Now that I’m back from my Europe trip, I’ve had some time to synthesize my experiences eating at nice restaurants in four different countries (Scotland, England, France, and Germany). Coming from Los Angeles, where the restaurant scene is as vital as anywhere else in the U.S. right now (possibly the world), it felt a bit like stepping into a history book; or, to put it another way, like watching a bunch of classic movies after a Quentin Tarantino marathon. There’s no question that America is setting the trends these days; the hottest restaurants in Paris are all popular because they’re considered “Très Brooklyn.” What, then, might a modern American restaurant have to learn from a modern European restaurant? Here’s my attempt to answer that question with a list.
Ten Lessons American Restaurants Can Learn From European Restaurants
1. Let us linger.
Getting a table at a restaurant in Europe is almost like getting a hotel room; you’re going to be sitting there for a long time. At first, I had a hard time with the laid-back European-style service; we might be sitting for ten minutes, or so, before a server might come to the table. Then I began to relish the fact that restaurants in Europe not only want you to stay a long time, they expect you to stay a long time. Especially at the end of the meal; flagging down a server for a check is almost like trying to conjure a spirit at a seance. Lots of luck to you. But lingering, it turns out, is a real pleasure–more like being at someone’s house than at a place of business. So now when American restaurants attempt to shoo us out the door, I’ll harken back to those happily endless meals on the other side of the Atlantic.
2. Apéritifs, Not Cocktails.
American cocktail culture has graduated to the point now where, at the start of almost any meal, you’re offered a cocktail list featuring drinks made with jalapeno-infused green chartreuse or elderberry-scented gin. The problem with that is that these drinks don’t necessarily whet your appetite. They often take you in a direction that has nothing to do with the meal you’re about to eat. In Europe, I noticed, most places don’t have a cocktail list; they simply ask, at the start of the meal, “Would you like an apéritif?” This most often means something dry–like a glass of champagne or a glass of Muscat d’Alsace (which I drank in Strasbourg)–a drink that doesn’t overstimulate your palate but gets you primed for the meal to come. It’s much simpler and smarter and, often times, cheaper than the barrage of cocktails we’re subjected to in the States.
3. Don’t make a big deal about offal.
When a chef serves offal at a restaurant in the United States, he or she gets branded the “offal” chef, the restaurant becomes known for its “nose to tail” dining. In Europe, offal is greeted with a shoulder-shrug. Like when I ate that haggis-cake you see above at The Dogs in Edinburgh, I made a big fuss asking the waitress about it–“Is it really lungs? Liver? Kidneys? What goes in it?”–and she looked at me like I was crazy. “It’s good,” she said, bluntly. “You’ll like it.” And I did like it and didn’t think twice about what I was eating. The lesson seems to be if you just put all the parts of the animal on a plate and don’t hang a lantern on it, people will eat it and enjoy it without making a big deal about it.
4. Good butter.
If I could sum up in two words what makes European food better than the food you get in America, it’s “good butter.” American bakers know, when making a French pastry, to seek out butter with a higher fat content to replicate the results you get overseas. But even sitting down at a restaurant for dinner in Europe, the butter they put on the table for the bread is so much better than what you get here, it could easily spark another American revolution. Slowly, as American food culture progresses, we’re starting to see better butter on our dinner tables. But it’s not the norm, as it is in Europe, and it should be. Good butter makes everything better.
5. Utensils can be fun.
When I ordered the famous bone marrow dish at St. John, the waitress brought me out the utensil you see above, an instrument built specifically for scooping the marrow out of a marrow bone. Was it entirely necessary? Well, it made the job easier, that’s for sure. But also it added to the ceremony of the dish, and that’s something you don’t see a lot of in America. Another example: the rice pudding at Chez L’Ami Jean came with a big wooden spoon for doling it out.
Turns out the utensil can be part of the pleasure of consuming a dish.
6. Serve a bonus side.
It first happened in Edinburgh, at a place called 21212. My Chinese chicken dish came out and along with it came a little saucer and ramekin filled with a concoction that reflected what was on my main plate. It wasn’t a side dish, it was more like a separate dish with echoes of the main dish I was eating. Then, it happened again in Strasbourg at Buerehiesel:
The lobster dish that I ate with white asparagus came with a bonus side of some kind of lobster soup; again, not a side dish, just something to enhance what was happening on the main plate. It’s a way to keep things interesting without diverting too much from the theme. America, take note.
7. Brown sauce is king.
My first taste of a really good brown sauce, this trip, was at Restaurant Miroir in Paris and it was the veal dish you see above. There’s a reason that sauce-making is considered the most fundamental part of classic French cuisine; it elevates whatever’s on the plate to the realm of the divine. As I continued eating my way around Europe, there was no question that brown sauce–more than any other sauce–put all other sauces to shame. (And by brown sauce, I’m talking the stuff you make with veal bones that eventually becomes demi-glace if you reduce it.)
The lesson is clear: bow down before brown sauce.
8. Don’t just use seasonal, local ingredients; use the best.
It’s easy to forget, when shopping locally and seasonally, that just because the time is right to buy asparagus, the asparagus you’re holding in your hand may not be worth buying. What made our dinner at Le 6 Paul Bert in Paris so compelling was that the ingredients weren’t just local and seasonal, but they were also the very best of their kind. The berries and cherries in this dessert were Garden of Eden good:
As were the carrots you see above them; and that’s an important lesson because most of us are happy to buy things when we see them pop up (finally) at the market. Europeans know that’s not enough; only buy them when they’re at their very best.
9. A good condiment goes a long way.
When this giant plate of meat arrived at Chez Yvonne in Strasbourg–a giant plate of meat known as Choucrute Garni–there wasn’t a brown sauce to top it. Instead, there was this little condiment on the side:
A powerful mound of horseradish that transformed each bite of meat into something way more exciting. Turns out, a good condiment is sometimes all you need to take a dish to the next level. Like the oxheart and chips that I ate at St. John; it came with a house-made ketchup which pushed everything over the edge:
Or, perhaps most obvious of all, the mustard they serve with sausages in Germany:
Germans take their condiments really seriously. For example, only use the sweet mustard on the white sausage. Or is it the dark sausage? Ack: hope no Germans are reading this.
10. Bring back the cheese cart.
It’s dramatic. It’s elegant. It’s perhaps a breeding ground for bacteria, but let’s not worry about that. When I finished my entree at Buerehiesel, a waiter arrived pushing the giant cheese cart you see above and it was like the restaurant was throwing me my own personal parade of fermenting milk solids. And yes, I’m aware that many classic French restaurants in America do have cheese carts (like Daniel, for example) but my suggestion is that it shouldn’t just be the restaurants at the tippy top. Cheese carts are likely to make everyone happy; let’s see more of them in the future, please.
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Now, as a quick corollary to my post, here are…
Five Things European Restaurants Can Learn From American Restaurants
1. Give people water without asking.
Oh my God; I was so dehydrated in Europe. What’s the deal with European restaurants not offering you water? Everywhere I went, I’d sit down and wait for the water to arrive and it never did. Inevitably, if I asked for it, a giant glass bottle would appear on the table and we’d be charged 3 Euros. America has lots to recommend it, but my #1 favorite thing about living here is that we drink lots of water and most of it is free.
2. Bring the heat.
Dear Europe, there’s this new plant they discovered with little green and red things growing on it–they’re called chiles–and if you add them to your food they make it spicy! It’s delightful. And while that horseradish condiment was certainly a nice dose of heat, that was the only example of spiciness I experienced my entire three weeks on your continent. Imagine how fascinating it might be to incorporate a splash of Tabasco or Sriracha into one of those classic dishes that made you guys famous in the first place. So go ahead and get a little spicy. Don’t be scared. It’s worth it.
To be fair, I didn’t really seek out the restaurants in Europe that are on the cutting edge–I was more interested in sampling the old school sauces than anything inspired by El Bulli–(apologies to Heston Blumenthal). That said, the typical restaurant I visited in Europe was still playing with the tried-and-true formulas that have been passed down for centuries rather than breaking the mold and reinventing the form. American chefs, on the other hand, are nothing if not innovators. From the seaweed tofu beignets here at Alma in L.A. to the legendary Cronut in New York, Americans are constantly pushing the envelope, taking chances, shaking things up. It’s something for you to think about, Europe.
4. Not so formal.
One of my friends in Europe told me a story about going to a restaurant where he and his boyfriend ordered a bottle of wine; when the boyfriend went to pour himself a second glass, a waiter charged over, grabbed the bottle out of his hand, and poured it for him. That would never happen in America, but in Europe these things are taken more seriously. Even though much of the service I had in European restaurants was casual and relaxed, there was often a formality to it that was highly unnecessary. It’s OK to loosen up a little.
5. Bring the check already.
OK, I know I started this whole post talking about how Europeans like to linger, but really… we’ve been at this table for almost three hours. Can I have my check please? Pretty please? Really, it’s time to go.