Dining at Europe’s Foodie Splurge Restaurants: A Practical Guide

These days, more and more travelers are investing serious time and money in top-end fine-dining experiences across Europe. And on a few special occasions, I’ve jumped on this bandwagon — spending more on a meal than my hotel room cost.

I proudly consider myself a foodie. But I define “foodie” broadly: I’m simply someone who considers food an integral part of any culture — and any travel experience. On the other hand, I’m also thrifty, so splurging on a fancy meal doesn’t come naturally to me. I strongly believe that “foodie” doesn’t have to mean “expensive.” Some of my favorite culinary experiences in Europe have come with the lowest price tags, from grazing on street food in Palermo to my €25 day in Ljubljana.

And yet, a fine-dining extravaganza certainly deserves a place on the spectrum of foodie experiences. Here’s one traveler’s take on what it’s actually like to dine at a world-rated restaurant — designed to help you decide whether that experience deserves your time and money.

Finding, Booking, and Dining at High-End Splurges

Part of the fun of fine dining is doing your homework — figuring out which place deserves your splurge budget. I’m a devotee of Netflix’s exquisite food documentary series Chef’s Table — and after every episode, I’m ready to book a plane ticket. (Documentary Now! — also streaming on Netflix — did a genius parody of this type of foodie tourism.) And the Restaurant Magazine 50 Best Restaurants list has — among a younger generation of foodies — eclipsed Michelin stars as an indicator of the world’s best (or, at least, buzziest) eateries. Learning about a restaurant through these sources can make booking and anticipating a reservation a highlight of your trip preparation.

But that’s the first trick: Getting a table. Restaurants that are really hot book up many months in advance. If you have a place in mind, as soon as your dates firm up, check their website for the reservation policy. Many release blocks of reservations two to three months in advance  — and once they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s not unusual for foodies to set an alarm for midnight Copenhagen time, three months to the day before their visit, to try to book that elusive table.

So, your table is booked, and you’re ready to drop $200 per person on (what had better be) a life-altering culinary experience. If you’re like me, you may need to spend a little time rationalizing that high price tag. I’m not going to pretend I’m some sort of a bumpkin, but I must admit, until a few years ago, I was skeptical about fine dining. For a long time, I believed that once you reach a certain cost threshold for an upper-midrange restaurant (say, $40 or $50 a person), how could it really get that much better? At a certain point, you’re just throwing good money after bad. But a few recent dining experiences have changed my thinking.

On a trip to the Basque Country in northern Spain, my wife and I booked a table at what was, at the time, the “16th top-rated restaurant in the world,” Azurmendi. Driving through the verdant Basque hills to our midday reservation, we were debating whether lunch for two could really be worth a total tab of over $300 and several hours of our precious Spanish vacation.

But when we walked in the door, we began to understand that when you go to a world-rated restaurant, it’s not just a meal — it’s an experience. If you conceptualize this meal as part of your “food budget,” it’s outlandish. But if you think of it as an “experience”…well, that may be justifiable. We’ve spent $300 on other experiences in our travels, and felt it was a good value: prime tickets for a hit musical on Broadway or the West End, or a home playoff game for my beloved Denver Broncos, or a live concert of a huge-name musical act, or a sightseeing flight through Slovenia’s Julian Alps. And in an age where chefs are attaining celebrity at a level on par with rock stars and athletes…well, that’s what splurging is for.

As we arrived for our reservation at Azurmendi, we were invited into the leafy conservatory and given a little picnic basket filled with creative amuses-bouche.

Then, in the greenhouse, they showed us where some of the herbs and produce were grown; more amuses-bouche were creatively tucked among the plantings.

Then they took us into the busy kitchen, where an army of chefs and cooks — outnumbering the diners — were scurrying around with great precision, directed by the confident chef, Eneko Atxa. Observing this controlled hubbub, we were offered yet another amuse-bouche.

About 30 minutes and a light meal after we’d arrived, we were finally shown to our table. The rest of the meal was a fine experience, and taken together, that’s just what it was: an experience. I’ll admit it’s not The Best Meal I’ve Ever Eaten, but it was certainly one of the most interesting and entertaining.

Chef Atxa elevates Basque cuisine to an astonishing degree. Each dish was an adventure…an experiment in intensely focused flavor. Cauliflower, fried eggs, and truffle, composed like a surrealist painting. Natural spider crab, emulsion, and infusion — a super-concentrated taste of the sea that left my mouth tingling for several courses. Slightly spicy fried suckling pig and three Basque cheeses in three textures, which was…exactly as described.

Leaving the restaurant, we agreed that — assuming travel is worthy of the occasional splurge — it was $150 per person well-spent. And we certainly remember it more vividly than any other meal on that trip.

My favorite fine-dining experience took place in the remote Slovenian countryside, at Hiša Franko, owned by 2017’s highest-rated female chef in the world, Ana Roš. Ana was profiled on Chef’s Table, which we watched not once but twice before eating there. Imagine our delight when we walked in the door for our reservation, and there stood Ana herself at the maître d’ station. She took our coats, showed us to our table, and brought us bread, while we stuttered our greetings, star-struck and tongue-tied.

But that was just the beginning of a marvelous dining experience. Ana Roš lacks the theatricality of Azurmendi…but she doesn’t need it. It sounds like a cliché from a cooking-competition TV show, but over the course of her degustation menu, she achieved what every great chef aspires to: Through her food, she told a story about herself, and about the place she comes from. The progression of dishes felt like journeying through the pastures, rivers, and mountains of the Slovenian countryside all around us. Her food tasted like Slovenia. Her food could only be rooted in that place, and could only have been made by her. It was a culinary revelation the likes of which I have never had before, or since. And that’s why — for me, at least — it’s worth it.

Fine Dining for Dummies

I’m still new enough to this fine-dining scene to find its customs quirky and fascinating. If you haven’t experienced a fine-dining restaurant, let me walk through what to expect — tongue planted firmly in cheek.

On arrival, you’ll be greeted warmly and seated. Your purse even gets its own little stool. Everything operates with exacting precision, yet the pacing and atmosphere are insistently relaxed.

You’ll be handed a menu, but normally that’s something of a ruse. The choice is simple: Do you want the smaller tasting menu, the bigger tasting menu, or — at the finest places — the gargantuan tasting menu? I’ve never ordered anything but the smallest option, and I’ve never waddled out of a fine-dining restaurant anything short of full-to-bursting. I imagine the full-blown option would require serious consideration of the “boot and rally” strategy.

In addition to your food, you can choose whether to add the wine pairings. And if you’re going to commit to a top-end meal, just go ahead and do the wine pairings. A good, mid- to upper-mid-range restaurant stocks a nice variety of local wines, and the server can help you narrow down a glass or bottle to your taste. Well all know the rules of thumb: red wine for beef, white wine for fish. But a fine-dining restaurant takes things to an entirely different level. Your sommelier is a master at meticulously pairing wines to the nuances of each course, in a way that’s mutually beneficial to both wine and food. When properly paired, it’s nothing short of astonishing to take a sip of wine, then take a bite of food, then take another sip of wine — and see how much both flavors have changed.

The meal begins with a tiny appetizer called an amuse-bouche, which loosely translates as “palate stimulator.” (The plural is — and yes, I looked this up — amuses-bouche, which may be the most perfectly pretentious word I have ever come across.) The amuse-bouche is a sort of culinary overture — the chef is firing a warning shot across your taste buds about what’s to come. It’s a clever way for a talented chef to show off, while sneakily doubling the number of courses. While low-end high-end restaurants greet you with one amuse-bouche, the fanciest ones trot out a progression of a half-dozen or more.

By the time you make it through all of the amuses-bouche, you’re pretty much full. And then it’s time for the first course. Don’t worry — these meals usually span over three hours, sometimes four, so by the time the main courses arrive you’ll already have digested most of your amuses-bouche. Still…pace yourself, come hungry, and wear your roomy “Thanksgiving pants.”

Speaking of pacing yourself, let’s talk about the bread: Don’t fill up by gobbling the bread the moment it hits the table. This seems painfully obvious. However, it’s far more difficult than it sounds, because at a great restaurant, the bread is fiendishly delicious — spongy and warm inside, crusty and slightly charred outside. It is not an exaggeration to say that at more than one of the high-end meals I’ve had, the bread was one of the best dishes to hit the table. So we’re in agreement: Go ahead and eat some of the bread. Just…pace yourself, OK?

There will be a progression of courses. Sometimes you’ll have a list to follow along; other times, you’ll just take it as it comes. With each course, your server has prepared a brief lecture, explaining the ingredients, provenance, and technique represented. Cloches will be lifted with great ceremony, billowing rich-smelling smoke, and little teapots of broth will be poured over the dish at the last moment. Wait patiently until you’re sure it’s done. Then, only after she walks away, it’s safe to dig in.

A word about your server: You’re spending a lot of time together. And, without realizing it, you’ll slowly grow to be very fond of your server. He’s not just bringing you food, and scraping your crumbs off the table, and changing out your silverware from a little tray before each course, and deftly picking up your napkin with two forks held like chopsticks. He is your partner, your guide, your sherpa in this culinary adventure. He is your wingman.

You will like some of the courses. You will not love some of the courses. That’s OK. These chefs are in the business of pleasing, surprising, and sometimes challenging their diners. Barring real allergies or vegetarianism, I have an ethic of going along with whatever’s on the menu. In the hands of Ana Roš, even a raviolo filled with goat brain puree is unexpectedly delicious. Personally, I am not a fan of foie gras or sea urchin. (Yes, I realize this admission is severely damaging to my foodie street cred. What can I say? The taste buds want what the taste buds want.) But if a great chef wants to prepare it for me, I will try it.  And I will usually love it…usually.

As an aside, a phrase that I don’t hear nearly enough in everyday life is: “And now, we have an intermezzo before the final main course.”

Again, pace yourself. Thanksgiving pants. And, by the way, where does one buy one of those little crumb combs for the tablecloth?

At some point, probably late in the meal, the chef will appear from the kitchen and begin circulating among tables of star-struck foodies. This is like getting a backstage pass for a Springsteen concert. If you are familiar with the chef, be prepared to get flustered and say something stupid…or to stammer dumbly, saying nothing at all. If you have been dragged to this meal by a foodie spouse or relative, you will have no idea why this is such a big deal.

No matter how good the meal is, there is a moment of relief and accomplishment when you realize that you have finished the final main course. You made it! It’s all downhill from here. You always have room for dessert. (I have a relative who insists that, no matter how full she is from dinner, she has a separate “dessert stomach” that is always empty. You will need it.)

Another phrase I don’t hear nearly enough in everyday life is: “And this is a little pre-dessert…”

There is probably not one dessert, by the way. There are probably two, or three, or four.

And then, when you think you’re really finished, here comes yet more desserts: a tray of little sweets, sometimes accompanying coffee. They call these “petits-fours,” which is misleading, because there are usually more like six or seven.

So, if you’re keeping track — and if you count all of the little amuses-bouche and petits-fours and intermezzi, and, of course, that heavenly bread — a “five- or six-course meal” can be more like 20 or 25 different dishes. That’s worth some consideration in the big-picture analysis of whether it’s a good value.

When it’s all over, you’ll manage to disguise your shock when you glance at the bill, then pay it happily. That server that you have forged a bond with over the last three hours?  She’ll be getting an American-sized tip, if not a weepy goodbye hug. Then you’ll head out the door, somewhere between a waddle and a teeter (depending on whether you did the wine pairings).

So… Is It Worth It?

At the end of the day, that’s the real question, isn’t it? Can any meal really be worth such a huge investment?

My short answer: Yes. The longer answer: It depends…on the restaurant, and on the diner.

If you are a person who prioritizes food, in your life and especially in your travels…it’s probably worth it. If you can name more than five celebrity chefs (Guy Fieri doesn’t count)…it’s probably worth it. If you can conceptualize your meal as a “travel experience” rather than “food” (in the same wedge of the imaginary budget pie as scenic picnics and ice-cream cones)…well, then, it’s probably worth it.

If none of these applies to you, then maybe you should skip it. But don’t rule it out. Remember that ultimate foodie meal I enjoyed at Ana Roš’ Hiša Franko in Slovenia? My wife and I dragged my in-laws to that one. They were skeptical, but game to give it a try. And by the end of the meal, they were raving about the experience even more than we were. They even liked the goat brain puree.

If, on the other hand, you simply can’t afford it, that’s OK. Remember that there are reasonably priced alternatives. Again, “foodie” does not have to mean “expensive.”

Or….you could just stay in hostels, and let your taste buds travel first class.

24 Replies to “Dining at Europe’s Foodie Splurge Restaurants: A Practical Guide”

  1. Every time we travel to Europe we eat at least one, usually a few, high end Michelin restaurants or those that are new and buzz worthy. For us food is a large part of the reason for travel. As stated above, some people have no problem dropping several hundred dollars to go to a football or hockey game; for us, it’s dining experiences. I know not everyone will understand why someone will spend that much on a “meal” just as I don’t understand why someone pays that much for a “game”. We gain immense pleasure and wonderful memories from our dining experiences so for us it’s money well spent.

  2. We went to Next in Chicago for a friend’s 40th birthday. He had always wanted to do a fine-dining excursion and invited us to come too. We definitely looked at the evening as “dinner and a show” to kind of justify the cost. We’d have probably spent more by getting tickets to Broadway and going to dinner beforehand. And it was dinner and a show. Absolutely fascinating to learn about the dishes, technique, and just the presentation.

  3. Cameron,
    Thanks for the tip on Documentary Now. “Juan Likes Rice and Chicken” was so much fun to watch! I didn’t know this show existed.

    1. You bet, David. That’s one of the funniest shows on TV, particularly if you’re a film buff like I am. And that particular episode is a spot-on parody of foodie travel culture. (You’ve gotta have a sense of humor about yourself, right?)

  4. Nothing beats the service, quality, presentation, waiters with white gloves, atmosphere and opening the ceiling at Lassere in Paris (probably spelled that wrong) . if you can afford it once in a lifetime lunch or dinner go for it!!!

  5. I watch a lot of cooking shows, enough that I can ID famous chefs, but I will NEVER pay that sort of money for a meal. Fine food isn’t finer enough, that experience isn’t finer enough, it is just not worth the price you pay. No thank you.

  6. Cameron. Thanks for the vicarious experience. Everyone should at least have a meal like this once in their lives. Hopefully more!

  7. I was in London recently and had Lunch at St. John Smithfield. The meal was the single most expensive thing I did on the trip and worth every cent. I agree that it is not a meal, but an experience.

  8. My daughter had her wedding in Edinburgh and for the dinner after we went to The Kitchin. Not a place that would be on my list given the cost, but, WOW! Everything was amazing. Lots of small items, but by the time we hit the last surprise of the evening, the whisky cart, we were stuffed. The sommelier, an Italian, was quite entertaining. Expensive for just a meal, but our evening there was far more.

    When in Paris, my wife and I had dinner at 6 Paul Bert. Much more affordable, but still not cheap. Like with The Kitchin, it was an evening of wows over the combinations of flavor and presentation. Staff was top notch.

    A well trained staff is the icing on the cake of a restaurant experience. May it shouldn’t, but I believe it makes the food taste just a little bit better.

  9. Our favorite memory was stopping in Blois for lunch on our way to explore the rest of the Loire Valley and unknowingly walking into a restaurant (in our casual travel clothes) that was a Michelin star restaurant, L’Orangerie de Chateau. When we realized it was nicer than we were dressed for, they were very gracious with us and the food was amazing. Since then, we try to get to one or two of these restaurants during each trip. We’ve found that going during lunch can help with both our budget and last minute options. Basque is on our bucket list, so we’ll have to try Azurmendi.

    1. Azurmendi is a great choice…but there are (at least) two other world-class restaurants in the Basque Country. A couple of my colleagues highly recommend Asador Etxebarri, which was already booked up when we tried to get a table. And Mugaritz is high on every “best of” list, too. And that’s not even mentioning the amazing array of tapas bars in San Sebastian, Bilbao, and other cities. You can’t go wrong in the Basque Country. It’s amazing that one little region has three different world-rated restaurants. Happy eating!

      1. Basque Country is my favorite place….Loved Azurmendi, and had amazing experiences at Martin Berasagagi, Arzak and Mugaritz.

        I live in Los Angeles, and there are places here that are fine dining as well. Try Somni in Bazzar in Jose Andres restaurant—a basquesque experience with a Basque chef, Aitor….

  10. If you’re ever in the Ardennes area of Belgium, I highly recommend Chateau de Strainchamps – one Michelin star and a lovely hotel. The chef/owners don’t speak English (or much English) but they were so lovely to me, a solo traveler on a WWII/foodie adventure. The food was amazing! Other guests were very friendly and provided great conversation as well.

  11. Spain reommendations please for Sevilla, Granada and Madrid to celebrate daughters upcoming wedding!! Woo hoo!! ❤️❤️

    Most exciting time of my life—my daughter who has lived and worked as an accountant in Edinburgh is returning to the US to marry 10/27/18–so I am meeting her in Sevilla and enjoy Spain for a week and then 5 days to move her from Edinburgh.

  12. Also worth mentioning is the fact that high end restaurants often come with high end sommeliers and they can take you on a trip through their country’s wine industry that would otherwise cost many hours and miles of winery tourism. We indulged in a fine dining experience in Warsaw on our last trip and while the food was interesting but not earth-shaking, the young somm took us around Poland and southern Europe in ten small glasses *and* then into the liquors and digestives as well. That was worth the money by itself.

  13. We have been to Paris many times and always save for a splurge meal each time. Arpege is a favorite and worth every penny. The 3 star Michelin places really perform up to their reputation.

  14. In 2006 my sister and I had lunch at Le Grand Vefour in Paris. I wanted to experience the ultimate in Michelin star Parisian dining, and I did. It was as Cameron describes — never-ending food, wonderful service, fantastic food and surroundings. A once in a lifetime experience I will never forget.

  15. Three months ago we reprised a dining experience we had at Le Jules Verne on the Eiffel Tower eight years earlier celebrating our 50th anniversary. We went all out with the 6 course lunch with wine pairing for each course. The three hour lunch overlooking Paris was definitely one of the top highlights of our three and a half weeks in France and worth every euro.

  16. Any recommendations for good Roman food near P. Navona in Rome; need not be “fine dining” (which is individual state of mind, anyway). We’ll be in Rome Aug 9 to 11 before a Princess cruise.
    Based on Rick Steves Travel Forum feedback, I tried to make reservation @ Armando de Pantheon, but all days in August were crossed out; maybe they’re closed for vacation? Any similar recommendations in Rome & Athens, Greece?
    Thank you so much

  17. In Rome I recommend Aroma. Rooftop restaurant with a view of the Colosseum. Fabulous muti course tasting menu.

  18. Cameron,
    I have enjoyed reading your foodie blog.
    My wife and I will be honeymooning while bicycling for two weeks along the Danube River from Straubing, Germany to Vienna, Austria in just 4 weeks. Towns we will be staying overnight in are:
    Strauging; Hengersberg; Passau; Schlogen; Linz; Perg; Pochlarn/Marbach; Krems; Vienna; Hainburg; Bratislava; and back to Vienna.
    Any suggestions from you or your readers on restaurants to dine at on this route?

    Thank you!

    Kevin Gregerson

  19. I don’t think I hit one of these places but every steak I had in Italy and the Netherlands was delicious. Why don’t we have steaks like these in America? That’s my big treat over there.

  20. An interesting way of looking a high end restaurants.I would love to do it but my budget will not co-operate! Still I enjoyed the article.

  21. In French, Amuse-bouche in the plural form would never take an “s” on amuse. The parts of compound words formed from verbs remain invariable. You could add an “s” onto bouche, however.

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