Occupying a former celebrity hangout where Bowie partied and Warhol painted, Horváth (44A Paul-Lincke-Ufer; 49-30/6128-9992; dinner for two $100), in up-and-coming Kreuzberg, is everyone's idea of the perfect neighborhood restaurant. The restored 19th-century front room is an ideal setting in which to enjoy Eisbein, the greasy pork knuckle, here deconstructed into a terrine and a crisp-fried morsel. Chef Wolfgang Müller's menu is a clever balancing act, roaming from Berlin to Bangkok without losing its footing. He impales pike-and-perch quenelles on lemongrass sticks to top a Thai salad, and scatters floppy pasta sheets with nuggets of foie gras played off against salty bits of smoked eel. Over chilled elderberry soup, expats at the next table brag about the absurdly cheap rents of their palatial digs nearby. A few shots of cherry schnapps later, you too will be contemplating a move to Kreuzberg.
Die Quadriga (14 Eislebener Str.; 49-30/ 2140-5607; dinner for two $180), in the boutique hotel Brandenburger Hof, has long been Berlin's favorite place to celebrate. Thanks to a Bauhaus-meets-Biedermeier look and chef Bobby Bräuer, recently installed in the kitchen, its pull is stronger than ever. Guests can choose between a pale blue salon, updated with Lovis Corinth prints and Frank Lloyd Wright chairs, and a white neo-Rococo confection adorned with tomato-red contemporary art. A quivery veal gelée under a frothy horseradish cream, and the loin of Limousin lamb escorted by a mini pasticcio, are delicious. Still, the best reason to come here is the 850-bottle all-German wine list curated by Romana Echensperger, the charming and erudite 28-year-old sommelier. The 1990 Niederhausen Spätlese from Hermann Donhoff is better than any mood-altering drug. And you can spend an eternity sniffing out the balsamic vinegar notes in the Müller-Catoir eiswein—regretting that you've wasted half your life on Chardonnays and Barolos.
Modellhut (28 Alte Schönhaüser Str.; 49-30/ 9700-5058; lunch for two $36) is the most improbable of restaurants: a fashion-industry canteen sans attitude. During Saturday lunchtime fashion shows, an air-kissing crowd gathers in the moody bohemian space for what feels like a house party that you're quite welcome to crash. The menu doesn't promise much on first glance. What a surprise, then, to discover that salads are impeccably dressed tangles of crunchy, unblemished greens and that the mushroom-andsmoked quail risotto is so generously lavished with chanterelles. The $6 set lunches—perhaps Wiener schnitzel followed by chocolate pudding—are the best bargain in Europe. All that, and no velvet rope in sight.
"Bistronomie" is the current buzzword in Paris, a city where young chefs are opening small, accessible spots instead of chasing Michelin stars. You'll eat well at many of these—the chic Mon Vieil Ami, the rafﬁsh Chez L'Ami Jean—but if you have to choose only one, make it Le Comptoir (9 Carrefour de l'Odéon; 33-1/44-27-07-97; dinner for two $100). That is, if you can get in. Yves Camdeborde has gained such a cult following for his lusty cooking and his generous way with charcuterie at La Régalade, in the 14th Arrondissement, that all of Paris is clamoring for a table at the tiny new premises adjacent to his boutique hotel Relais St.-Germain. The cramped mustard-colored room that once welcomed Joyce and Matisse is, as they say, très simpa, and the five-course, $50 prix fixe menu is full of delights. For instance?The bright sweetness of pea jus poured from cocktail shakers over crunchy slivers of veal's feet. The clean marine ﬂavors of crab gelée shot through with bits of piquillo peppers and avocado. The dark punch of the shredded-beef-cheek compote that amplifies the meaty essence of beef tournedos. By night's end, you'll have exceeded your lifetime cholesterol limit—a cheese basket is left on each table so guests can help themselves to oozy Époisses and Brillat-Savarin—and learned about the love lives of most of your neighbors.
Of course, even three-star chefs are seduced by the notion of a more democratic cuisine. This fall, while Alain Senderens was busy transforming Lucas Carton into the more casual Senderens, Pierre Gaignaire, arguably France's most brilliant and daring toque, took over Gaya (44 Rue du Bac; 33-1/45-44-73-73; dinner for two $135), an old seafood stalwart smack across from Joël Robuchon's L'Atelier. There's nothing bistro-ish about the petite gray and blue two-story restaurant, which has been revamped with lots of white Corian by designer Christian Ghion. Although much of the food is high-concept, the menu's rather eccentric range of ideas and prices ensures something for everyone. Young couples in jeans drop by the bar for oysters provocatively paired with coins of grilled tête de veau or delicious (and reassuringly straightforward) raspberry cassata with vanilla meringues. Left Bank publishing honchos clinch deals over $70 lobsters, gorgeous speckled creatures with pearlescent flesh. Gaignaire groupies swoon over faux ﬁsh-and-chips (fried battered logs of brandade and a divine raw porcini salad) and iconoclastic croque-monsieur: a mozzarella-and-pesto sandwich tinted jet black with squid ink and chased by a shot of explosively flavored shrimp "essence." Some dishes misﬁre—like the weird cocktail of noodles, mango, and cod—but the promise of Gaignairian genius is never more than a few bites away.