Classic but boundary pushing, bank-breaking but exquisite gourmet cuisine has long been one of Basel's fortes. New trends are appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. Snuggled between three countries, Basel has inherited the culinary interests of each, and excels with offering its own specialties and those of its neighbors—and beyond.
Eating out here, as anywhere in Switzerland, can be a costly delight, and top of the range. Michelin-starred restaurants are plentiful. At the other end of the scale, you will never have to go far for a German-style sausage, Italian pasta, or mouthwatering desserts, as reliable local restaurants and cafés can be found on practically every street. Basel is, in fact, full of comfortable haunts. The city's down-to-earth fare owes its roots to the Germanic hordes who arrived here to rout the ancient Romans, bringing with them homey dishes like schnitzel and Spätzle (tiny dumplings), all to be washed down with beer.
As for dining specialties, the proximity of the Rhine means that most Basel restaurants serve a variety of freshwater fish. If the city could claim a regional specialty, it would be salmon. (These days much of it is shipped in from elsewhere, but the Rhine variety is making a comeback.) The meaty fish is best served nach Basler Art (Basel-style), meaning in a white-wine marinade with fried onions on top. Try it with a bottle of the fruity local Riesling.
If you're on the Marktplatz, join other hungry shoppers standing in front of mobile kitchens, holding bare Wienerli (hot dogs) and dipping them into thick golden mustard. You should also indulge in Kaffee und Kuchen—the late-afternoon coffee break the neighboring Germans live for. But locals have their own version: instead of a large slice of creamed cake, they select tiny sweet pastries—two or three to a saucer—and may opt for a delicate Chinese tea instead of a Kaffee.
Beyond local specialties, Basel's strengths are Thai and Middle Eastern cuisines, whether you choose the ubiquitous kebab (a Turkish gyro), a spicy bowl of green curry, or one of the fusion dishes that appear even in Basel's most traditional dining rooms.
For a satisfying and budget-friendly lunch, many restaurants offer lunch specials (Tagesmenu) that include a dish of the day, a starter or salad, and maybe even a dessert. They are the best way to eat well on a budget. Smoking is banned in all restaurants in Basel—except on terraces.