On our first night in Switzerland we wanted traditional Swiss food...and something near our hotel. We're at the Renaissance, about a quarter of a mile from the Lucerne Rail Station and across the river from the old town. With no planning, research, or even asking for a recommendation from the hotel, we set out wandering the neighborhood, looking for dinner. When you take your chances as we did, there's a well-worn saying that applies; sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you.

I'm sure by now you know who got the tune of about $110, and that doesn't include dessert, just two salads, two main courses and three tiny beers (quarter-liter each, two for me, one for Liz). The Restaurant Helvetia on Waldstättersrasse managed to serve up one of the worst meals of our 60-plus trips to Europe. The place looked good from the outside; there were a fair number of customers for a Monday night, the posted menu was appealing, and the big, high-ceilinged room was attractive. A sign touted wild game dishes which Liz loves.

Venison? Who could tell
Venison? Who Could Tell

Dressings on the two mixed salads ($10 each) could have come from a bottle, but the greens and the few chopped vegetables were fresh enough. A shaky start, but the real train wreck didn't happen until the main courses arrived. Liz's Reh (venison, $37) with Spätzle and red cabbage (Rotkohl) was an horrific mess of bone-dry meat with all the taste of ground cardboard, plastic-like Spätzle noodles that had obviously been cooked hours or days before and reheated, mushy cabbage, half a canned peach, all drenched in a thick, sweet, almost black sauce.

It's not easy to find bad sausage in Switzerland but Helvetia managed it. My huge farmer's Bauernbratwurst served with Rösti ($26) was devoid of juice but covered with what appeared and tasted to be a very close relative of the awful sauce that failed to obscure the overcooked taste of Liz's venison. I place the more edible Rösti in the same class as hash browns one finds at any Denny's Restaurant. I ate about three bites of the sausage and Liz about the same of her Reh. The waiter took it all away without a word, which would seem to indicated uneaten plates of food returned to the kitchen are a regular occurrence. He knew enough not ask about dessert.