind the city's museums, theatres, and concert halls. Usually acting anonymously, daig women, like the “Ladies First” club, collected and donated twenty-five million CHF to build a second stage for Theater Basel overnight in 2000, which has, since then, won an award for being the best German-speaking theatre several times.
Newly opened and serving great food from noon until late is Klara on Clarastrasse, between Clara and Messeplatz. Nine different food stands serve options from around the world, including Japanese okonomiyaki, Argentinian burgers, and Ethiopian delights. There are also stands with good coffee, granola, and tasty wines and liquors.
Since 1906, Brötli Bar at Stadthof Hotel has served a great selection of freshly produced Belegti Brötli, thin slices of toasted bread with a variety of toppings, including roast beef, tartare, egg, asparagus, and grilled aubergines just to name a few. All ingredients are locally sourced, and the meat comes from farms around Basel. This cantina-style landmark was recently renovated, but still has its original charm. If you can, get a stool at the window and observe the small-town hustle and bustle.
Also brand new and opposite Bäckerei Kult is Joys, which serves reasonably priced, fresh, and fine tasting salads, soups, and sandwiches from 11:30am onward. The owner, Anina Michel, a former gallerist herself, applies her great skills not only in the many things she serves but she has also become the Mamme of the street in no time. Generous, bubbly and hard-working, she knows all of the street's characters and treats everyone with a careful eye and big heart. Mega gallerists, the hair dresser across the street, friends, and random passers-by all feel at home at Joys. Watch out for the dangerous wine list and endless grappa refills...
Despite the sort of dull high-school reunion atmosphere of art world get-togethers at the Restaurant Kunsthalle bar (or more correctly, the Campari Bar), the restaurant itself is legendary and deserves to be known. Visit the newly installed Panton Saal, a private room that hosts an overwhelming installation by larger-than-life designer Verner Panton. Carefully restored with the help of some of Kunsthalle Basel's patrons, the room's ceiling is one entire lamp retrieved from Panton's private home in Basel after his death.
One of the more affordable and yet very carefully catered restaurants is Zum Onkel. Hidden away on a quiet side street in Kleinbasel, close to the fairs, bars, and clubs, Zum Onkel serves excellent weekly changing menus. No matter the week, it always has a small but absolutely dulcet selection of meat, vegetarian, and fish dishes. This place is beautiful both on the in- as well as the outside – sit under the plantains and sip selected wines.
A legend in Kleinbasel that also has a great bar next door and fun dance floor upstairs is Goldenes Fass, which serves some of the most innovative and tasty meals. Like many of Basel's restaurants, it’s a fresh blend of French, Italian, German, and Asian cooking. The food is as effortlessly presented as the restaurant’s simple interior that was recently renovated after a fire destroyed the main room. Home to Basel's creative scene (i.e. Herzog de Meuron's staff, museum curators, artists, and graphic designers), Goldenes Fass manages to remain simple, classic, and down to earth. Quality also has its price at Goldenes Fass, but its regulars have remained unfazed for twenty years or more.
Hirscheneck is my longest and most repetitive love. As a student, I even worked there for a (very) short period. Organized as a collective, Hirscheneck always promotes the rights of refugees, LGBTQIAs, and other marginalized social groups – long before leftist attitudes became chic. Not only do they continue their political missions successfully, but Hirscheneck is also a fantastic, inexpensive restaurant with daily fresh, vegetarian, and vegan meals, along with one meat dish. The crowd is mixed from students to activists to tourists, and dinner is served on a little plaza and visits to Hirscheneck can be extended to the early morning hours at the infamous cellar club and bar with regular concerts and raves.
My personal favourite is Nebel Bar. Close to restaurants like Goldenes Fass and Zum Onkel in Kleinbasel, this neatly designed and dark dungeon offers delicious drinks, a smoking lounge, and a secret dancefloor with some of the best music in town. Run by a group of friends, Nebel can be very familiar or extremely crowded but is always worth a good hangover – especially from their mescal sour.
St. Johanns-Rheinweg 46
Having been around forever but still pleasant because of its immediate location at the Rhine, Cargo Bar is another example of how Bebbis resist change even if it’s not needed. Popular with architects and designers but also pretty much anyone who enjoys sitting on a river and drinking affordable drinks at night, this place is always a good option. Apart from being a relaxed bar in a beautiful spot, Cargo Bar also hosts small exhibitions by some of its regulars and friends.
Another reason for countless excuses by Bebbis the next day is Renée. Also located in Kleinbasel, it is known for its never-ending opening hours, elegantly served cocktails, and messy parties. Some people claim the famous Basel artist and professor Renée Levi to have been the inspiration for this timeless place, and even if not, the place is its own myth.
Frankfurter Strasse 36
With what is apparently the best sound system in Switzerland, Elysia is a techno club of the finest kind. Spacious, elegant, and dark, it offers the perfect setting for long dance nights, big pupils, and hardcore amnesia. They also have a fantastic international line-up, which means that the crowd sometimes comes from afar just to see the DJs play all night long.
Basel's central everything is the Rhine (or Rhy in Basel dialect, Baseldytsch). Crossed by several bridges from the German border in the north to French border in the south, it divides and combines the many of Basel’s charming contrasts.
As soon as the sun is shining, people enjoy “Rhy-viera” moments along the Rhine. Starting with the fancier international crowd around Herzog & de Meuron's iconic Roche towers and ending with the playful shantytown festival atmosphere at Hafen, the area along the river in Basel during the summer becomes a lively, joyous series of mini-cosmos. Easily walkable at only a few kilometres long, the Rheinufer (“Rhine waterfront”) offers cobblestoned beaches lined with elegant townhouses (Schaffhauser Rheinweg, above Wettsteinbrücke), spectacular old town views (Oberer Rheinweg), and hysterical teenagers satisfying their munchies with McDonalds a bit further down, near Mittlere Brücke (Unterer Rheinweg). Further down and before the third bridge (Johanniter Brücke), several kiosks offer Spritz, hummus, and paninis to beautiful people arriving on well-maintained bikes or reading books in French. Passing Johanniter Brücke, the Rheinufer becomes the outdoor living room to various groups of punks, Latinx, and African communities, while expats indulge in their physical competitiveness at the Dreirosenpark outdoor gym. After a short walk further down towards France, the Hafen, a vast open area in what used to be part of Basel's harbour, is a topsy-turvy set of improvised bars, restaurants, clubs, and outdoor concert venues.
Feldbergstrasse and its intersection with Klybeckstrasse is generally considered the pulse of the city's creative scene – and gentrification has never been cuter. Along these two little idyllic streets a few local, carefully put together shops, bars, and restaurants can be found. There’s also an almost compulsory organic farmer's market on Saturdays at Matthäusplatz. This area is worth a relaxed stroll any time after midday until the following morning. Places to check out are:
One of Switzerland's last and most renowned vinyl and art book stores. It also runs several concert series and parties around town.
A shop with a small but seductive selection of clothing, accessories, and shoes. It’s possibly Basel's best place for beauty products as well as all organic and independent labels. If you feel like you need to treat yourself, you should probably find your way there.
A small, simple and very delicious Italian restaurant with food made by Italians.
Family run, always packed and yummy Thai restaurant.
A restaurant that serves lovingly prepared and decorated French and North African food.
JEAN-CLAUDE FREYMOND-GUTH is a former gallerist and now independent curator and advisor to artists and artist’s estates. He lives in Basel.