I Can Barely Afford To Eat At Panera

eating on the beach in patmos greeceA month ago, I was eating a terrific meal at a taverna right on a lovely beach on the Greek island of Patmos when a perverse thought occurred to me.

“I bet this lunch is cheaper than we’d pay at a Panera, in some strip mall somewhere in the U.S.,” I said to my wife, who was finishing up a carafe of the house red that cost the equivalent of $4.

I made the comment somewhat in jest, but yesterday after having lunch at a Panera in Dekalb, Illinois, I realized that my statement had actually been correct. Here’s a little comparison of two lunches, experienced in very different corners of the world.

Patmos

In Patmos, we dined right on Lambi beach, with a stunning view of the Aegean. We split a half liter of house red wine, had a large bottle of water, two orders of chicken souvlaki, which came with a small salad and fries, and our kids split one order of plain spaghetti. The bill came to the equivalent of $28.50 and we were welcomed to linger and use the taverna’s free Wi-Fi for as long as we liked. Shots of ouzo were offered on the house.Panera

paneraOur Dekalb Panera location offered a panoramic view of strip malls as far as the eye could see, with a Panda Express, a Barnes & Noble, a Starbucks and a Ross all within spitting distance. We ordered one Cuban Panini ($7.89), one chicken cobb avocado salad ($8.69), two kids’ mac and cheese meals, which included small bowls of mac and cheese and some yogurt ($4.99 each) and four glasses of ice water (free).

With tax, the bill came to $29.22 and would have been more like $35 if we’d ordered drinks or desserts. We didn’t have our laptops with us, as we did in Patmos, but Panera has a 30-minute limit on Wi-Fi usage during the lunch rush. The place was packed and there wasn’t a single empty table despite the fact that there were no free shots of ouzo or anything else for that matter.

Scorecard

In fairness to Panera, I like the place and our meal was pretty good, especially for fast food. But the meal in Patmos was far better, both in terms of the quality of the food, the ambience and the service. With tip, the meal in Patmos was actually a bit more expensive but not by much, because in Greece people usually just round up and tips don’t usually exceed 10%.


panera cuban panniniThis is obviously an apples to oranges comparison, but the point is that “upscale” fast food places like Cosi, Noodles & Company, Panera, Corner Bakery and others seem to be getting pretty damn pricey. Getting lunch at any of these places for less than $10 isn’t easy, unless you eat like a bird. According to the Christian Science Monitor, even Taco Bell, perish the thought, is going upscale! What is the world coming to?

But bargains still exist at independent fast food outlets. Last night, my faith in the American non-burger/KFC/Taco Bell/Arby’s fast-food genre was restored at a place called Just Kabobs, in St. Charles, a nice town about an hour west of Chicago. My wife and I both had a chicken kabob platter that included two big skewers of delicious chicken, rice, pita, salad and Greek potatoes, which cost just $5.99 each, and we split a hummus and pita appetizer for only $2.25.

The quality and quantity of food was incredible, and the price was unbeatable. The only thing missing was the beach.

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More Istanbul shopping and dining secrets from Daily Secret

Istanbul secretsLast week, Gadling included Istanbul in our picks for 2012 luxury travel, and introduced you to Daily Secret, a web-based “guide service” offering insider intel to 12 cities, including Istanbul. We got so many more great Istanbul secrets from editor Laura Wells (many with special discounts and exclusive access), we’re posting them for Gadling readers to add to their itineraries. Happy shopping (and tasting)!

Local designer fashion: To buy designer clothing for men & women from multiple up-and-coming Turkish designers, this is a really cool, brand-new co-op: Fashion Tunnel in Galata

Turkish wine: Turkey has amazing wine, but it’s difficult to export as it’s heavily taxed. To try the best Turkish wines (even local sour cherry wine wine, which is delicious) and get ideas for what to buy at duty free, check out Rouge in Taksim. They have free tasting every Saturday, but you can try anything by the glass in the restaurant above, which also serves amazing rare Turkish cheeses and cure meats.

Waterside dining: For a gourmet, organic meal that few know about with a view of the Bosphorus, head to Fark-et-mez in Sariyer. The chef & sous-chef are both Turkish, and Daily Secret members get 15% off their meal. They also have live jazz on certain nights.Travel magazine: One of the most interesting and beautiful magazines (the kind you save) that I’ve ever seen is ‘Cornucopia‘. Written by world-class authors and journalists, the articles cover the history of the former empires of Central Asia, as well as modern figures trying to preserve national treasures. Our members get 10% off the price and they ship worldwide for free!

Rare books: For rare books about Istanbul and the former empires, this bookshop in Kadikoy on the Asian side has any hard-to-find edition, old or new, or they’ll find it, and they ship worldwide.

Artistic home decor: Grand, hand-painted panels & wallpaper that you see in palaces & hotels all over the world is actually made by a company now based in Istanbul. You can visit their trade-only showroom & atelier if you tell them you’re a Daily Secret member when you make an appointment. They’ll ship worldwide without a problem: Iksel in Bebek.

Turkish rugs: Here is the best Turkish antique rug dealer I’ve ever come across with the best prices in the world (I’m a collector and my cousin is an antiques rug dealer, and she agreed)! He is usually only open to ‘trade’, but welcomes our members. You can either leave with a rug, or he ships worldwide at reasonable rates.

Interior design: For handprinted, hand-loomed fabrics and unique handmade furniture, Philadelphia-transplant & textiles expert Elizabeth Hewitt counts Oscar de la Renta and President Obama’s interior designer among her customers. They have everything from scarves to draperies, bed linens, table cloths, and more; all really gorgeous and uniquely central Asian. Her husband & brother-in-law are rug & suzani dealers, and his shop is on the top floor of this store – best place in terms of selection to get tulu rugs (sheepskin rugs, which are very ‘in’ now) and antique suzanis, at literally the best prices in any emerging country.

Subscribe to Daily Secret for more tips in Istanbul and other cities around the world.

The perils of solo travel, or, how to sexually harass someone without even trying

solo travelHere at Gadling we’ve talked a lot about the perils of solo travel, from how it can break up relationships to creating feelings of loneliness. On a recent trip to Antwerp I discovered a danger to solo travel I never thought of–people look upon you with suspicion.

I was dining alone in a popular Antwerp restaurant. The waiter had seated me so that I faced another table less than ten feet away. A middle-aged woman and her college-aged daughter sat there. The daughter was directly in front of me facing to my left, so if I looked straight ahead I was looking at her profile.

I didn’t give it any thought as I ordered. Sometime during my appetizer I noticed the daughter kept turning to look at me. At first it was just every few minutes, but by the time I got my main course she was giving me annoyed glances every thirty seconds or so.

Obviously she thought I was staring at her. I tried to look elsewhere. She kept looking over so often, though, that anytime I happened to look straight ahead, she’d “catch” me. I began to feel a bit guilty, like when I’m walking home at night and there’s a woman walking in the street ahead of me. I hate when that happens because I know I’m making the woman uncomfortable. What do you do? Speed up and pass her? Slow down? Both look suspicious and are only going to make her more nervous.

But we weren’t alone in a darkened street; we were in a busy restaurant and she was sitting right in front of me. What could I do, squash my face into my plate of venison?

She started whispering to her mother in French. They’d been talking normally before, but now their conversation changed into a angry, conspiratorial whisper.

At this point my guilt changed into annoyance. I mean, where else was I supposed to look? In fact, for the past half hour I’d been deliberately trying to avoid looking forward. That probably made me look even creepier because now both mother and daughter kept swiveling their heads to check on me.

The bill came and I paid. More whispering. Just as I stood up, both turned on me with snarly little faces, mother and daughter the same snarly little faces.

“Peeg,” snarled mother.

“Peeg,” snarled daughter.

I ignored them and walked off. I would have explained it was all a misunderstanding if they had looked open to that approach. My second reaction was to say, “Sorry to rain on your parade, kid, but my wife is twice your age and STILL better looking than you.” That wouldn’t have gone over too well either. Instead I said nothing, got my coat, and headed out into the night.

So guys, if you’re traveling alone be sure to bring a book to dinner, otherwise you may be mistaken for a male chauvinist “peeg”.

Photo courtesy Alex Castro and the London Anti-Street harassment Campaign.

New restaurant in Mexico City combines unique architecture and experiential dining

tori-tori restaurant in mexico city Tori-Tori, a new Japanese restaurant located in Polanco in Mexico City, Mexico, has recently finished completion. The project began in 2009 as a joint venture between the Mexico-based firm rojkind arquitectos and the design company Esrawe Studio, with the aim to create a unique contemporary space.

While the restaurant serves Japanese cuisine, the ambiance is more cosmopolitan than many other Japanese restaurants on the market. Imagine an interior full of open spaces, a bar, and terraces that always keep the guest close to natural vegetation.

The inside is actually an extension of the outside, where the facade seems to grow organically from the ground in a mass of steel ivy. You can see through to the restaurant and vice versa, and the pattern on Tori-Tori’s outside controls the ambiance on the inside by filtering light, shadows, and views.

As for the food, guests can expect an array of options, including salads, curries, pastas, fish dishes, beef, chicken, sushi, sashimi, nigri, and more. For more information, click here. Or, to get a better idea of the design of Tori-Tori, check out the gallery below. All photos are courtesy of photographer Paúl Rivera.

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Fine dining in Antwerp

fine dining in AntwerpFor such a small country, Belgium certainly has contributed to world cuisine. French fries, for example, are actually Belgian, making that whole “freedom fries” movement back in 2003 even stupider than it appeared. They also gave us Belgian waffles, although over here they’re called “Brussels waffles” after the capital. And let’s not forget about Belgian chocolate!

I’ve been exploring Antwerp, a wealthy city with hardworking inhabitants who like to splash out on fine food. Here are four restaurants worth a visit. Office casual attire is the rule here. Entrees range from about 15-25 euros ($20-28) except at Flamant Dining, where they’re a bit more.

My first night I dined at Brasserie Appelmans. This restaurant and absinthe bar only a few steps from the cathedral in the heart of historic Antwerp is popular with both tourists and locals. It’s strange to go from the Gothic spires and 17th century facades outside to modern minimalism inside. Through dim lighting you see a split-level plan with little décor besides mirrors, exposed brick and woodwork, and candlelit black tables.

For a starter I had an incredibly rich tomato soup with fresh cream and meatballs. It was almost filling enough for a main, but I managed a big bowl of Antwerp stew with veal prepared with Grimbergen Dubbel beer and served with thick-cut Belgian fries and salad of white cabbage, celery, and cherry tomatoes. After a long day’s walking and with the winter chill setting in for the evening, it certainly hit the spot.In keeping with the décor of the restaurant, the absinthe bar is dim and chic. It looks very popular and they had a large variety of absinthes but I didn’t partake. I can get absinthe at home in Spain and it’s not the thing to drink alone, certainly not alone in public. Both the restaurant and bar are busy by 7pm, as are many places here. Living in Spain I find Belgians to be early eaters!

Another fine restaurant is Felixpakhuis. Located next to the redeveloped docklands and the famous Mas Museum, it has a spacious and bright interior that gets quite loud as it fills up. Again bare wood and minimal decoration is the rule, although this time the colors are light instead of dark. For starters I ordered pumpkin soup with scallops followed by the Coc au vin. Both were well done and I appreciated the more casual atmosphere than you get in many high-end Belgian restaurants. While service was good at all the places in this post, the waitstaff at Felixpakhuis were the friendliest and quickest of them all. Make this your stop after seeing the Mas.

For those seeking the high end, try Flamant Dining, a restaurant on the first floor of the equally exclusive Les Nuits hotel. This is not a place you’ll stumble upon; locals have to tell you about it. It has a more intimate feel than the others, with a roaring fireplace and fine but minimal décor. I started with crispy goat cheese in a pig’s cheek spring roll with sweet red onion cream. For the main I had Australian filet pur grain fed with a pepper sauce, green salad, and Pont Neuf potatoes. Both were cooked to perfection, the pig’s cheek dissolving sweetly in my mouth. I found the pepper sauce a bit strong and overbearing on the excellent filet, but scraping a bit off solved this.

Another well-known and popular place is the Dome, which is a restaurant, a bistro, and bakery all within sight of each other. I had lunch at the bistro, a less formal and quicker option than the actual restaurant. A long aquarium took up one wall and windows took up much of the rest of the space, so between the fish and the Art Nouveau mansions outside I had plenty to look at during my meal. The chef brought out a series of small portions, including mackerel with mustard vinegar, scallops with pumpkin sauce and salad, spicy calamari (perhaps too spicy for some), and swordfish a la plancha with butter sauce. I’m a land lubber and rarely order seafood, yet I thoroughly enjoyed and finished everything. The restaurant, where you eat under a large neoclassical dome, is more formal and is hugely popular with the locals. The bread from the bakery is excellent.

The only criticism I have of Belgian cuisine from my limited experience on two trips to the country is that it’s too heavy. My appetizers were always too filling, yet too tasty not to finish. I saw very few small or light appetizers listed on menus, and when the hearty main course was set before me, all thoughts of dessert disappeared. Considering that many desserts included Belgian chocolate, this shows just how stuffed I was!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Masterpieces in Silver!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.