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.
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.
Parisian foodies are mad for the $47 blackboard menu at Itinéraires. After the smashing success of their original restaurant in the 11th, Sylvain and Sarah Sendra recently upgraded to these grown-up premises in the Latin Quarter. In a softly lit room brightened with palm trees and flowers, chic couples of all ages fall in love all over again—with each other and with their deconstructed lemon tarts. I can taste echoes of Spanish nueva cocina in the audacious pairing of sardine rillettes and cornichon granita in a cocktail glass. The dish works, but not as brilliantly as the beef cheeks, elevated from the mundane by electric-pink splashes of beet jus and a double-textured potato purée. A thin ring of carrot reduction around vanilla-tinged celery-root emulsion lends mystique to the boned rabbit. The whole tab comes to less than one dish chez Monsieur Ducasse.
Eating two French three-course meals a day takes a toll on our arteries, if not our budget. So the next day we stroll around the Marais and just snag a big fat falafel with a myriad of trimmings at the legendary L’As du Fallafel, then share a divine buckwheat crêpe at Breizh Café, a new Breton crêperie nearby (whose original branch is in Tokyo). Another discovery is Le Comptoir de Tunisie, on Rue de Richelieu, a perfect pit stop for Louvre-goers. The homey Franco-Tunisian lunches served up at this elegant North African food-and-crafts shop will leave you with enough cash for a pair of colorful handblown glass votives.
Of course, the best deals on meals await a distance from the Louvre. Last year, hungry hipsters stormed the fringes of the Bastille, in the 11th. Now they’re flocking to the Canal St.-Martin area, where you can work off a copious $21 brunch at La Cantine de Quentin, a charming épicerie with a kitchen, with a vigorous stroll by the water. And did I mention the up-and-coming residential 15th, prime territory for affordable haunts like Le Troquet and the new, and mobbed, Afaria. Here, striped Basque runners on tables and a wine list scrawled on distressed mirrors set the mood for chef Julien Duboué’s playful exuberance: a cheeky boudin noir “napoleon” richly layered with apples; a whole magret (duck breast) baked on a bed of grape leaves atop a clay roof shingle. Those without reservations can drop in for some equally whimsical tapas at the tall communal table in the front room—perhaps a wooden clog piled high with crisp-fried calamari?Wherever you sit, end with orange beignettes and a heady shot of raspberry-spiked, unoaked Armagnac (recipe courtesy of the chef’s Basque grandma). Having honed his craft at the luxe Four Seasons Hotel George V, Duboué got turned down by nine banks before securing funding for his new solo venture. Now, his backers must be patting themselves on the back. “You won’t believe how many famous Parisian chefs have been in!” Duboué adds. Hey, why not? They love a good tasty deal just like we do.
Everyone in Barcelona these days complains about the credit crunch and the construction-boom crash—but mostly in between swooning at all the amazing lunch deals in town. Eating well: that’s the Catalans’ recession revenge. For our first meal we join Pau Arenós, El Periódico de Catalunya’s food guru, for lunch at Restaurant Embat. “Young Barcelona chefs are returning to grandmother’s cuisine!” Pau declares over fat truffled chicken ravioli with artichokes. Then, eyeing my squid “spaghetti” atop a chilled potato velouté, he adds: “That is, if la abuela worked at NASA.” Any space-age granny would be proud of the classic lunchtime arroz (rice) pushed into the stratosphere by a discreet touch of foie gras and near-invisible tears of green grape gelée. And she could certainly live with the prices—about $50 a head including wine by the glass. The trio of thirtysomethings behind the cutting-edge dessert atelier Espai Sucre designed this narrow tiled space in L’Eixample on a shoestring. “Notice the gold trim we painted over the tiles?” one of them asks as he sets down a bowl of crunchy-soft-salty-sweet chocolate “sand” under a cloud of vanilla foam.
Ah, Barcelona—so much great food, so little time. There’s the terrific $17 lunch (a glass of vino included) at Els Fogons, where the velvety melon gazpacho followed by arroz negro studded with cuttlefish or a perfect seared tuna are served at an industrial-chic space inside the renovated Barceloneta market. Then there’s Patxoca, a boho café near El Born that’s so green that even the beer is organic. The earthy spelt bread dunks superbly into the saucy meatballs enriched with a hand-pounded almond sauce, and the fluffy brandada de bacalao is painstakingly beaten with olive oil. Also not to be missed is Bohèmic, a snug new-wave tapería only insiders know about. Chef Francesc Gimeno Manduley’s low-cost, high-concept miniatures are a marvel of ingenuity. Imagine, for instance, a composition of pink slices of beef served alongside a mini grill, a baby skillet of wheat-and-pistachio risotto, a bowl of shallot emulsion for dipping, and a wooden box holding various salts. Bohèmic’s classic tapas—try the patatas bravas served with alioli and chili jam—give Albert Adrià’s (Ferran’s younger brother) thronged Inopia Classic Bar nearby a run for its anchovies.
There’s nothing surreal about the $26 lunch deal at Gresca. This meringue-white L’Eixample storefront belongs to Rafa Peña, the 32-year-old current leader of Spain’s bistronomic movement. “I set my lunch menu only after placing morning calls to suppliers to see what’s on sale,” Peña explains. Yes, he enjoys haggling with fishmongers over the day’s bargain catch—such as a pearl-pink chunk of merluza (hake) with an earthy garnish of seared scallions and red chard. The slow-cooked, richly glazed pork ribs here are from pigs reared by a friend. After his wife brings back three kinds of tomatoes from the cheapo neighborhood market (not the posh Boqueria), Peña sets them atop tomato jam on a dazzling coca (a type of Catalan tart). Gresca, of course, is much more than a simple bistro. Dish for dish, Peña’s $63 regular menu matches anything you’d pay five times as much for at the Parisian three-starred L’Astrance.
For dinner, the star power of El Bulli’s former chef de cuisine Albert Raurich draws us to his just-opened Dos Palillos. The setup is half the fun: you enter a traditional tapas bar (it’s actually new) in the Raval quarter. Continue through beaded curtains at the back and you emerge into a designed-to-death red-and-black Asian cubbyhole, where Catalan and Japanese chefs steam dumplings behind a deep, angled counter. Dos Palillos (two chopsticks) is Raurich’s tribute to Asian snacks. Good as they are, I don’t recommend wasting precious euros on familiar wontons and Vietnamese spring rolls. Instead, cut straight to the wondrous onsen-poached egg in a cold dashi broth highlighted with crystals of freeze-dried soy sauce (an El Bulli trick). Ponder the salty, tangy complexity of monkfish liver with yuzu gelée, steamed after a long soak in sake and ginger. Quaff some Inedit, a suave ale bottled especially for Ferran Adrià and his cohorts. While the back room serves multicourse degustation menus, the no-reservations “Spanish” front space offers the same small plates à la carte. Eating razor clams perfumed with Kaffir lime and curry at a tapas bar whose floor is strewn with napkins and toothpicks…“muy surrealista,” Raurich admits.
On our last night in town, I nervously count my shekels. Phew…enough for our Big Splurge dinner at Fonda Gaig. This new brasserie from Barcelona’s hautest chef, Carles Gaig, is my idea of perfection, from the sprawling room that’s both cozy and cool to the nuevo catalán menu, where every dish commands, Order me now. Open just under a year, Fonda has already achieved a cult status, Barcelona’s answer to San Francisco’s Zuni Café. Even at lunch on a Monday everyone’s here: patrician businessmen in beige blazers, svelte Marni wearers—all talking recession blues over crisp golden bacalao fritters. Gaig’s traditional pastas are legendary: slender cannelloni with a decadent multimeat filling, and macarones del cardenal, silky pasta tubes cloaked in a divine sauce of cream and onion sofrito under gratinéed Parmesan. “Really, you want more?” asks Gaig’s wife, Fina, flashing a Hollywood smile. Out comes the beef-cheek terrine in a deep glossy sauce with an anisey hint of Ratafia herbal liqueur. With our bill clocking in at less than $200 with service and wine, I’d eat here every night. Apparently, many do. Can’t get a table?Don’t despair. There’s always the stupendous mound of fried rabbit and caramelized garlic at the rustic gem called Taverna Can Margarit, in the folksy Poble Sec neighborhood.
Famished as soon as we arrive, we instantly claim an outdoor table at Mood Libri & Caffè, a design-minded café with a bookstore. In the shadow of a monumental palazzo, we taste tiny roasted potatoes, focaccia with artichokes, prosciutto, mortadella, mozzarella, and a farfalle salad tangy with capers. The bill?Niente. That’s right: zip, zero, zilch—provided you order a drink. Welcome to the aperitivo hour: a cherished tradition in the food-obsessed Piedmontese capital, home of vermouth, grissini breadsticks, and gratis hors d’oeuvres. Why go home after work?locals seem to say. Why not linger at an ornate bar or café over a Punt e Mes or Negroni and some free stuzzichini?Why not, indeed! Tramezzine, mini-pizzete, baby panini—the parade of dainty edibles has our heads spinning at the burnished cafés on baroque Piazza San Carlo. Laid out under a vast chandelier, the spread at Caffè San Carlo is as rococo as the florid 1822 interior. So civilized is the mood, we don’t dare refill our plates yet again with the lush half-moons of eggplant parmigiana or the canapés dressed with cream-cheese curlicues and folds of bresaola.
Though at times Turin can feel like a private club frozen in time, its aperitivo ritual keeps evolving. “With our terrible economy, aperitivo is suddenly aperi-dinner,” quips my pal Bob Noto, a local food photographer and gourmand. Such is the feeding frenzy the next night in the cafés on the Piazza Vittorio Veneto—grazing central for Turinese youth—that by 8 p.m. every last tuna-stuffed cherry tomato has been devoured from the copious hot-and-cold smorgasbords. We jump in a cab and console ourselves with the blistery wild-greens-and-sausage pie at Pizzeria da Cristina, an oasis of Neapolitan warmth and tomato sauce just outside the center.
Bob decides we need special guidance and tells us to meet him for an aperitivo at 6 p.m. sharp the following evening. He and his friend Luisa bring us to a bunker-like bar called Cantina, which harbors such improbable treats as a wooden board of meaty pancetta, beautiful roasted vegetables, and a fluffy rice, pea, and frittata salad I want to eat every day. I’m dying for another foamy Campari shake, but she urges us onward, to Vinicola Al Sorij, a short walk away near the Po River. At this enoteca con cucina, we share soft chickpea farinata, triangles of airy pesto quiche, crudités, and first-rate salumi.
We finish with a Piedmontese cold supper at Luisa’s own modern trattoria, Le Vitel Étonné (a play on vitello tonnato). The occasion?A tasting of Grignolino, a local red wine, hosted by its hipster producers. “Grignolino’s such plonk!” Bob hoots. “It’s like having a degustation of tap water.” Me, I find it compulsively drinkable, especially with the soft slices of tongue in a sharp salsa verde, and a creamy insalata russa. Luisa didn’t name her place after Piedmont’s most famous dish without showing it some respect: pink slices of veal baked over salt at low temperature come cloaked in a divine tuna mayonnaise with just the right doses of anchovy, capers, and mustard. During aperitivo hour you can taste the vitello—and other favorites—in small portions.
After three days of grazing, we’re glad to sit down for a real lunch under the arched brick ceiling of Ristorante Sotto La Mole, housed in a former horse stable by the National Cinema Museum. Prices are reasonable, but I’d gladly pay double for chef Simone Ferrero’s inspired treatments of Piedmontese pastas. Thin strands of eggy saffron tajarin are freshened with raw tomato and herbed oil. Rugged hand-shaped agnolotti bulge with roasted meat filling. And for dessert, that sine qua non of Piedmontese sweets: baked peach stuffed with a wicked almondy mousse of cocoa and crushed amaretti biscuits.
On our last day, we steal time before our flight to London to raid Eataly. Crammed with Slow Food–sanctioned comestibles and various dining counters, this massive food bazaar in nearby Lingotto makes Whole Foods look like a 7-Eleven. We hustle past all the prosciuttos and cheeses and pastas and vinegars, on a mission for counter fare. First, focaccia di Recco, an oozy Ligurian beauty filled with pungent Stracchino cheese, then a carpaccio of Piedmontese beef, followed by a perfect seafood grigliata—at three different dining stalls. Dishes at most Eataly counters average about 13 bucks—including a bottle of mineral water, gratis. The next time a Southern Italian complains about how stingy his neighbors to the north are, I’m slinging a (free) panino at him.
Even with the pound sterling weakening somewhat, London prices are shocking. My advice?Take a deep breath, quit complaining, and note the positives. What other city offers such museums and lunchtime concerts—for free?Don’t forget theater seats for $18, and imperial pints of boutique ale for a mere $5. Sure you have to be fiscally savvy. So flee the highway robbery at Nobu and head for modest Sushi Hiro, worshipped by fish fanatics. Skip the limp, overpriced $30 fish and chips at gentrified gastropubs and try the genuine article instead at the wonderful Fryer’s Delight. And don’t ignore the democratically priced lunchtime prix fixe—your ticket to trying those buzzy hot spots.
A good place to start is a three-course, $31 lunch at Maze Grill, a suave steak-centric attachment to the fabulous Maze on Grosvenor Square. Everything chef Jason Atherton touches turns to edible gold, whether a gorgeous salad of watercress, beets, and batons of smoked eel, or a crusty hanger steak of Casterbridge beef served with terrific duck-fat fries. At Wild Honey, also in tony Mayfair, I can’t decide what I love more—the winsomely down-to-earth New British food; the convivial oak-paneled room; or the clever wine choices, all available in third-of-a-bottle carafes. In his cut-rate set lunches, chef-owner Anthony Demetre (also of Arbutus) channels his love of British ingredients into such scrumptious notions as sous-vide poached Cornish pollack medallion with a shock of seasonal greens, or a roll of Elwy Valley lamb shoulder served with a hearty potato gratin. The 45-seat Hibiscus is another new favorite. The kitchen fires are stoked by Lyon-born Claude Bosi, who left his two-starred place in Ludlow and instantly won over the capital. After trying the abbreviated market-driven lunch menu, we return for dinner—the place is just that good. Balancing comfort (tripe casserole with a side of crisp pig-trotter cake) with innovation (hay-smoked sweetbreads under a sprinkling of tart tamarillo “dust”), the $125 dinner menu is by London standards the hottest haute deal in town.
“Haute, shmote,” you say?Very well then, time to explore the astounding diversity of London’s ethnic restaurant scene. (Sorry Big Apple, you don’t even compare.) There are entire sections of this polyglot city that bear an uncanny resemblance to Abu Dhabi, or Krakow, or Bombay. In fascinating multicultural enclaves like Stoke Newington, you can navigate from authentic southeastern Turkish kebabs at 19 Numara Bos Cirrik to vibrantly spiced South Indian curries and dosa at the sunset-pink Rasa N16. Go ahead, take the tube. It’s a bargain, it’s an adventure. Long before new-media execs made Shoreditch trendy, the neighborhood was settled by Vietnamese immigrants. Here, set slightly apart from Kingsland Road’s “Little Vietnam,” is Cay Tre, a cool little canteen that buzzes with neighborhood chefs and arty East London types. For $35 a head, the kitchen wows us with a Southeast Asian feast. First, the house specialty: “La Vong fish,” marinated in turmeric and galangal, grilled tableside with a flurry of dill, and served with rice noodles and peanuts. To follow, a salad of lotus stems, prawns, and crisp pork nuggets. Then a complex coconut quail curry, and lemongrass-scented mackerel baked in banana leaves.
In the mood for dim sum, we meet local food divas Anissa Helou and Fuchsia Dunlop at Phoenix Palace, in Marylebone. Around us multigenerational Cantonese families and dour-faced Chinese Embassy flacks attack twisted scallion pancakes and soup-filled crab dumplings. Dunlop, a BBC Radio editor who moonlights as an author of best-selling Chinese cookbooks, interrogates the waitress in rapid-fire Mandarin. Out come two dozen dishes, all exemplary: shaggy taro cakes, sesame shrimp pockets, fried crullers in slippery rice-flour skins. Unbelievably, we insist on seconds of the mini rice casserole studded with dusky-sweet coins of air-dried duck sausage. Dunlop’s expertise is Sichuan food, and London restaurant critics are thankful that she consulted on the Northern Chinese menu at the new Baozi Inn. Craving a bowl of spicy Sichuan peanut noodles and a few fat pork dumplings in Soho?This cozy-hip Mao-themed nook is your place.
On our next outing, Helou takes charge. The Syrian-Lebanese food writer and budding ice cream entrepreneur chooses Al Waha, London’s most refined Lebanese restaurant. Refreshingly stripped of Arabian Nights clichés, the understated earth-toned room caters to the Notting Hill demographic. With Helou ordering, we brace ourselves for a meze marathon. “This is the best falafel on earth,” Helou insists, popping a greaseless, airy chickpea bonbon into her mouth. The same light touch distinguishes the delicate pastries filled with spinach, pomegranate, and nuts; cinnamon-tinged makanek lamb sausage, and moujaddara, a subtly spiced lentil-and-crushed-wheat pilaf accented with caramelized onions. Every dish is prepared with the kind of care one rarely finds outside patrician Lebanese homes. Too bad we have no room for main courses.
Finally, my last piece of London advice: Take a scenic ride on the Thames to Greenwich. After paying proper respect to its gorgeous museums and parks, indulge in the impeccable steak-and-stout pie and some artisanal ales on the bucolic patio of Greenwich Union, possibly the most charming pub on the planet. If you ever have a lovelier day for less, the next round of raspberry wheat beer is on us.