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Europe's Most Irresistible Restaurants

A table set for two at Massimo Restaurant at Corinthia, Oysters.

Photo: Lisa Linder

On a recent jaunt through five of Europe’s eating capitals, I’d decided I would engage zero deconstructed asparagus or rearranged pot-au-feu. Instead I would set out across the Continent and England with a simpler goal: I wanted an illusion—at least during two weeks of mealtimes—that the fractured, globalized world around me would cohere once more. That each city would still hold something particular and unique—an enduringly un-movable feast.

Bistros and brasseries, Italian trattorias, Spanish tapas bars, British pubs—as I write, these archetypal European restaurant genres are being cloned across five other continents, units of a vast global restaurant industry. But while any decent designer can work up a convincing simulacrum of a burnished mirror, or skillfully affect a patina of age, the spirit of a place can’t be packaged. In a world of reproductions, the original still weaves a spell.

A restaurant should be emblematic of place; rooted in local traditions; often pickled in time ... and possessed of that elusive je ne sais quoi we call soul. Over my two decades of eating in Europe, I’ve gotten to know that kind of restaurant well; old favorite haunts have become my anchors, my homecomings, and in discovering new ones I tried to single out those instant classics that will continue to draw me back again and again.

Madrid

A nameless Madrid counter off the florid Gran Vía. Men growl away in their lisping Castilian over breakfast tortillas, while through a haze of cigarette smoke they watch a bull raging on the tele. Neither the churro nor the cup of hot chocolate I’m nursing is especially scintillating, but I’m giddy with joy. The year is 1982, my first time in Madrid. The chocolate costs less than a buck (ah, the peseta!), Franco’s been dead seven years, and the Spanish capital, isolated so long, is frenzied with energy. From this visit I become hopelessly hooked on Madrid’s gruff castizo soulfulness; on the ritual of chasing vermouth on tap with a briny mini-skewer called Gilda; on late-night tapeos. I’ll return countless times and be inspired to write a book about Spanish cuisine.

Everything’s changed since—and yet hasn’t, aside from the cigarette smoke. Recent renovations might have left Madrid’s centro sleek and sandblasted, but its spirit still hangs tough. On the first night of our trip, right by tourist-thronged Plaza Mayor, my partner, Barry, and I fall into a rabbit hole behind the flame-orange façade of Caso Paco—a tiled 1933 hangout where Orson Welles and legendary torero Manolete probably had the epic solomillo (sirloin) on a sizzling iron platter as we do.

And Lhardy? Well, next day for lunch at Lhardy, it’s still 1839. Just off frenetic Puerta del Sol, a staircase leads from a snug deli bar to a world out of a Zurbarán painting: worn red velvets, varnished mahogany wallpaper, and Belle Époque lamps reflecting in the heavy tureens from which bow-tied waiters apportion a rich, long-cooked broth with slurpy fideo noodles. Let us salute Lhardy’s renowned cocido: mighty piles of poached beef shin, hen, earthy chorizo and blood sausages, and la bola (a.k.a. pelota), a fluffy oversize meatball. We alternate the carne with chunks of cabbage and carrots, marveling at how chickpeas can be as creamy as chocolate truffles yet lighter than popcorn.

When Lhardy opened in the mid 19th century it was Madrid’s first proper restaurant, in the formal Frenchified sense. Otherwise, the capital’s dining still revolves around its tabernas (also called tascas). Dark wainscoting and white stucco walls set the stage for purple lonchas (slivers) of jamón and rigorously unadorned baby lamb chops. At El Landó, one of my favorite tascas in La Latina, tables stand ready with crunchy wedges of pan con tomate. Owned by the same family that owns super-blue-chip Casa Lucio, El Landó has a similar menu and a decidedly friendlier vibe. We inhale some blistery fried Padrón peppers and address the huevos rotos, french fries with eggs—currently the city’s most emblematic dish. You break up the eggs with a fork and allow the bright yolk to ooze over the batons of deep-fried Galician potatoes until a creamy sauce forms but the spuds just retain their crisp edges. Repeat at a dozen tabernas around Madrid.

We have the huevos again—with truffles now—at Arzábal, a nuevo classico treasure in the leafy Retiro Park area. Crisp/liquid croquetas of porcini mushrooms and sheep’s-milk béchamel, and chicken wings set on a nutty smear of pepitoria sauce from Andalusia—they prove that, post–Ferran Adrià, a giant leap in Madrid dining has meant a step back into history, and everything old is new and delicious again. Popular, too. The duo of owners had to expand nearby less than two years after opening. “At heart we’re a bar del barrio,” one of them grins, as I polish off the ultra-luscious torrijas (a dessert riff on French toast).

Up in the Chamberi district, the insiders’ hangout Los Asturianos has long set the standard for new-wave old-school barrio bars. Owner Alberto Fernández Bombín pours briny, unfiltered sherry from tiny bodegas to pair with Mama Julia’s traditional casserole of white beans and luminous Cantabrian shellfish. Then he gives us a new book, Madrid in Twenty Bars, written by aficionados of local vernacular dining.

The next day we race around, book in hand. Right by the Plaza Mayor, how could we have missed the monumentally essential (yet teeny) green-doored cubbyhole of Bodegas Ricla? We make up for lost years with fat, saucy albóndigas and one of Madrid’s greatest callos—tender pieces of tripe stewed with blood sausage chunks. And then, right in the trendy Malasaña neighborhood, we discover the shadowy, bottle-lined La Ardosa, with its golden squares of tuna-filled empanadas, velvety salmorejo (a thicker gazpacho), and owner Concha Marfil’s plump, award-winning tortilla. A brisk, chatty all-girl team tends a blue-tiled bar that resembles an ornamental crèche with dangling jamones, blackboard menus, and banderillas (skewered tapas) and bocadillos (sandwiches) wedged onto the marble countertop.

London

Paris is defined by its bistros, and tascas speak for Madrid. But if London, the modern, relentlessly polyglot city, were a restaurant, what would it be? A food stall at Brick Lane’s multiculti Sunday Upmarket? Or Veeraswamy, the glowing dowager of the Indian scene, around since 1926 but impeccably updated, with Muranoesque chandeliers, Regent Street views, and a brigade of regional chefs overseeing an obsessively authentic pan-Indian menu? Or would London be the plush, suave English Tea Room inside Brown’s Hotel, where we sipped a bracing Assam, curious whether Queen Victoria (a former fan) actually tasted the Victoria sponge cakes and Stella McCartney (a current fan) loves the Amadei chocolate tarts as much as we do.

But wait—the Wolseley! No mere restaurant, it’s London’s living room, kitchen, and boardroom as well as refueling spot all day long, but especially alluring at breakfast. It’s past 8 a.m. Silver teapots gleam on amber-hued marble tables. Nigella is here, Colin Firth just went forth. Tucking into my smoked haddock cake crowned with a poached egg, I wonder why this opulent evocation of Vienna’s fin-de-siècle cafés—serving up papers in five languages, Gallic cannelés bordelais, and American eggs Benedict—spells out modern London so completely. Then again, Chris Corbin and Jeremy King remain geniuses at creating timeless places that still capture the moment.

“If only you could bottle the Wolseley essence,” quip rival restaurateurs (just as a second Wolseley-inspired spot, the Delaurey, is about to open on Aldwych). We pick up the Wolseley vibe at Massimo Restaurant & Oyster Bar, the swish Mediterranean fish place at the new, opulent Corinthia hotel. There’s that awe-inspiring height, the soaring columns and arches, marble galore—courtesy of the same designer du jour, David Collins. On the menu: sparkling crudi and lemony spaghetti laced with spinach and langoustines composed by Massimo Riccioli from La Rosetta, in Rome. The food sings a familiar tune but with perfect pitch.

But suppose London were a dish. Would it be a salty, sea-fresh Cumbrae Rock oyster chased with a darkly malty house ale? A witty surf and turf of bacon-wrapped hake’s cheeks on a shocking-green fava purée? A giant muscular Barnsley lamb chop with a bright jolt of mint sauce? These bolster the menu at Hix Oyster & Chop House, the popular restaurant near Smithfield market (and just yards from the iconic St. John). Three years on, Mark Hix’s original spot flaunts everything we love about Modern British dining. Meaning, a neo-French bistro model reworked with Brit brawn and dash, and serious sourcing. Plus a mirror that punk artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster have scrawled on.

Next night we switch to Mayfair. In leafy red-brick W1, old posh has gotten a trendy push since Marc Jacobs, Balenciaga, and Louboutin moved in. At the dark and scene-y Connaught Bar, with its crocodile-leather seating and pearlescent walls, we hail the black-lacquered martini cart outfitted with lab-like vials of house-made bitters.

Around the corner a bloke in a bowler hat guards the entrance to the seafood citadel Scott’s. Revamped in 2006 by Caprice Holdings, it is to London today what the Ivy, then under Corbin and King, was to the nineties. Oak paneling and plush carpet muffle gusting, bibulous laughter; a crustacean display glows on the onyx bar like an altar to hedonism. Everyone’s munching goujons (fancy fish fingers), squeezing gauzed lemons on Dover sole, summoning a sixth bottle of Picpoul de Pinet. Everyone being politicos, actors, swank young Iranians on dates with Moscow gazelles. Ah, the fauna of new London.

And a pub? To scope how that species is faring right now, we follow an insider’s tip to the Mall Tavern, in Notting Hill. On first glance it’s your typical 21st-century “local”—cask ales and hibiscus Bellinis; wall antlers. The terse, deadpan menu gives no indication of the kitchen pyrotechnics to come. Like the mild, mouth-filling house-smoked salmon, or the quivery, glistening rounds of jellied offal bejeweled with Lilliputian radish slivers and watercress. And the cow pie! A bone loaded with marrow juts from a golden mantle of suet crust hiding a melting stew of beef braised in ale. Meet Jesse Dunford Wood, the quintessential young London chef. Before taking over this 1850’s boozer a year ago he waited tables at Balthazar, in New York, apprenticed in Chicago with Charlie Trotter, then headed the excellent kitchen of the National Gallery. Here his artist dad contributed wallpaper; mum, her famous sloe cordial. Wood tells us that his passion is retro-seventies British cooking: chicken Kiev, jammy dodgers, Arctic Rolls. What Rolls? Well, you have to be British to know.

Paris

The sidewalk rattan chairs are filling up as the lunchtime crush approaches. An elderly habitué in a frayed Hermès scarf is feeding bits of fromage de tête to her terrier. Inside, behind the zinc-rimmed bar the grandly burly patron pours a glass of biodynamic rouge for a visiting winemaker, then checks in at his family’s table to make sure le petit has finished his frites.

Similar scenes unfold daily at hundreds of iconic bistros where the Parisians practice their art de vivre and stoke their tête de porc addiction. But ask local critics for favorites and one name pops up: Bistrot Paul Bert, run by local food hero, wine maven, and bon vivant Bertrand Auboyneau.

At lunch, tucking into a crumbly galette with garlicky plump parsleyed snails at a maroon leather banquette under Jacques Tati posters and a vintage Pernod ad, I’m just as smitten. And I’m not feeding my headcheese—highlighted with refreshing shaved cauliflower and vinaigrette of moutarde violette—to anyone but myself. Auboyneau uncorks an edgy Loire Pinot Noir. Barry and I share delicate sautéed rouget (mullet) with batter-fried vegetables—a nod to Nice—saving room for a stinky, soft Époisses. Dessert is a cheekily ancien-régime pink tiered macaroon lollapalooza.

A grandmère in the kitchen? Nice thought. In Paris these days, the grandsons rule the roost. Yves Camdeborde (currently of Le Comptoir du Relais) famously teamed haute skills with his family’s charcuterie—for a pittance—at La Regalade in 1992 and lit the all-Parisian bistronomie movement. For my money, Regalade alum Stéphane Jego lays claim as the most soulful and sympa bistronomist. At his crammed, boisterous Chez l’Ami Jean we’re still waiting for our 10:30 table. But what a warm welcome! The raven-tressed belle at the door sweetly wedges us into the bar for free saucisson and chorizo. Finally at our table, we eye the fresco of a wacky piglet in diapers—part of the lampoony-irreverent, rugby-themed décor. “Pétoncles, the very last order,” whispers the waiter as he deposits a clutch of dime-size scallops on opaline half-shells, barely cooked, tasting like the sweet essence of Brittany. Exuberant Jego can ace rustique or refined. Overgenerous, too. His roast chicken is a Staub pot of dizzyingly good mahogany bird atop a dark bouillon reduction dotted with nuggets of sausage and bone marrow. At 1 a.m. we’re still scattering crumbled pralines onto a gigantic white bowl of creamy riz au lait—more than enough for a ravenous rugby team.

As each season launches a new slew of spartan neo-bistros with serious kitchen cred, critics strain to hail an après-Camdeborde Camdeborde. But which place will pass from cool to classique? Jadis, from the 2008 harvest, way out in the 15th, is there already with bistro updates that both soothe and surprise by Guillaume Delage, a vet of Pierre Gagnaire. And after my first bite of fat white asparagus stalks tricked out with a puckery sauce gribiche and marine notes of minced oyster and bubbles of trout roe, I predict enduring greatness for Septime, opened in April by Bertrand Grébaut, a greens-worshipping young disciple of Alain Passard, and sommelier Théo Pourriat. The room’s fermier-chic vibe—butcher-block tables; whitewashed walls—somehow amplifies the deliciousness of the cod brandade with an emerald puddle of parsley emulsion, a cloak of liquid potato purée, and a poetic scattering of microscopic white flowers. “Let’s come back tomorrow,” Barry blurts. Alas, tout complet.

The road to a Platonic steak frites leads us next to Montparnasse, where ex-butcher-to-the-star-chefs William Bernet rules over his tiny restaurant, Le Severo. The abbreviated menu is squeezed between listings of earthy Rhônes and noble Burgundies on the vast tripartite blackboard that dominates the cozy brown room. The portly Bernet is gracious to a fault—to everyone but us non-Gallic intruders. Despite the less than warm welcome, the menu is all comme il faut: shockingly rich, crisp-edged coins of boudin noir hail from Basque über-charcutier Christian Parra; the Limousine boeuf, from current-butcher-to-the-stars Hugo Desnoyer, aged by Bernet himself. Our faux-filet (sirloin) is a savory beauty, faintly minerally, graphically bloody, expertly charred. And the double-fried belles grosses frites are irregularly shaped, for that authentic hand-cut effect. As for le patron ... “Being rude to foreigners,” propounds our expat lunch companion with a straight face, “makes Parisians feel authentic.”

With their cramped seating, autocratic service, and inflexible three-course prix fixe, bistros can be lovable tyrants at times. Where to escape? But to a brasserie. Born as a late-19th-century brewhouse run by Alsatians, the brasserie—the term is from “brewery”—grew into a gilded, urbanely democratic mini Versailles. True, the most gorgeous burnished Paris establishments have been corporatized by the Flo Group, but of these, I remain loyal to Le Vaudeville. The romance lives on here, in the fantastical interior landscape of polished brass, beveled mirrors, and Art Deco sconces casting a warm glow on acres of honeyed, veined marble. A spiffy waiter briskly delivers our iced, tiered assiette de l’écailler—a modest seafood plateau. Under the grand domed ceiling we slurp the fines de claires; dip fat shrimp into mayonnaise; pry out the sea snails as staffers from Agence France Presse nearby saunter in. Afterward we wander the Parisian night, past the colonnaded Bourse, past the Opéra, on down past the floodlit Madeleine.

Rome

Rome and I go way back. My mother and I first landed in the Eternal City in 1974—penniless refugees from the U.S.S.R., awaiting our American visas. In a semi-hungry daze we wandered cobblestoned piazzas, gawking in fascination and envy at the utterly alien dolce vita unfolding at sidewalk trattorias.

I always recall those scenes at Salumeria Roscioli, a stunning restaurant and delicatessen off the Campo di Fiori. Look, Ma, I want to say. My table’s pressed against shelves of rare Amarones; the scents of truffled Robiola cheese waft from the counter as Van Morrison croons. Sipping a bright, grassy Alto Adige Sauvignon Blanc, savoring pink buttery petals of swordfish bresaola, I’m actually envying myself. Since Roscioli is above all a salumeria, meals here are as much curated as cooked: Roman cucina meticulously expressed with a dash of the current Italian worship of designer-label ingredients. The city’s best carbonara is here; but I’ve ordered the toothsome spaghettoni laced with taggiasca olives and buzzonaglia, the dark, flavorsome meat from the spine of a Sicilian tuna. Over caffè—from venerated Torrefazione Giamaica—I watch a silver-haired signora taste 11 kinds of salumi before committing to an etto (three and a half ounces) of super-aged black-pig prosciutto. Now I’m envying her.

Admittedly, Roscioli presents an aestheticized vision of the brash, populist cucina romanesca. In search of the ultimate Roman pastas I plot our next meal. For carbonara (guanciale and eggs) I’ve always favored Roscioli; for all’amatriciana (guanciale and tomato sauce), L’Arcangelo, in the Prati district; and for cacio e pepe (black pepper, cheese, no guanciale), Felice, in Testaccio. The last entry needs revising, however, since Felice’s chef Flavio di Maio opened Flavio al Velavevodetto, near Monte Testaccio, taking recipes and regulars with him. Everything about this sprawling, new, roots-y osteria cries romanissimo. Dogs bark somewhere; flowers peep from terra-cotta patio pots; the menu is recited a voce as waiters rush hunks of abbacchio (baby lamb) to three-generational families. The tonnarelli cacio e pepe is better than ever: grittier with pecorino and Parmesan, with plenty of pepper sting. And the thrifty Roman cucina povera ethos powers the terrific polpette, crisp breaded Ping-Pong balls of juicy meats left over from yesterday’s bollito misto.

Once defined by its mattatoio (slaughterhouse), Testaccio remains the epicenter of Rome’s traditional quinto quarto (offal) cuisine. Hankering for zampa (hoof) in sharp parsley sauce? Go, as we do, to Perilli, a stately 1911 Testaccio stalwart with cheesy “historical” wall murals and the city’s best old-school waiters. Our sagacious cameriere Valerio multitasks as wit, philosopher, and adviser on the most perfect order. Meaning: mellow braised favas from the antipasto buffet; a grand bowl (to split) of gutsy rigatoni alla carbonara (with molto guanciale) that tests my faith in Roscioli’s version; and grilled animelle (sweetbreads), crusty on the outside, creamy within.

Seeking “thrilling new places” in Rome is usually as futile as visiting the Vatican Museum’s modern art galleries. Unless that place is Da Cesare, in the residential Monteverde district (ride tram No. 8 to the last stop). In a spare, white neighborhood osteria, a modest genius named Leonardo Vignoli recharges cucina romanesca with fresh passion and energy, keeping prices at trattoria level by ferreting out small unsung producers. So a Lazio village guy cures the explosively flavorful hog jowl for Vignoli’s gricia, Rome’s fourth classic pasta (guanciale, pecorino, no eggs). Luscious potato gnocchi are sauced with coda alla vaccinara—meaty oxtail braised in a sugo of Pomila tomatoes that stay fresh-tasting even after being simmered forever. Vignoli pours a Ratafia—sweet Montepulciano wine infused with wild cherries—and tells us of the many starred places in France he worked at before returning to open a place of his dreams here. “Cesare, the old owner,” he says, “still eats here every week. I feel like I belong.” I tell him Rome is lucky to have him.

For our parting meal, it’s Trattoria Monti, with cucina inspired by the Marche region. Celebrating its 40th year (just like this magazine), Monti is ever reliable, inspiring even, unfailingly presenting a bella figura. At the clean-lined, vaulted room in the Monti district, you know that the dark, handsome Camerucci brothers will greet you as warmly as they do such regulars as Willem Dafoe. That overindulging in pastas—the tortello al rosso d’uovo is strepitoso (awesome)—won’t prevent you from ordering the roast stuffed rabbit you went for last time. In Rome, a heartwarming meal at Monti is like pecorino with favas in May, or the oratory between Lazio and Roma soccer supporters—eternally certain.

Istanbul

I’d been dazzled by Istanbul since my first visit back in the 1980’s, so several years ago I finally bought a small flat by the Bosporus. While I refurbished it, tourists were invading the city, touting it as glamorous “Istancool.” I like panoramic cosmopolitan hot spots as much as the next visitor. As a part-time resident, though, I take comfort in knowing that beneath all the gloss, a distinctly codified authentic food culture still thrives.

Perhaps as a legacy of Ottoman guild chefs focusing on single genres, traditional Istanbul restaurants continue to specialize, heedless of global trends. Kebab at kebapçi; balik (fish) at balikçi; börek (flaky filled pastries) at börekçisi. And then there is the meyhane, the crowded, rollicking drinking den where mezes unleash rivers of raki, Turkey’s signature anise-y firewater. Originally run by Christian minorities, the meyhane still represent the bohemian spirit of the Europeanized Beyoğlu quarter.

Raki—and accompaniments—in mind, we head to Karaköy Lokantasi. Tonight this meyhane of the moment in the gentrifying docks area by the Galata Bridge is packed with classic Beyoğlu types, from T-shirted graying filmmakers to young designers in harem pants. The only foreigners are us and Ralph Fiennes nibbling garlicky eggplant spread in a corner. The knockout interiors feature turquoise tiles, a dramatic wrought-iron staircase, and dark leather seating. Owners Aylin Okutan and Oral Kurt keep their glass meze display equally artful with some three dozen items—and that’s just cold starters. Our friend Hulya, a local food writer, orders away. Lemony braised spinach roots; smoked octopus; an oozy cheese börek loaded with shreds of aromatic pastirma, a cured beef. After caramelized quince, we stroll waterward, where stubborn fishermen still try their luck in the Golden Horn under the moonlit hull of a cruise ship.

Opposite on the spectrum are the esnaf lokantas, normally humble lunch canteens whose stewy, motherly fare nourishes a (mostly Muslim) clientele of workers and shopkeepers. At the Grand Bazaar, my trusted leather salesman tips us off to Aslan Restaurant, near the Nuruosmaniye mosque. Outside, rain pours down. Inside, a ceiling fan drowsily whirs over white-napped tables crowded with the bazaar elite: gold merchants, antiques dealers. Unusual for an esnaf lokanta, Aslan even serves alcohol. We order a light Turkish red with our Ottoman “lady’s thighs” (minced chicken cylinders fried in pale lacy batter), and eggplant baked to a creamy softness beneath a juicy ground-lamb topping. Our waiter idles over and sighs out the water-streaked window. We shrug back, grinning. It’s so homey here, I hope the rain never stops.

You could say that Kantin Lokanta is the esnaf lokanta of the skinny-jeans-and-status-sneakers brigade—a fueling stop for residents of the leafy, boutique-y Nisantasi district. You could say, too, that chef S,emsa Denizsel (a former food stylist) is the Alice Waters of Turkey, evangelical about everything local and seasonal. Bugun (today) is the most important word at her chic, understated place anchored with bouquets of white lilies. We eye the small blackboard daily menu. Today brings braised leeks, their natural sugar tempered by marinated green almonds, and a diaphanous stew of young grass-fat Thrakia lamb, favas, flat beans, and artichokes. With the sour-cherry milk pudding comes a thick Turkish coffee served with a spoonful of aromatic mastic gum—an Ottoman-era palate-cleanser.

A quintessential pastime in Istanbul is eating fish along the Bosporus. And locals maintain an almost irrational devotion to their trusted old restaurants. The balikçisi ritual is time-hallowed. First: white tangy cheese, cubes of green melon, and raki. Then the tableside showing of the meze tray, with its obligatory iterations of eggplant and—always—lakerda, the fatty, thick-cut, lightly cured Black Sea bonito. Then fish, done as simply as possible. My personal Bosporus grail is Kiyi Restaurant, in Tarabya, way up toward the Black Sea, where the air is salty and bracing, the currents more vigorous. From my usual table by Kiyi’s second-floor windows I watch boats bob in the small twilit harbor. Patrician families are quizzing Yorgo, the gregarious owner, about what’s just in. January means fat hamsi (anchovies) fried to a crisp; July, silvery sardines grilled in grape leaves. “The Bosporus is in our blood,” Yorgo tells us. “Every Istanbullu knows bonito has three different names depending on season and size.” We bite into the moist, delicate flesh of our just-caught grilled kalkan (turbot). The Bosporus is in my blood, too, I insist. “Maybe it’s raki?” asks Barry.

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