Creative Kitchens in the Culinary Capitals of Europe

Carbonara on the Campo Dei Fiori in Rome, foie gras paired with Tokaji wine in Budapest, salmon pulled fresh from the sea in Oslo… Europe offers a smorgasbord of tastes and thrilling food scenes. And we’re not just talking about the major metropolises. From the Bay of Biscay to the Baltic Sea, the creativity in the kitchen can be found in a number of cities where chefs champion local ingredients and tap into tradition. Here, in-the-know experts share insights into some of the continent’s culinary capitals.

As one of the world’s great food destinations, Copenhagen needs little introduction. The Danish capital is the birthplace of New Nordic Cuisine, the movement launched by Claus Meyer and Rene Redzepi (NOMA). Today, NOMA continues to be a global trendsetter. Explains Anders Ølsted Jensen, concierge manager at Hotel d’Angleterre and the newly elected international president of Les Clefs d’Or: “The team there used the time during lockdown [when restaurants were closed] to experiment and test some exciting new dishes. The 'NOMA 2.0' experience is just around the corner and I think we are all excited about what is to come.” But NOMA isn’t the only buzzy restaurant in the city, says Jensen. “Copenhagen has the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants of any city on earth (based on population) and the food scene just continues to boom! Competition is strong and there are so many talented and skilled chefs that all bring up the level.”

Of the young chefs to watch, Jensen says to keep an eye out for Alan Bates. “He just opened his new restaurant, Connection by Alan Bates. And if you have not already heard of Rasmus Munch from Alchemist, you should not miss out on your next visit to Copenhagen. It is more than just a dinner, it’s a show—an unforgettable, full-evening experience. It’s on the pricey side, but it truly represents everything that the Copenhagen dining scene is all about.”

Organic ingredients take pride of place on Copenhagen’s restaurant menus, with sustainability a central tenet of the culinary philosophy. The trend continues to grow. Jensen says, “Some top local restaurants are entering the plant-based realm, including Ark and its little sister restaurant, Bistro Lupa.” The only restaurant in Denmark to hold three Michelin stars, all-organic Geranium is quite popular. Jensen also recommends Gemyse in Tivoli and notes that the hotel’s own Michelin-starred Marchal now has three vegetarian dishes on the menu by new head chef Jakob de Neergaard.

Copenhagen also offers a wealth of casual dining experiences. For first-time visitors to the city, Jensen recommends sampling smørrebrød, the famous open-faced sandwiches. “Personally, I love the herring as well as the fried plaice (a fish similar to sole or flounder)… Or, if you’re looking for a quick streetside snack, you should definitely stop by John’s Hotdog Deli… And if you like oysters, Denmark is known for its slightly larger local variety with a very mild flavor.” Last but not least, Copenhagen’s streets markets are not to be missed. “You must visit Reffen, the organic street food market, as well as the food market “Under the Bridge.” Both are quite near to each other and something you can easily do on a day or weekend trip.”

A selection of Basque tapas from the lively pintxos bars in San Sebastián // Photo by Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

In Spain’s Basque Country, San Sebastián is another world-renowned culinary hot spot. This is where the father-daughter duo of Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak innovate with cutting-edge dishes at Arzak, and Martín Berasategui’s eponymous restaurant has lured an international crowd since 1993. (Just outside the city, the restaurant was awarded its third Michelin star in 2001; Berasategui is the chef with the most Michelin stars in Spain.) Other starred establishments like Akelarre and Mugaritz also have a global reputation. But it’s not just about molecular gastronomy and New Basque Cuisine. Nothing compares to a nighttime pintxos crawl through the atmospheric Parte Vieja, sampling an array of Basque tapas from the lively pintxos bars that line the cobblestone streets.

“San Sebastián is the city with more Michelin star restaurants per square meter in the world. Most of our tourism is related to the gastronomy,” explains Susana Mendia, sales manager catering and conferences at the Hotel Maria Cristina, A Luxury Collection Hotel. A landmark since 1912, the grand, waterfront hotel was designed by Charles Mewes, the architect behind the Ritz in Paris and Madrid. “Reservations at the famous Michelin-starred restaurants need to be made between six months to a year in advance,” she explains. San Sebastián isn’t just about the ultimate in fine dining. For a local, must-try Basque dish, she recommends ordering hake with green sauce and clams. Heading to the pintxos bars? Look for the gilda, a skewer of olive, anchovy and pickled guindilla pepper that was first created in the Bar Casa Vallés in honor of Rita Hayworth, the femme fatale in the film "Gilda."

Zurich-style veal stew and rosti potato // Photo by bonchan/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

When you think of Zurich, you may picture the serene financial capital on the shores of Lake Zurich. But this elegant Swiss city is also home to an exciting food scene with an influx of talented young chefs like Zizi Hattab of the vegan Kle restaurant, Tobias Hösli of Marktküche (also vegan), David Heimer of Josef and Stefan Heilemann, named "Chef of the Year 2021" in Switzerland. What’s more, the city hosts a popular festival called FOOD ZURICH, which is a platform to present new creative culinary ideas. “It is an opportunity to present something new and to risk something cheeky… on a stage with a spotlight,” says Simon Mouttet, festival manager. “We are, so to speak, midwives for innovative concepts.”

Mouttet explains the fascinating evolution of the city’s culinary scene. “Zurich has an enormous density of restaurants: For around 400,000 inhabitants, the city offers 2,900 restaurants. In recent years, young chefs with new concepts have changed the gastronomic map in Zurich. At 33 percent, the proportion of immigrants is higher than in almost any other European city. This is an excellent premise for an extremely diverse and trend-oriented international restaurant scene. In addition, the Zurich region is fertile ground for start-ups that have emerged at the interface of research and the culinary arts. In recent years, Zurich has thus stealthily developed into a hub for innovative new thinkers.”

Visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants in Zurich. Here are a few standouts that Mouttet recommends: Maison Manesse, Wirtschaft im Franz, Bauernschänke & Neue Taverne, Kronenhalle and Gamper.

The quintessential dining experience that visitors shouldn’t miss in Zurich? “At the end of the day, there is one time-honored restaurant that represents the city best,” explains Mouttet. “The Kronenhalle is world-renowned and runs one of the best bars in the world. Friends, families, business partners, artists, writers, designers and architects have met here since 1924. They all make the Kronenhalle a total work of art. It's also where the signature dish, Zürcher Geschnetzelte, is at its best.”

Crave more creative culinary scenes in Europe? Stay tuned for the next article in the series.

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