One can choose Lisbon as a travel destination for different reasons. One of them can most definitely be to enjoy great food and wine.
In my experience various seafood is the most popular local choice and a visitor can easily find a huge diversity of fish and shellfish dishes. Lots of them also with a pinch of exotic flavor - the history of Portugal as a colonial superpower definitely reflects today in a great variety of food. A vast array of spices used in the modern Portuguese cuisine is definitely a consequence of that and a long history of spice trade.
Another interesting fact I learned is about Bacalhau - this is the Portuguese word for codfish and (in a culinary context) dried and salted codfish. It is considered the iconic ingredient of Portuguese cuisine - it gained its popularity in the time of great discoveries (dried and salted was perfect to last through all those long sea voyages) and is still very popular today. Supposedly there are over 1000 recipes for bacalhau in Portugal alone.
Dried and salted is still a variety mostly consumed today. I guess the fact Portuguese have to import all those large quantities of codfish has also a lot to do with its form. Yes, that is right - surprisingly there is NO bacalhau in Portuguese waters.
Seafood is equally popular in the form of high end cuisine served in many posh restaurants and also as simple, mostly fried fast-food found in many far-from-fancy fast food joints.
I was looking for something in between those two extremes and found the perfect thing in a place called Cervejaria Ramiro (located on Avenida Almirante Reis 1). As the word cervejaria is derived from cerveja (Portuguese word for beer) some might think of it as a pub, but that is not the case. These types of places are actually restaurants specializing in either meat (“bifes”) or sea-food (also called “marisqueiras”).
Ramiro is extremely popular with locals and gets pretty busy in the evenings - making a reservation is strongly advised. When we visited we had to wait for about 15 minutes despite our reservation.
They have two types of tables available:
- ground floor which looks prety much like a canteen and
- a bit classier first floor - still nothing special, but with nicer tables and a bit more space.
As usually with better atmosphere also come higher prices. So if you are on a tight budget you should opt for a seat on the ground floor. Prices may vary a lot, depending on what you order. They mostly have shellfish to choose from.
Be sure to arrive early if you want to have a choice at all.
Another interesting place worth checking out is Cantina das Freiras (located on Travessa do Farragial 1). I found out about it from the most unlikely source - an easyJet brochure during our flight from Venice to Lisbon! That is the reason I was quite skeptical about it but when I saw the place it was just what it was supposed to be - low-key, local, affordable and run by actual nuns. Food is simple but local and portions are quite large.
Do not turn around when you see an entrance not resembling a restaurant. It is just a door like any other in a small alley. To get in you have to ring the bell. Unfortunately I don't have any idea about opening hours but I guess every day around lunch time is a good time to pay those nuns a visit.
If Lisbon is mostly about seafood in other regions of Portugal the emphasis is definitely on other kinds of foods. For instance in more rural, continental parts of the country pork convincingly takes the first place. As we did not visit any of the rural parts of the country I am unable to share any first hand impressions on that.
When looking for a dessert there are quite a few nice options to choose from. The most obvious one is to get yourself a couple of those famous pastéis - delicious local custard tarts.
I recommend you try them at the Pastéis de Belém confectionery (on Rua de Belem 84, near the Jerónimos monastery) in Belém. I already wrote about this in the post about attractions of Belém.
A stop at one of the city's best ice cream shops is also a must for those with a sweet tooth. You can find it in Baixa’s Baixa-Chiado area (Rua do Carmo 9). Santini is a traditional italian icecream shop and quite new to Lisbon - opened only since 2010. It has however been very popular in Cascais since 1949. They offer a number of different flavors. Apart from the usual selection there are also some with a local twist - if you feel adventurous you can try one of the cheese flavors. If you want to try different flavors, you can get two even with the smallest cup size (copo pequeno).
You can visit them daily from 10 in the morning till midnight.
There are many more great places apart from these. When trying your luck you just have to follow the usual pointers and you will be fine. You will usually get more for your money if you walk a couple streets away from the busy avenues in the city center.
You can try one of many small family restaurants with only a couple of tables (you can find them at least in Bairro Alto and Alfama districts). These usually do not disappoint but a reservation is a must (try reserving for a few days ahead when you spot one).
I had a great meal in a place like that - a veal steak in creamy coffee sauce. I did not know what to expect and since I am more a tea person then a coffee one, I was a bit skeptical about my choice. It turned out to be extra delicious and I cleared my plate in a flash. I have to find a recipe for it somewhere.
At first I intended to also write about local drinks you should not miss when in Lisbon but this post is getting too long even as it is. If wine is your thing you should definitely check out my next post.