Many manufacturers currently offer kitchen knives with Damascus steel blades at a premium.
Besides looking cool do such knifes have any better characteristics compared to simply good forged stainless steel kitchen knives?
Firstly, true Damascus steel is a historical artifact--I infer you are talking about knives created from steel produced by reproduction methods which are similar.
This is a subjective question--only you can deside whether you find the value proposition favorable. The thing is, the qualities that make (reproduction) Damascus steel special and important (other than aesthetics) are perhaps more important to weaponry rather than culinary application.
The two main charactaristics that come to mind for Damascus steel, in my personal opinion, are:
Cutlery is not subjected to the same stress as weaponry, where being able to absorb impact stress without shattering is a relevant virtue.
But they are pretty.
My personal subjective opinion: no, not a good value proposition compared to good quality modern knives--either forged or stamped--like Shun, Wustof, Chicago Cutlery, Victorinox, or countless others.
Damascus steel offers no benefits over other types of good quality steel. They look cool, but don't do anything that other knives can't do much cheaper.
At the time of my engineering degree (mid-1990s), the knowledge for true Damascus steel was lost, much like the knowledge of the recipes for the concrete used in the Roman Colosseum.
It's possible that more materials analysis has been performed since that point, as there have been a number of groups who would like to reproduce the process to determine how it compares to modern steel. (museums aren't willing to subject the known pieces to destructive testing).
With modern steel, they intentionally introduce small proportions of other metals to interrupt the crystals that form as the metal is cooled; this helps to improve the strength of the steel as there isn't a single sheer plane that could allow fractures through the whole item. They're also better able to control the cooling process, so that they can control what crystal structure forms in the steel as it's annealed and quenched.
My understanding of true Damascus steel is that it's likely two different crystaline structures, one more ductile (so it can compress to absorb more energy without failing) and the other more brittle (which can hold a sharper edge). The two work together similar to today's composite materials.
Most of the stuff sold on the market today is laminated from two or more metals. In many ways, it's more similar to the folding process of high-quality Japanese blades, but with dissimilar metals. As the sheets are mostly parallel to each other, I would suspect that the strength improvement isn't as high as the more erratic patterns in true Damascus, but this is likely countered by using metals that are independently stronger.
So, to answer the specific questions:
Most people are better off getting some decent but cheap knives and replacing them more often. Victorinox Fibrox regularly wins America's Test Kitchen's ratings of knives.
As a custom knife builder my answer is simple: Yes and no. Some damascus blades are cheaply made and consist of simple layered steel or flattened steel cable that is etched to produce the lines that many people find attractive. They are definitely not worth any extra cost and in fact are easily outperformed by regular modern kitchen knives of moderate to good quality. In fact since these damascus blades are only formed from ordinary steel they will rust quite easily, must be maintained regularly and will not hold a keen edge.
Other types of damascus steel is made from layers of stainless steel (that results in a much more subtle pattern) but also has an inner core of high carbon specialty steel like VG-10. This type of damascus is far more expensive of course but produces a blade of superior quality as well as one that looks very cool. It will hold its edge longer because of the hardness of the inner core but will also be very durable due to the layers of more flexible and stain resistant stainless steel.
Whether or not it is worth the extra cost is entirely a personal choice. If you only use your knife to cut up hot dogs and store it in a drawer with the rest of your kitchen utensils, I'd say no. But if you use your knife extensively, like the very best and want a knife that looks (and stays) really sharp, I would say the answer is yes. But do your homework and ask questions. "Damascus" does not automatically mean better.
If you like the way a Damascus blade looks, it can be worth it. If you like a certain manufacturer and their high-end knives are damascus-clad, it can make sense to get those instead of their cheaper lines.
A modern "damascus" knife is simply two sheets of laminated damascus wallpaper around a hard, knife-steel core*. This core layer is going to determine how the knife works, how it cuts. So will the shape of the blade, the angle of the grind, shape of the handle, the weight distribution. Damascus cladding will not, it only changes the look of the knife, and it drives the price up a bit.
*Cladding a hard core with softer steel is a japanese invention. It enabled them to make swords with extremely sharp edges due to the hard core, without making the blade brittle. Soft steel is flexible, allowing the blade to flex without breaking. Damascus cladding has no functional differences to soft steel cladding. There are no downsides to it, other than the price.
Correction: The Japanese Sword makers clad a soft flexible core with a hard exterior. The cutting edge was produced from the exterior layers which had a high carbon content, and was additionally tempered before the final sharpening. The pattern on a Japanese sword was created by folding the metal and not by mixing it the way a Damascus blade was forged.
Damascus steel has a cutting edge that is superior to all knives. Not only that, damascus steel holds a razor sharp edge longer, i.e. it's a super hard metal! Damascus steel is better used in a work place setting than in a city slicker setting. But yea it is purdy. Stainless steel is the safest to use in the household - it doesn't rust and you don't don't need a tetanus shot.
A good blade is a pleasure in your hand to use and look at.
For the last 50 yrs or so I've used the same Trident (Wustof) knives. Feel. Cut. Balance. Can't be beaten. But recently I bough a Torijo Damascus Utility. Straight from Japan delivered for $68.
Balance feel etc. Lighter but good in the hand. And the LOOK of the blade. YEP.. They worth the extra.
Japanese swords were made by layering the steel then forge welding it (heating and beating with a hammer). When the billet gets stretched, it is folded again, heated and beat, over and over. Good quality katanas will have 1,000 or more layers. They also created/invented the forge wekding of hard and soft metals,. as mentioned, in order to have a sword with a very sharp edge and the a body that can take the forces of striking something.
They do not twist, cut and reorient the billets to create patterns in the steel like you see in damascus knives.
As to the quality of a damascus knife, it all depends on a couple factors; The type(s) of steel used and the skill of the craftsman.
All the top makers use various steels and methods and they create various types of knives. Some of the simpler, plain damascus knives (2-3 different carbon and/or nickel steels) can be very sharp, cut well and hold an edge if it is created well.
Another technique is to sandwich a harder core metal between two layers of damascus to get a cutting edge of supreme quality with the look of the damascus pattern.
There are some who support the idea that a damascus blade is superior to a single-steel blade due to the different metals at the cutting edge either slightly chipping away or wearing to create a micro serrated edge. I'm not aware of any actual tests that show this to be true.
Modern techniques can make stainless damascus which has advantages, but even after acid etching the pattern isn't as "pretty" as what can be achieved with carbon and nickel steels.
The patterns in modern knives vary greatly and you'd be surprised at how much control the craftsmen have in defining very specific patterns. In other words, they aren't always just a random mishmash of curvy layers. A skilled craftsman can make basketweave patterns, circles, chevrons, etc. It's all in how the layers are forge welded, then cut, restacked, welded and formed using shaped dies, etc to deform the layers into the shapes they want.
As to whether a damascus knife blade is better than a single steel blade, the answer is really, no. At least not in terms of performance in the kitchen. Of course, your single steel knife still needs to be high quality and properly sharpened.
Regardless whether it is damascus or single steel, if it's cheap and poorly sharpened it isn't going to cut well.
Modern, high-end damascus knives made by well known craftsmen are more for looks than performance. Those same makers will make a single steel knife that performs every bit as good for a lot less. Making damascus steel is time and labor intensive, so that's what you mostly pay for.
Arguably, good carbon steels for knives are sharper and hold an edge better than any stainless (although I admit VG-10 is pretty darn good), but they come with all the associated maintenance requirements. You have to clean and dry the knife when you are done with it. You can't leave it sit in the sink or throw it in the dishwasher and run it the next day...they'll rust in a heart beat. Some food acids will discolor or even etch them too if you aren't careful.
If you're a professional chef, or a very avid home cook, you might like a damascus knife for the looks and "prestige"...but for the average home, most people tend not to take care of them properly.