When I returned recently from Europe, I was stunned by the cost of food in the United States. Despite the reassurance that inflation isn't too high, it seems to me that the price of raw ingredients has skyrocketed, even in the short three months I spent in Europe. In short, Italian grocery store prices now seem cheap to me compared to California prices.
So I decided to check some European restaurants in San Francisco and compare the price of a meal with wine to that of a restaurant in the corresponding country in Europe. The results may surprise you--and hopefully make you want to go to Europe to save money on your food expenses.
Note that in restaurants in the European countries described, all taxes and service are included in the bill. A "tip" can be left at the discretion of the diner. Tips are not usually expected when one orders a price fixed menu.
FranceFrench - Market Bar, Ferry Building, San Francisco
Market Bar is a very European restaurant with tables outside and a moderately priced menu.
Main Course: $14-22
Wine (cheapest) $17 (carafe) $32 (bottle)
Meal with average appetizer and main course, plus cheapest bottle of wine: $88
Tax (8%) and modest tip (15%) 20
Total meal cost for two: $108
La Chaumeire - Cotes Du Rhone (Tournon), France
La Chaumeire is a tourist favorite Hotel/Restaurant in the Rhone Valley town of Tournon.
Dinner for two, Price Fixed Menu with Premium Bottle of House Select Wine (Appetizer, Main Course, dessert or cheese course): 40 Euros ($62, Tax and Tip Included)
Most expensive Price Fixed menu (Appetizer, Main Course, Cheese Course, and Dessert) with Premium Bottle of House Select Wine for two: 82 Euro ($127.10 Tax and Tip Included) (A majority of the price fixed menus at La Chaumeire would make a meal for two less expensive than the Market Bar, even with the Euro's more than 50% premium to the dollar.)
Italians have specific price fixed menus for lunch, often called a "worker's lunch" or pranzo di lavori." These usually start at around 9 Euro, seldom exceed 12 Euro, and include wine or beer, bottled water, coffee and at least two courses, usually a pasta and main course. For a review of my favorite lunch in Tuscany (10 Euro per person) see my review of Spino Fiorito.
I have chosen one of the most authentic and inexpensive Italian restaurants in San Francisco's North Beach for this comparison.
Italian - Caffe Macaroni Sciuè Sciuè
Main Course: $13.50-17
I didn't get a wine price for this restaurant, so let's say you bought a bottle of cheap plonk for $5 and brought it to the restaurant and had them uncork it. Corkage fees are $9, so the cheapest possible bottle of wine would come to $14, ok?
An Average meal of pasta and a main course with wine for two people: $54.50
Add Tax and Tip: 12.77
Ragusa, Sicily - La Nuova Rusticana
Here in a rustic setting not unlike that found at Caffe Macaroni Sciuè Sciuè, we had a fine meal including a bottle of recommended Sicilian wine, one Antipasta, one pasta, and two main courses, plus a dessert to share. The inclusive total came to 45 Euro, or $69.75
Montespertoli, Italy (Chianti Wine Country) - La Artevino
Here, in a highly recommended and quite elegant restaurant we had a full Italian meal with first and second courses, wine and coffee. The homemade ravioli (10 Euro) was studded with expensive truffles. The total for two was 63 Euro, or $97.65
Venice - Osteria "Ae Sconte"
Osteria Ae Sconte is highly recommended. The waiter offered to make the four of us plates of assorted cicchetti, or appetizers. Each one of us ended up with a huge platter of traditional small dishes. A very good bottle of wine from the Veneto region was 16 Euro. Lunch for two in Venice at a recommended restaurant? 48 Euro or $74.
Of course, if you're really wanting to save money, a 3-5 Euro panino or sandwich should do you--or that 10 Euro worker's lunch. Perhaps a slice of pizza is all you need for lunch.
Gelato is a must when visiting Italy. The prices for a Gelato at Gelato Classico in San Francisco were: $3.75 for a small cone, 4.45 for a larger one.
Gelato in a small town bar near my Italian house is 1 Euro for a small cone ($1.55), but it will be more expensive in Florence. Expect to pay at least 2.50 for a small cone ($3.88)
Saving More Money on Food in Europe
What's the ultimate way to save money on food and lodging? Renting a vacation home is often cheaper than renting hotel rooms--and you'll usually have a place to wash your clothes, and be able to fix some meals at home, or at least be able to buy ready-made ingredients for a simple meal.
For example, un etto or .22 pounds of sliced "lunch meat" will cost between .80 and 3 Euro (Mortadella is usually cheapest, prosciutto crudo usually the most expensive). A loaf of good bread won't cost more than a Euro or two. A few Euros is all you need for a simple lunch in Italy (and a bottle of fizzy mineral water is usually less than .50 Euro).
Shopping at an open air market is fun and will also save you money. You might find olives, cheeses, meats and fish that you can eat without using the stove. Don't know how? Here's an illustrated guide to shopping at open air markets.
I hope this gives you some idea of what food costs in Europe these days. Most restaurants post a menu outside, so you can see if a place is within your price range before you push your way in.