Traditionally, dining in Bern has been a pretty grounded affair, characterized by Italian home cooking and German-style meat and potatoes. Two favorite local dishes are the Bernerplatte—great slabs of salt pork, beef tongue, smoked bacon, pork ribs, and mild pork sausage cooked down in broth, then heaped on top of juniper-scented sauerkraut, green beans, and boiled potatoes—and Berner Rösti, shredded potatoes panfried with onions, butter, and chunks of bacon. But newer options include creative vegetarian cuisine, refined gastronomic delicacies, fresh fish—often caught in the nearby River Aare—and myriad international foods. Most menus change with the seasons, featuring asparagus in spring, berries in summer, and wild game in fall. Food presentation can be sophisticated, and service is almost universally friendly.
Many of Bern's established restaurants are dark, often underground, and accessible through a kind of cellar storm door that looks much like the one Dorothy just missed getting to when the tornado hit her Kansas farm. But once you're down there, you'll find the atmosphere cozy and warm, with a hint of the medieval—especially in the simpler, beer-hall-type venues. Another option is sitting at one of the few tables that are usually outside each restaurant, but under the famous Bernese arches, so you're sheltered from summer showers on a hot July evening, say, or a biting spring breeze. As soon as the weather permits, indoor restaurants are abandoned—but still open—as diners flock outdoors.
Be sure to make reservations, especially if you want to eat outside in warm weather. Popular garden restaurants that attract both tourists and locals will be packed at lunch, so you might try arriving a little before noon—but don't try the other extreme and come late, because most kitchens switch to the snack menu after 2 pm—if they're still open. Bärenplatz and Waisenhausplatz are good bets for all-day dining options, with some restaurants open 365 days a year.