These are challenging times for intrepid gourmands seeking the Authentic. Trek halfway around the globe and what do you find?Nobu No. 1,236, or knockoffs of last year’s hits from El Bulli. So where does this leave traditional food—and how are European classics surviving globalization?Hungry for answers, I set off on a grand tour in which culture and scenery would take a back seat to my quest for iconic favorites like bouillabaisse, fish and chips, and Wiener schnitzel. I made it my mission to taste the genuine article in its natural habitat: a working-class chippy in London, a Jugendstil tavern in Vienna. I would not balk at cholesterol counts. What’s a few extra fat grams when you can taste fish and chips fried in beef drippings, as they were meant to be?Nor would I hew to the comfort zone of major cities. Who cares if the road is dusty and drab, when it leads to paella’s Platonic ideal?Not even a two-and-a-half-hour ferry-plus-bus trip could stand between me and Turkey’s most epic kebab. Europe’s classic traditions live on; you just have to know where to look.
Authentic European Dishes
More European Classics
Possibly the most iconic Gallic dish, cassoulet is a rich casserole slow-baked in earthenware that layers tender haricots, various bits of pork, and duck or goose confit. This specialty of southwestern France is claimed by three cities: Carcassonne, Toulouse, and Castelnaudary, each offering its own twist on the theme. Try it at The cozy Le Colombier (14 Rue Bayard; 33-5/61-62-40-05; www.restaurant-le colombier.com; dinner for two $120) in Toulouse, where it’s prepared from a 150-year-old recipe.
To taste pizza as it was meant to be—uncorrupted by fancy toppings and centered on a supple, blistered crust flash-baked in an 800-degree wood-burning oven—you must travel to Naples, its birthplace. Local purists normally frown at any pizza that isn’t a classic margherita or marinara, but a few arugula leaves or prosciutto petals don’t hurt. Try it at Di Matteo (94 Via Tribunale; 39-081/455-262; lunch for two $40), a battered shrine to the pie in the picturesque Spaccanapoli quarter.
Belgium’s signature dish consists of a big iron pot of plump mussels—connoisseurs insist that those from Zeeland’s North Sea are best—steamed in a broth traditionally perfumed with onions, celery, black pepper, and wine. On the side, a pile of crisp, slender frites for which the country is famous. Try it at Brussels’s Aux Armes de Bruxelles (13 Rue des Bouchers; 32-2/511-5598; www.armebrux.be; lunch for two $80) which is equally well-known for the vintage Art Nouveau interior of its front room.
Fondue (which means "molten" or "blended") is Switzerland’s great contribution to the world table. A rich amalgam of cheese, white wine, and a splash of kirsch—plus a small mountain of bread cubes for dunking—it’s the ultimate comfort food. Classically either Gruyère or Vacherin can be used for the dish; if you want both, ask for it moitié-moitié (half and half). Try it at Geneva’s Les Armures (1 Rue Puits-Saint-Pierre; 41-22/310-3442; www.hotel-les-armures.ch; dinner for two $105), a venerated institution that serves up the smoothest, most flavorful rendition.
These colorful open-faced sandwiches are a centuries-old Danish tradition: herring, tiny shrimp, cold cuts, pâtés, and more, piled on pieces of dense buttered bread and festooned with anything from dill sprigs to lemony mayo to crispy fried onions. Three—or seven—make a great lunch. Try it at The 16th-century classic, Slotskælderen Hos Gitte Kik (4 Fortunstræde; 45-33/111-537; lunch for two $40), across the street from Copenhagen’s Christianborg Palace, where the Danish parliament convenes.
Originally concocted by wandering Magyar shepherds and cattlemen, goulash is the quintessential old-world stew that marries hunks of long-simmered meat, carrots, and onions with a generous lacing of paprika. Dumplings are optional, as is a dollop of sour cream, and goulash—which Hungarians tend to call pörkölt or paprikás—can also take the form of a soup. Try it at The homey Borbíróság (5 Csarnok Tér, Budapest; 36-1/ 219-0902; dinner for two $60) near Budapest’s Central Market, which also offers one of the city’s best selections of Hungarian wines.
Meat on a stick doesn’t get better than Greece’s signature pork or chicken brochettes marinated in lemon juice and oregano, sizzled on skewers, and folded into a thick bready pita along with crisp veggies and garlicky tzatziki (yogurt dip). Think of this dish as the Hellenic answer to the hamburger. Try it at The perpetually crowded O Thanassis (69 Mitropoleos St.; 30-1/324-4705; lunch for two $10), in Athens’s hopping Monastiraki district. To souvlaki junkies, this is the Parthenon of fast food.
Though Spanish regional specialties like gazpacho and paella might seem more familiar, cocido is truly the country’s national dish. A multi-meat boil served in two courses (broth followed by carne), it features chicken, beef, vegetables, and charcuterie like chorizo and blood sausage, plus a big fluffy meatball called la pelota. Try it at Madrid’s Lhardy (8 Carrera de San Jerónimo; 34/91-521-3385; www.lhardy.com; lunch for two $95) where a textbook-perfect version is ideally matched to the burnished 19th-century ambience.
More than simple delivery systems for caviar, these delicate yeast pancakes are an ancient Slavic treat that goes back to pre-Christian rites. Symbolically, the flour and eggs in the blini represent the fertility of Mother Earth. Great blini should be plate-sized (never mini), simultaneously fluffy and thin, and good enough to hold their own even without osetra or beluga. Try it at The opulent Yar (32-2 Leningradsky Prospekt; Hotel Sovietsky; 7-495/960-2004; dinner for two $175), an 1826 Moscow landmark.