Rental car companies in Europe charge about $15 per gallon if the car is returned without a full tank. One traveler recently was given a car with a half full tank. Not to worry, said the agent, just bring it back half full, there's a problem with the gauge. At that point the renter should have asked the agent to note the alleged gauge problem in writing on the paperwork. Sadly, he did not. When the car was returned half full in a different town to a different agent, the renter was charged for 10 gallons of gas, $157. He didn't discover the charge until he was back in the U.S. and received his credit card statement. Since he had nothing in writing, he was unable to successfully dispute the charge.

Lesson: When picking up a rental car anywhere, make sure all anomalies—scratches, less than full fuel tank, etc.— are noted in writing.

Get quote on a rental car in Europe.

Fancy Restaurants

I must be regressing. Forty years ago, when I couldn't afford them, I yearned to dine in restaurants rated three-stars by Michelin. Now I could not care less. That goes for most two-star and many one-star establishments as well.

lunch at rogacki small$20 lunch at Berlin's RogackiActually it isn't a regression, it's just that I now have a better idea of what's important and what's not. And what's not is $150-plus bottles of wine, $50 to $100 main courses and dinner tabs for two that add up to more than about $200 no matter how artfully the food is arranged on the plate, no matter how correct and pseudo-friendly the service, or how old the wine. For me, the point of diminishing returns kick-in well below these prices, which will hardly get you through the first course in a three-star

This has been coming on for some time. My first food epiphany took place a few years ago in Restaurant La Terrasse at one of my favorite hotels, the Victoria Jungfrau in Interlaken. Having just read some food magazine hype about the scarcity and preciousness of white truffles from Italy, and how billionaires make pilgrimages to Italy in private jets to eat them, we ordered a first course of risotto sprinkled with shaved truffles  — risotto being rice, a dietary staple of billions of the planet's poorest people. It was a night when La Terrasse apparently didn't have its "A" team in the kitchen. We were served a small boat of gluey, over-salted rice scattered with a few shreds of the coveted tuber. The price was about $50 and they charged an additional 20% to split it two ways. The taste of the truffles was overwhelmed by the salt and the strong flavors of the risotto. Even at $8 it would have been a failure.

(That dish is often put into perspective as the outrageous rip-off it was at places like the food bar at Rogacki in Berlin, where everything is utterly fresh, cooked before your eyes, and a lunch of three fresh oysters, shrimp sautéed in herbed butter, incredible roast potatoes mit Speck (smoked ham/bacon), salad, baguette and a generous glass of white wine is about $20.)

My new-found disdain for high-end restaurants is not limited to those awarded Michelin stars; La Terrasse, for example, gets none. In fact, if you're determined to dine fancy, Michelin starred places are the best. And while those stars denote good food, the crossed spoon and fork symbol used by Michelin is a better guide to what you're in store for in terms of atmosphere, decor, style, and luxury in general. Five crossed spoons and forks is the maximum awarded. Anything above two means table linens, multiple wine glasses, a sometimes confusing array of silverware, and formal service with all that that implies. Attire is dresses for women, coats for men, or even dark suits and ties. I'm not saying outstanding food isn't possible in such surroundings, just that you will pay for such an atmosphere. Be particularly wary of restaurants that get no stars but are given four or five crossed spoons and forks. They are expensive and very formal but the food isn't good enough to rate a star. We have had too many disappointing dinners in such places. There are few travel experiences more dispiriting than a three-hour meal of multiple, ordinary courses and condescending waiters, followed by an astronomical bill. Throw in a cigar at the next table and you wonder what happened to the joys of travel in Europe.

One silly custom that seems to be gathering momentum in Europe is the ceremonious bestowal of the main dish. In this "ta da" presentation, a line of waiters, each carrying a plate covered with a silver dome, parades through the dining room sometimes to musical accompaniment (I kid you not). Upon arrival at the table, the plates are laid in front of the diners. The silver domes are then, on a count, simultaneously whisked away to reveal the carefully arranged food... "ta da". Pretense.

Another tradition I could do without is the way wine is handled at posh restaurants. In my view, wine should be opened by the waiter, tasted by the buyer, and then the full bottle left on the table to be shared, like salt and pepper, according to the desires of the diners. Instead, wine bottles are opened, tasted, and then, without regard for who wants a little and who wants a lot, poured by the waiter. In worst cases, the remains of the bottle are set on a separate table, out of reach of those who are paying for it. Table conversation gets going, the waiter, whose mission is to empty the bottle so you'll order another, suddenly swoops in and before you realize what's happening he's poured the rest of the wine, whether those at the table want it or not. Aunt Minnie may have intended to nurse a few ounces through the entire meal but suddenly she's on her second glass. So now, much sooner than you planned, it's time to order more wine.

Granted, many grand luxe restaurants serve outstanding food, often in beautiful rooms. But too often it is no better, and sometimes not as good as, simpler, cheaper places. What's important to me is what's on the plate, not the unnecessary trappings, stiff service, pretentious presentations, and high prices usually found in upscale European restaurants.

Here are four places where, during the course of a long meal, or when presented with a massive bill at the end, we wished we had opted for that cozy Gästehaus down the road. Meals at these restaurants ranged from o.k. to very good, but the value just wasn't there.

Deluxe restaurants with service in the grand style have almost disappeared in the U.S. but a few remain a presence in Europe because Europeans want them; they are a part of the culture. RHB

December 2002