37 restaurants in Paris, Barcelona, Turin, and London where you can still eat like a king.
37 Affordable European Restaurants
We’ve come to Paris hungry for this season’s best bargains, but a dinner disaster threatens our first night in the City of Light. Cruddy-looking dishes and snooty service at a certain new “hot spot” send us bolting from our cramped table onto the street. “So now what?” huffs my companion. “It’s 9:30 on a Friday night!” Yes, I noticed. Frantic, I call M Comme Martine and L’Epigramme, two affordable favorites of my friend François Simon of Le Figaro. “Desolé. Tout complet.” Then—bingo!—a cancellation at the adorable L’Entredgeu nearby. Soon we’re slathering a coarse terrine de campagne onto crusty brown bread and savoring an earthy organic red from the Rhône. Snug on a leather banquette beneath a bullfighting painting, I admire the simple elegance of the multicolored string-bean salad under a cornmeal wafer—but what’s with the boring brown sauces served with the meat courses?An ethereal ginger mousse in a tangy puddle of rhubarb compote (not to mention the mellow bill) saves the night.
It must be the Russian oligarchs who keep Paris’s high-end restaurants packed. Sans petro-fortunes, who can afford those $90 plates of asparagus?One secret to eating better for less is forgetting the words à la carte. “Vive la formule!” (set menu) cry thrifty Parisians as they cram into neo-bistros charging $20–$30 for lunch and around $40 at night. I can’t get over the brilliant lunch we have at L’Agassin, another François Simon pick in the Seventh Arrondissement. Everything about this sleek room in shades of café au lait suggests a serious restaurant, but the set-meal prices say bistro. Formerly of La Tour d’Argent, Breton chef André Le Letty shows how saucing can dazzle with his garlicky escargots scattered on a backdrop of emerald parsley purée, and a meaty fillet of cod in a lake of light, modern beurre blanc nuanced with tamarind. When his Chinese-born wife (and maître d’) brings the mango “milk shake” and a plate of buttery Breton sablé cookies, her warm smile is infectious.
Those of you put off by the cost of eating in Europe, fear no more: after spending more days on the Continent than I did at home last year, I can assure you that finding affordable meals has never been easier. Just to be completely certain, my partner, Barry, and I embarked on a currency-busting mission: to eat as well as we could in four expensive cities—Paris, Barcelona, Turin, and London—without feeling the pinch. Though happy to ditch foie gras and postprandial Armagnac, I still set the bar high. I wanted real food, satisfying food, inventive food that packs savvy locals into intimate restaurants. How much was I prepared to pay for all this deliciousness? I decided on a budget that would feel reasonable back home—no more than $100 for dinner for two and about $40 for lunch. To drink, we’d plunder the wine lists for the interesting $30 bottles so abundant in Europe, where markups are low. As a reward for economizing, we’d occasionally splurge on a new place I was dying to try. The race was on.
Since the next generation of European chefs has been in recession mode for some time, I had high hopes for our odyssey. Nothing, however, prepared me for the jackpots we hit, meal after meal. To be honest, when we finally put aside our napkins, this trip shone as my all-time favorite eating adventure. I’m still daydreaming about that elegant lunch at Gresca in Barcelona—three sublime courses for the price of a cocktail at a fancy hotel. I’m still inhaling the fragrance of the quail curry at Cay Tre, a hip and gently priced London Vietnamese joint that can easily rival the best in Saigon. And then there was Turin. What drew me to this old-fashioned Piedmontese city? Without giving away the surprise, let’s just say Turin offers the world’s tastiest freeloader’s bonanza. Ready? Let the eating begin.