During the holiday season, the already difficult task of deciding where to dine in Europe's major cities becomes Herculean. Many restaurants, especially the more intimate, independently run places, are closed on Dec. 24 and 25; high-end hotel restaurants are more likely to stay open but can be stiff, expensive and full of tourists.
"Although I love Paris 365 days a year, Christmas can be a tricky time to visit," Beth Marlin, the editor of Paris-Insider.com, wrote in an e-mail message. "The week between Christmas and New Year's can be disappointing for tourists who expect everything to be open (museums, restaurants) according to a normal schedule. It is possible to arrive somewhere and find a sign in the window that says 'Closed until after January 1st."'
That doesn't mean that tourists should avoid Paris during the holidays. On the contrary, Marlin writes: "A walk down the Champs-Elysees at night with the trees lit up, or along the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honore can be downright magical. With the right itinerary, it can be spectacular."
Sometimes it's a matter of planning. Take, for example, Le Jules Verne, Alain Ducasse's restaurant nestled in the Eiffel Tower. While it's open on Christmas Eve and Christmas, only a few tables are available for lunch on Christmas Day.
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Here are suggestions for places to eat in five European cities. Some are open on Christmas Eve, some on Christmas Day, some both. And many are offering special menus. (Call ahead for reservations and to check availability.)
Just a skip away from Jules Verne is the well-regarded Au Bon Accueil (14, rue de Monttessuy, 75007; 33-1-4705-4611; www.aubonaccueilparis.com), a modern bistro owned by the restaurateur Jacques Lacipiere. The chef, Naobumi Assaki, turns out precise, elegant food in a friendly setting.
On Dec. 24 and 25, the restaurant will be offering a five-course Christmas lunch menu (60 euros a person, or $87 at $1.45 to the euro, without wine) that brings to mind the sort of fare a food-loving French family might dine on at home, including oysters, chicken with a turnip puree and black truffle jus, a selection of rich French cheeses and a dark-chocolate mille-feuille.
The quintessential holiday meal in London is all about mince pies and puddings. Food-obsessed travelers can pick up preordered pies and puddings to go (until late afternoon on Dec. 23) at the widely acclaimed St. John Restaurant (26 St. John St., EC1M; 44-20-7251-0848; www.stjohnrestaurant.co.uk).
The Christmas Feasting menus being offered by Fergus Henderson, St. John's pioneering chef, are available only until Dec. 23. But the Butlers Wharf Chop House (36e Shad Thames, SE1; 44-20-7403-3403; www.danddlondon.com) is open on Christmas Eve and for lunch on Christmas Day. Not only does the traditional British restaurant serve up an excellent holiday meal with all the fixings (mince pies included), it's perched on the Thames and looks out over the Tower Bridge. The three-course meal is 170 pounds for two, or $272 at $1.60 to the pound.
On setting alone, Stockholm's grand Operakallaren (The Royal Opera House, Karl XII:s torg; 46-8-676-5800; www.eng.operakallaren.se), situated near the banks of the Norrstrom and next to the Royal Palace, is a winner. But when it comes to the Christmas Eve Julbord - a holiday version of the traditional smorgasbord that includes specialties like glazed ham and rice porridge spiked with cinnamon - it's the dining room of choice for many local families. In fact, according to the restaurant's chef, Stefano Catenacci, a reservation there for lunch on Christmas Eve is so sought-after that the next opening for a table in the main dining room is in 2011.
Fortunately the Operakallaren has a lot of extra rooms. "We have space left, but not in the main dining room," Catenacci said. "There are tables upstairs in the banqueting room, and just yesterday we chose to open up the opera bar, a small room where you sit up to 80 people." The Julbord at Operakallaren starts at 750 kronor to 980 kronor a person, or about $110 to $140 at 6.95 kronor to the dollar.
Though fish plays a part in the Swedish Julbord, Christmas Eve in Rome takes it to another level: a seven-course dinner in which each dish contains a different type of seafood.
Jessica Stewart, the Rome manager for Context, a boutique travel company that organizes urban walking tours, recommends Casa Bleve (Via del Teatro Valle, 48-49; 39-06-686-5970; www.casableve.it), a palatial winter bar within the former courtyard of the 16th-century Palazzo Medici Lante della Rovere.
This is the first year that Casa Bleve will be serving its version of the traditional Christmas Eve fish feast (for 145 euros a person), and it sounds like one worth seeking out. Courses include a seared mackerel with buffalo's milk burrata and roasted tomatoes, an octopus and chanterelle mushroom soup with fried purple potatoes and pasta stuffed with red shrimp on a bed of artichoke cream.
On Christmas Day, when most Roman families are eating leftovers at home, Stewart suggests booking a table at the popular Hostaria dell'Orso (Via dei Soldati, 25C; 39-06- 6830-1192; www.hdo.it), which is open on Dec. 24 and 25.
Around Christmastime, this Bavarian city becomes a winter wonderland, with its Baroque architecture and twinkling markets filled with red-cheeked locals catching up over sausages and mulled wine.
It's also famous for one of the most decadent and delicious Christmas meals Europe has to offer: the traditional holiday roasted goose, typically served with dumplings and red cabbage. The century-old restaurant Spatenhaus an der Oper (Residenzstrasse 12; 49-89-290-7060), in an elegant historic building overlooking the opera house, will be offering freshly cooked goose on Dec. 24. Try it at lunchtime so you have a chance to walk off those calories. A meal is 24.90 euros a person.
Still hungry on Christmas Day after all that goose? Head to the city's historic center to join the locals for a glass of beer and weisswurst at a beer hall like the Ratskeller (Marienplatz 8; 49-89-219-9890; www.ratskeller.com) or Weisses Brauhaus (Tal 7; 49-89-290-1380; www.weisses-brauhaus.de).