I’m just as passionate about personal finance as I am about travel. I have no problem loosening up on my budget when it comes to making memories and enjoying new experiences.
I must confess that almost every travel experience my wife and I have had, has somehow revolved around food. We plan an entire week’s vacation around food-related venues we want to check out.
We’ve managed to eat at some amazing places during our travels. Usually, the best meals have been at tan unpretentious family-owned small restaurants, or some hidden away place only locals dine at.
The following are two different extreme versions of our food experience addiction.
Local Markets / Frugal Score A+
One of our favorite travel food destinations in the local market. I’m not talking about the local grocery store. I’m talking about an open-air market or one located in a large warehouse-style space. We usually have lunch at those markets and get to experience that particular city like locals.
I’ve had the most delicious fruit, dry meats, cheeses, baked items, and fish I’ve ever tasted at some of those markets. Along with many things I had never tried before. It’s easy to make a day out of it by grabbing a large bag or picnic-style basket and choosing whatever looks appealing.
We then usually head over to a local park or outdoor public space and enjoy our collected treasure for a fraction of what a meal would cost at a traditional restaurant.
If you’ve never done this, you should add it to your list of must-dos during your next trip overseas. It’s a very cost-effective way to have a meal, while also immersing yourself in the local culture.
World-Renowned Chef Restaurant / Frugal Score F-
The opposite extreme of what I just described is a meal at a restaurant operated by a world-class chef. I am not a food snob, and usually, dismiss many restaurants that thrive simply on the reputation of some celebrity chef’s name.
There’s nothing more annoying to me than eating at a place like that, only to find out that someone other than the chef whose name is emblazoned on the front door is preparing my expensive meal. At that point, I can’t help but view the restaurant as a simple marketing ploy.
On the other hand, I have a lot of respect for those chefs who are wildly passionate about their craft and pour their whole life and soul into the meals they prepare. My mother, although not a professional chef, cooked us wonderful meals at home, and I’m confident that her love-infused them with a taste that is yet to be replicated elsewhere.
Netflix released a series a couple of years ago called Chef’s Table. If you love food and haven’t seen the series yet, you should check it out. It’s both fascinating and inspiring.
It inspired my wife and me to add some of those restaurants to our bucket list.
Many of the restaurants on the series are even featured on the World’s best 50 restaurants list.
Currently, the Number 1 restaurant on the list is Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. It’s owned and operated by Chef Massimo Bottura, who was featured in Season 1/Episode 1 of Chef's Table.
And we just happened to be visiting Modena, Italy this Summer!
A meal for two adults, including taxes, service fee, and a bottle of wine would cost approximately $600 at this restaurant.
Since our food budget for our 61 Day Europe Immersion Trip this Summer is about $4,500, that one meal would account for >13% of our entire food budget.
There is no question that this would be an extravagance, and by no means, a guaranteed one since reservations must be made months in advance and are challenging to obtain (spoiler alert! we couldn't get in).
Five reasons why a $600 meal is worth it
The list of better ways our money could be spent is endless, and I won’t even bother going into that here. Instead, I’ll focus on some of the reasons why spending that kind of money on a meal might be justifiable.
Experiences are the key to happiness: You wouldn’t know it from our consumerist culture and watching people collect things, but it turns out that experiences have a higher happiness quotient than things.
The experience will be unique: Since the meal and ingredients used are so specific to that particular chef, it’s the type of experience that cannot be easily replicated, and unlikely to be repeated.
Seizing the moment: Or in this case, the location. We will happen to be in the very city where the current No.1 restaurant is. If we can get in, why not take advantage of that.
The thrill of the chase: The excitement that leads up to a unique or anticipated experience means the next few months will be injected with tiny doses of smiles.
Reporting back: It makes for an excellent follow-up post, isn’t that what blogging is all about?!
What ultimately makes this experience unique is that we’re doing it on an exception basis. If we had meals at fancy restaurants like these every week, it would be easy to take those experiences for granted, and that special feeling would wear off quickly.
If you're wondering how we're able to spend two months in Europe this summer, you should check out the post on lifestyle expenses.
Osteria Francescana Reservation Process
So as I alluded to when I first wrote this post, reservations at this restaurant are very hard to come by. I suspect they got even harder once they hit the #1 spot in the world's best 50 rankings.
The way their system works, you have to reserve a spot about three months in advance. The online reservation system opens up at 10 AM Italy time precisely three months before your desired date/month.
For us that worked out to a Monday at 3 AM our local time. I had a calendar reminder set so we wouldn't forget, but we overslept and didn't get up until 3:30 AM.
I figured 30 min wasn't so bad, especially since we were booking so far in advance. I was wrong.
We got on the website half-awake and tried to book our dinner. Our naive eagerness was rewarded with the following screen.
After clicking the retry button a few times with no luck, I looked at Mrs. Max and shrugged.
Hey…at least we tried, I'm not going to sit here and push that button until it's time to get ready for work. Yeah. It's the number 1 restaurant and all, but I'm not competing with some rich guy's intern or butler whose job probably rests on pushing that button every second for a few hours.
So we went back to bed and woke up a few hours later for work.
I gave it another shot, and we at least got past the “Oops!” waiting screen.
The restaurant is closed on the days shown in red, and the remaining days are open…assuming you can, of course, get a spot, which we couldn't.
The system did allow us, however, to add ourselves to the waiting list, which we did for both lunch and dinner on two separate days.
I also realized that the entire month of July had opened up, so I checked all the dates…which were all sold out.
They do get cancellations, so we're still hoping that we'll get a surprise call a few days before we get there letting us know we got in. But we're not holding our breath.
Since my brain often defaults to running numbers, I figured I would crunch some figures just for the fun of it.
Number of tables: 12
Total Number of Seats: 48
Number of open days in July: 22
Average meal cost per person: $300 (Conservative)
Total number of meals served: 48X22X2 (Lunch & Dinner) = 2,112
Total revenue: $28,800 / Day or $633,600 for the month of July
I made a few assumptions, and I'm sure this is conservative since many people would splurge on expensive wines, etc…but this restaurant booked over $600K worth of meals in less than 30 minutes!
UPDATE: Wasn't Meant to Be
Despite being on the waiting list for Osteria Francescana, we were not fortunate enough to cut our side trips to Modena, Italy this summer.
Luckily we had made a backup reservation at the lesser-known and relatively new sister restaurant: Francechetta 58, by the same Chef Massimo Bottura. It turned out to be one of the best meals we had in Italy.
The pasta dishes were especially amazing.
Even the particular dish, they had to make for little Max, which was a simple spaghetti with olive oil and Parmigiano Reggiano. It was delicious!
The complete meal was around $150, which was a comparative bargain to Osteria Franciscana's estimated $600 meal. Although I'm sure the Osteria experience would have been enjoyable as well, we didn't feel too disappointed about missing it.
That's probably because we used the “savings” for even more fantastic food adventures during the Italy side trip in the Emilia-Romagna region, which I'll write a separate post about soon.
Even as wonderful as the meals were at some of the restaurants, we still love making on our own Chef's Table for a fraction of the cost. Check out the latest Max Your Freedom example…
Like I mentioned earlier in the post, there's nothing like bringing home a bit of the local food market experience. We may not have spent $600 on the initially planned dinner, but we made up for it!