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.