The only time I’ve heard of a pay-what-you-want business model was when Radiohead released In Rainbows in 2007 and let people decide what to pay when they downloaded the album. Although it did garner the band exceptional publicity, to call it a business model seems like a stretch. It was more of an experiment. But it turns out pay-what-you-want is a thriving, decade-old business model right here in our neighborhood in Berlin, in Corner Wine Bar no less.
On a typical weeknight we hit Corner Wine Bar around 6pm for a post-work Riesling or three. We’re usually gone by 8PM, but the other night we were there a bit later and noticed the place started to fill up as certainly as Cinderella’s coach turning back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight. It turns out everyone had arrived for the pay-what-you-want buffet dinner — crocks of braised beef, penne, and red cabbage, perfect for the wintry night — and self-serve wine bar. You rent a wineglass for €2, but other than that no price is dictated. At the end of the night you just pay what you see fit into a glass jar set out on the bar.
There are two more pay-what-you-want restaurants owned by the same people who own Corner Wine Bar, both within a few blocks of our apartment. FraRosa serves a four-course dinner from 8PM. The first time we went we had no idea it was pay-what-you-want; we assumed the lack of pricing on the menu meant we should expect an exorbitant bill to arrive later. I was shocked when the petite German waiter explained there was no bill, pointed me in the direction of a glass jar, and refused to provide any guidance on what was expected. Thankfully there were some English-speaking Swiss at the next table who had been there before and recommended €20 a head for the food.
Having been through this drill I was prepared when we visited Perlin last night. It’s the smallest of the three places and my favorite. Unlike FraRosa, which has a choice of two options for each course, at Perlin you take what’s on offer. (Last night it was a pureed lentil soup garnished with fresh coriander and lamb braised in wine.) After a week at work where I was expected to make decisions every minute of the day, there was something luxurious about the lack of choice. Our only decision was to pay €20 a head again for the food.