In many countries there are fixed-price meals, sometimes at lunchtime only, sometimes lunchtime and evening, sometimes evenings only. Compared with ordering from what the English call the menu and the French call the carte (hence à la carte) you have a significantly smaller choice but can save up to half the price of the same meal ordered à la carte. This is possible because the food is pre-prepared (to a greater or lesser extent) using ingredients that are in season and therefore inexpensive.
The illustrations here are all French, because that's what we had to hand, and so are many of the examples; but much of the same advice applies throughout continental Europe and indeed the world.
In French, any fixed-price meal is called a menu (m'nu -- the 'e' is as short as it can be, and is not stressed at all, unlike English) or more rarely (as on the right) a formule; a formule is normally a variation on the menu: for example, plat du jour (dish of the day) only, plat du jour + starter, plat du jour + starter + coffee. Look out too for prix fixe, fixed price.
There may be several menus at different prices, such as 10, 16, 24 and 35 euros. The cheapest will (understandably) use the least expensive ingredients; offer the least choice; and (usually) have the smallest number of courses. The most expensive may have foie gras and other exotic ingredients. Wine is seldom included except with the cheapest menu.
This apparent paradox is because of the fine old French tradition of the repas (pronounced r'pah, literally 'meal') or menu oeuvrier (m'nu erve-ree-eh, 'workman's menu') with three to five courses, bread and service included, wine often included, typically for 13 euros or less per head; sometimes, even now, under 10 euros. These are normally available at lunch-time only, during work-days only, i.e. not at week-ends or public holidays, though sometimes they are available on Saturdays or in the evening or both.
Café des Arts, Thouars
The best food and the best values among repas are normally found in small towns and villages because they were traditionally aimed at agricultural workers having their main meal in the middle of the day. The only drawbacks are that if you avail yourself of too much wine (which may be limited to 1/4 litre or half a bottle per person but is normally àvolonté, unlimited), you may not be able to drive afterwards, and if you eat too much, you may not feel very active in the afternoon.
There is normally no choice at all, but do not be concerned about being offered horse, frogs' legs, etc., as these are quite expensive: you will normally get pork as the main meat, because it's cheapest. With the exception of andouilles (chitterling sausages) once, we have never had anything we couldn't face, and we have had very little else that we can imagine anyone worrying about, except perhaps a huge bowl of steamed mussels (which were delicious).
In Spain, the same thing is called a cena (thay-na). It is normally available in the evening -- it literally means 'supper' -- though it may also be available earlier in the day. Either way, it is not quite as widespread as the repas. Even so, cenas are worth looking out for as they can greatly reduce the price of eating in Spain (which can be quite high), and again, the food can be very good indeed. At lunch-time, tapas may be a better bet.
It is rarely possible, though, to praise the food at the cheap 'all you can eat' places that are normally the nearest equivalent to a repas or cena in most of Britain and the United States. The best are are excellent, but the vast majority offer only tired, steam-table food, useful mostly for filling up hungry teenagers and the greedy of all ages. In the UK, Indian restaurants are often the best bet for all-you-can-eat; Chinese restaurants are OK if you avoid the once-crispy but soon soggy fried food.
The other approximation to a repas/cena in the UK is often found in pubs and steak-houses, with a second (sometimes third) course added to an a la carte meal for a fixed price. In our experience, these are normally as big a rip-off as the main course: about 50-100% more than you would pay in most of Europe for better food.
Hotel Coligny, Moncontour, 2008.
In India, the usual answer to the repas is a thali, served in a segmented dish; you can normally choose between 'meat thali' and 'vegetarian thali'. A thali typically consists of a couple of curries; perhaps a cutlet (chicken, lamb or vegetarian); a dhall (lentil dish); rice or chapatis or both; a small milk-based dessert, such as yogurt; and a choice (served separately) of pickles and seasonings such as onion. Again, the best and cheapest are in the small towns, and many operate on a 'more than you can eat' basis, with the depressions in your thali-plate being refilled as you finish them. Drink is never included; order bottled water or beer.
Of course, saving money is not always as important in India as elsewhere, because all but the most expensive restaurants are readily affordable anyway. Even so, a thali is quick, easy and not too much to eat; gives an excellent insight into how most Indians eat; and is delicious. This is why, no matter where we go, we always keep an eye open for fixed-price meals. We recommend that you do the same.
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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks