Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Join Mensa and eat cheaply in Berlin!

This is a tip for if you want to get a quick, cheap week-day meal in Berlin (or many German towns with a student population): get yourself a MensaCard and pop into a University canteen.

You don't need to be a student to get a card, and there are over thirty canteens and cafés across Berlin where they can be used.

You can get the cards from the canteen checkouts for a small deposit, refundable when you take it back. Currently the charge is €1.55.

The cards are topped up by using a recharging terminal, usually situated by the entrance to the canteens. These take euro notes which you feed in; a display shows you how much you have entered, and then you hold the card in front of the card reader and that amount is added to your card. You can top the card up to €50 if you want.You can also use these terminals to check your balance by simply holding the card in front of the card reader, and viewing the displayed amount. When you return your card, any outstanding credit on it is refunded.

Armed with a card, you can then select your food and drink and take them to the checkout. Note that the price of the dishes is often shown as three values, e.g. EUR 1.35 / 2.05 / 2.70 - those are the prices for a vegetarian chili con carne today. The first value is how much you pay if you are a student (if you are a student then take along ID when you first get your card), the second is if you are a guest of the University, and the third is the price you'll probably be interested in.

There are also always a selection of three main meal dishes that are the same price whether you are a student or not. Today there is 'Tortellini with cheese filling in a herb and mushroom sauce' for just €2.45, which sounds lecker!

At the check-out comes the fun part. When you place your tray of food and drink down in front of the cashier, he or she will tot up the price. Meanwhile, you place your card on the flat card reader (don't worry, you'll know where I mean). At the top of the screen by the cashier is your card's balance. Then when the amount has been added up, that will be displayed too at the bottom. In an instant the amount is deducted from your card, and the new balance shown. So, the queues speed through, with nobody fumbling for change or the cashier having to stop to change the till-roll.

There is a varied menu that changes each day. They aren't enormous portions, but good value for money compared to Berlin prices. The menu always includes vegetarian and vegan options (clearly shown beside the dishes by a sprouting V symbol for veggie, or a tree symbol for vegan). The canteens can be a bit featureless and functional, but they are usually brightly lit and clean. The one at the main Humboldt University site on Unter den Linden is in a giant tent!

Back in Britain you can flash your card at folks and they will think that you have been accepted into Mensa (the organisation for people with a high IQ). Actually, Mensa is the German word for canteen, but you don't need to tell anyone that.

Click here for a list of Mensa canteen locations in Berlin

Click here for the week's menu by location
This is in English, though it is amusing to see the odd humerous mis-translation. Switch to the German and you usually get more information too, e.g. today it says there is 'Bolognese sauce' for €2.45 - on the German page it says it is 'Italienische Spaghetti mit Paprika-Hackfleisch-Ragout' which is a bit more informative!

Click here and look at the photos to get an idea of what a typical Mensa looks like (this is Humbolt University Mensa Nord near the Charité Hospital and Naturkundemuseum).

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