A sampler platter of the different kinds of restaurants, cafes, and eateries you'll find in Europe
The generic word for restaurant in most European languages is, conveniently enough, something that looks very much like "restaurant" (a word we borrowed from the French in the first place, where it derived from the verb "to restore," as in "...to health" and such). Sure, it may be spelled ristorante or restaurace, but you can get the gist easily enough.
Thing is, just like in America where you might specify you want to go to a diner, a deli, a pizza parlor, or a Mickey D's, every region in Europe has its own specialized words for particular types of places where one might find some nosh.
A couple are pretty familiar to us, as we've adopted them into English: bistro, trattoria, cafe, pub. But there are probably some you've never heard of—I'm betting heuriger, tasca, and tavola calda will be new to most folks who haven't been to Austria, Spain, or Italy, respectively—and would not necessarily know they meant "food available inside" unless someone told you so. Well, I'm here to tell you so.
Know Your Food Lingo
Here's a handy glossary of some food-related terms you may come across in Europe. This is far, far from exhaustive; these are just some of the most common eatin' joints (plus a few general terms) you'll run across. The country with which each term is associated appears in parentheses at the end of each listing.
- Biergarten: An outdoor picnic area (though some are indoors) where you bring the food, and the establishment provides the beer. Some simple sandwiches, pretzels, and other noshes are sold as well (Germany).
- Bistro: A small, intimate, informal, usually moderately priced restaurant (France).
- Brasserie: A large, bustling, metropolitan cafe/restaurant that serves several daily specials along with an extensive selection of wines and beer (France).
- Heuriger: A rustic Austrian tavern where the specialty drink is wine (Austria).
- Kaffeehaus: A coffee house and social gathering place, similar to a cafe (Austria).
- Konditorei: A pastry shop. Most such shops have expanded their menus and now often double as cafes (Austria, Germany).
- Mezédes: Small appetizers, dips in particular, served in Greek tavernas before dinner; similar to Spain's tapas (Greece).
- Osteria: Usually an even simpler, down-home local's eatery than a trattoria—though sometimes fancy restaurants use the word to try and evoke a simple, trendy charm (Italy).
- Pane e coperto: In Italian restaurants, the unavoidable "bread and cover" charge of about 1,500L to 10,000L (90¢ to $6) added on to your bill (Italy).
- Prix-fixe menu: A fixed-price meal of several courses (usually appetizer, entree, and dessert, plus wine and/or coffee) offered from a restaurant's menu; almost always an outstanding dining value . The word is French (and that's where it is most widespread), but the concept has spread throughout Europe. More details are on the prix-fixe page (France).
- Pub grub: Simple food served in a pub for lunch or dinner; cheese sandwiches and steak-and-kidney pie are common examples (England, Scotland, Ireland).
- Restaurant: I know, obvious, right? But it pays to know that places that use the local lingo's variant on the word "restaurant" (and it sounds almost identical in every European language) usually have pretensions to haute cuisine status—or at least prices. By far not a hard and fast rule, but something to keep in mind.
- Tapas/tapeo: Savory appetizers served on small plates that are meant to tide one over until the late dinner hour. A tapeo is an evening stroll from bar to bar, sampling tapas as you go (Spain).
- Tasca: A bar that serves tapas (Spain).
- Taverna: A home style bar/restaurant where both mezédes and larger, hearty meals are served (Greece).
- Tavola calda: A very informal (and sometimes self-serve) eatery where you usually choose from a pre-prepared selection of hot dishes—like an olde worlde cafeteria. Great for a quick, light meal. Also called a rosticceria—which, technically speaking, is a tavola calda with some spitted chickens roasting in the window (Italy).
- Trattoria: A traditional, family-run establishment that serves fresh pasta and other home-cooked food (Italy).
Decoding the Menu
Many guidebooks translate a limited list of local dishes and food names. Berlitz phrase guides have more and the pocket-sized Marling Menu-Masters (Altarinda Books) are particularly good resources for both ingredients and dish names. Alternately, you can take your English-Eurolingo dictionary and look up individual words on the menu.
Most waiters speak enough English to at least tell you what plant or animal stars in a dish. When it comes down to it (allergies aside), you needn't know the official name of the dish or full list of ingredients, just whether it's chicken, fish, pasta, or sheep's testicles.
Have fun, sample the local chow, and be adventurous. Don't go through Europe leaving a trail of chicken cutlets in your wake. Ask what the specialty of the house is. Try the tripe and sample the squid. Let the waiter suggest to you his favorite dish—or trust him to put together the whole meal and surprise you with each course.
The house wine is usually perfectly fine, if not excellent (plus, you can order quarter- and half-carafes rather than a full bottle), or let the waiter help pick out a wine to go with your meal.
Go with the flow: In Bavaria, have beer and sausages; in Italy, wine and pasta. Be nosy, ask lots of questions. Look around the room and politely point and ask what other people are eating if it looks good. For culinary variety, ask if there's a sampler plate of first courses so you can try two or three at once.
If you're friendly and show great interest in the food, waiters (and especially owners) love to show off their kitchen's talents to visitors. The more outgoing and curious you are, the better chance they'll bring out unexpected tidbits for you to try, invite you into the kitchen to meet the chef or down into the moldy ancient wine cellar below, and even join you at the table for an after-dinner drink on the house.