Dine in Sight of Europe's Landmarks
Visitors to important European capitals cluster near landmarks because of the vibrant buzz around them. They are places to see and be seen at.
But if you want to eat, the options are usually expensive with a sublime view and mediocre food. Or they might not have a view but are easier on the wallet.
Here are some options in four exciting cities where the food is mostly superb and the bill will range from moderate to big-night-out.
In the City of Light, the point of reference for Parisians is not the Eiffel Tower, which is for tourists, but its historic opera house, known as the Opéra Garnier or Palais Garnier. You might think of it as the Paris Opera, the building haunted by a certain phantom.
This extraordinary temple of the lyric art sits astride a confluence of major boulevards and Metro stations in an elegant part of the Right Bank. Even if most performances by the Paris Opera company now take place at the Opéra Bastille in the western part of the city, when you say L'Opéra in Paris, it always means this building at one end of the Avenue de l'Opéra, which leads straight to the Louvre museum at the other.
Pride of place for dining near the Opéra goes to the Café de la Paix in the InterContinental Paris Le Grand Hotel. The hotel (with some 80 rooms offering unimpeded views of the opera house) and the café were opened in 1862 to stand next to the Opéra, which was under construction at the same time. Since then, the café has offered superb breakfasts, brunches and quintessential French dishes such as foie gras, coquillages (a platter of shellfish), perfectly ripened cheeses, and the best Opéra cake (dark chocolate, with almond and hazelnut creams) in town. The restaurant is quite expensive, but there is more moderately priced fare in the section of the café called Les Terraces. The nearby Bioboa restaurant offers fairly priced delicious dishes made with organic ingredients.
The Opera cake was actually invented in Vienna, a former imperial capital whose palace, the Hofburg, is surrounded by streets full of stores and restaurants whose provisions pleased the Habsburgs, rulers until 1918. The Palmenhaus is a palm-filled Jugendstil hothouse that overlooks the imperial gardens. The food is tasty and the views are wonderful, but it can get touristy.
To better savor Vienna, leave the palace grounds and head to Michaelerplatz and Kohlmarkt, a street historically known for superb food. At its end, overlooking an elegant square called Graben, is Julius Meinl. Not only is this the top purveyor in a city that knows its food, but it also offers casual dining as well as the expensive Meinl's restaurant, one of the best in Austria, with a lovely view to match. All the dishes are delicious, and Meinl coffee is Vienna's most popular.
Double back on the Kohlmarkt to find Demel, one of the city's oldest bakeries and cafes. The Viennese argue vigorously over what places make the best cakes, and there will never be a consensus on this issue. But Demel always ranks near the top for its strudel, Sachertorte and other classics. The Mohnkuchen, a slice of poppy seed cake, is special. Go to the back of the indoor room and you might get to watch the bakers at work.
The Fernsehturm is a tower built by East Germany in 1969 to beam television signals to the Communist-dominated areas of Berlin and beyond to compete with transmissions from the West. Because much of Berlin was destroyed by the war and due to the subsequent East German desire to get rid of any tangible evidence of "the West," the Fernsehturm more or less dominates Berlin's landscape. The tower is 1,198 feet high. The Sphere (also called the Telecafe), a revolving restaurant 668 feet up, makes a complete turn about every twenty minutes. One goes there more for the view than for the food, which is basic, but it is still worth it to get a sense of history. The famous Berlin Wall was not far away, and you get an understanding of how the city was divided. The view of the Tiergarten to the west is especially beautiful.
One of Berlin's most renowned and priciest dining places is Tim Raue, named for the chef-owner who has an ardent following for his flavorful, Asian-German fusion dishes without dairy products, rice, potatoes or bread. It is very close to Checkpoint Charlie, the gateway through the Wall that was administered by the United States during the Cold War. The television tower looms to the east in this district of Berlin that has been the epicenter of the German capital for a very long time, but most especially in the past twenty years.
To pick a single landmark in Rome is a daunting challenge and, let's face it, too limiting. It could be the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's Basilica, or any one of the gorgeous piazzas that are the heart of Roman life. So, I will recommend one restaurant that commands a stupendous view of much of the Eternal City and then places around my favorite piazza.
La Terrazza restaurant is found on the terrace of the Hotel Eden, not far from Via Veneto. From this aerie you can see much of central Rome and Vatican City off in the distance. Prices are as high as the view, and the food is fittingly elegant. The celery sorbet with caviar is divine and the soups, pastas, risottos, fish and meat are all first-class.
Back on the ground, dining in or near a Roman piazza, especially after sunset, is a genuine pleasure. Friends and Romans know the Piazza del Pantheon, containing the timeless edifice from 27 A.D. that is an astonishment. You can be near it and enjoy traditional Roman dishes such as stracciatella (egg drop soup), carbonara (pasta with eggs, pork, pepper and Parmigiano Reggiano) and saltimbocca (veal cutlets with prosciutto and fresh sage). All can be found at Armando al Pantheon or La Campana, which does wonders with vegetables. Scour the menu for vignarola, a stew of peas, artichokes and asparagus.
Photo: © GettyImages/ Darryl Leniuk | Fred Plotkin writes and speaks extensively about opera, music and culture. He is the author of a number of books, including Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, and has written for The New York Times and Bon Appétit.