Plates in Portugal: A Culinary Guide to Lisbon
Lisbon reeled us in slowly, then all at once with vibrant, fairy-tale like facades curling up around intensely blue skies overhead. Like walking through a children's coloring book. A few beautiful, tile-adorned walls spotted around our neighborhood (Alfama) gave way to rows of baroque-style architecture, narrow passages of tile and stone, painted doorways and slick, patterned stones below your feet. If you were up high enough, and that happens often on these hilly streets, you can look down along rows and rows of red, clay tiled roofs and bright splotches of graffiti on those few walls untouched by tile.
One of our cab drivers, born and raised, described his city as one full of happy people, who ended a dictatorship with red carnations. Hardly a shot fired. Despite not knowing the history firsthand, it was no surprise to us, as we instantly noticed the Portuguese were good natured, full of generous smiles and fabulous hospitality. And we did spend a fair amount of time chatting with amiable folks over meals. Which brings us to our favorite subject. The food.
Lisbon's food scene is growing rapidly and we were lucky enough to find several hidden gems spotted between neighborhoods old and new. Since dining out in a fairly touristy city can be hit or miss, we wanted to capture a few of our favorites. Some are local hotspots and some are classically, and reasonably touristy.
Taberna da Rua das Flores. Hands down our favorite place to eat. In Lisbon, and quite possibly in the world. This is exactly the type of restaurant that you fly across the globe to enjoy. Over the years we've adjusted the way we travel. Itineraries in the past were set in stone, and we wouldn't dare go back to a place twice in one trip, for fear of missing out on something else new and possibly better. We have since thrown those notions out the window, and we're grateful we did. When we sat down at Taberna on our second night in Lisbon, we knew we were somewhere special; it was love at first sight and we knew we'd be back before we left for Porto.
The menu here changes daily, not seasonally, to focus on whats freshly caught or purchased at one of the many mercados. This daily menu is written on a blackboard that the servers bring over to your table. On each occasion, they take their time asking about allergies, preferences, and make their way through the menu, describing each immaculate dish to us. It's a little like food porn if you ask us. Jokes aside, it's because they care about the experience and you can tell with each move they make. They don't want you flipping through pages of a menu, looking down instead of enjoying the company you keep. And don't bother asking to see a wine list, because there isn't one. They'll ask what you prefer, and then like magic they bring out the perfect bottle of wine. Their Portuguese inspired tapas menu offers classics with a playful twist. Anything from fresh ceviche over seaweed, radishes and cherry tomatoes, to grilled octopus with crispy plantain chips, to more hearty meat dishes such as lamb with cucumbers and dill yogurt. Everything we ate was worth a second, third or fourth glance. If you're in Lisbon, don't walk here. RUN. It's that good.
Manteigaria. If you know anything about the pastries in Portugal, you've certainly heard of the famous pastel da nata. It's a beautiful little thing, and bigger than you'd expect. A layered, flaky shell holds an eggy, creamy custard. And it's served alongside two shakers: one filled with cinnamon, the other powdered sugar. If you want to look like a local, sprinkle a fair amount of each on top before biting in. We tried several places, but Manteigaria was our favorite. Much like the cafesito stands in Miami, you walk in and order (one espresso, one nata), and you stand alongside a small countertop and enjoy your treats, listening to locals and tourists joke and laugh with each other in all languages. Don't forget to order a second nata to-go when you pay, you're going to want it later.
A Cevicheria. You know a place is worth the trip when there's a wait at 3:30pm on a Tuesday. A friendly hostess takes your information and offers you to grab a drink while you wait. The liquor laws in Portugal are lax, and enjoying a gin and tonic on the sidewalk isn't uncommon. Once you walk in to grab your seat, you are instantly transformed into a Herman Melville novel, surrounded by nautical tiled floors, pearly grey walls and a magnificently lifelike octopus hanging above your head, it's tentacles sprawling the length of the restaurant above. Below, rows of bottles filled with potions sits to the left, the right with booze, and between the two, an ice bath filled with today's fare. You're immediately ready to devour any or all of the many fresh offerings listed in their succinct yet refined menu. Tuna ceviche with beetroot and tiger milk, scallops with low temp egg and some kind of magic foam. The list goes on, but that's where our bellies took us. To be fair, you can't go wrong, so order pretty much anything (or everything).
Copenhagen Coffee Lab. We knew we were in love the second we saw an iced coffee icon on the menu. Coffee and weather in Lisbon are H-O-T, so it felt a little bit like finding gold. The menu is simple and straightforward. Eggs, Dutch bread with butter, delightful little (and big!) cinnamon pastries much like you'd find in Copenhagen. When you walk in, you're walking out of Lisbon's ornate and decadent walls and directly into a stark, Scandinavian haven. There's lots of English being spoken, and plenty of students meeting up to study. If you're there on a weekend, leave your laptop behind because there's a pretty strict "no work zone" on Saturday and Sunday. It was a refreshing surprise for us to see people sitting, chatting and enjoying each other's company over coffees and pastries rather than hiding behind their backlit computer screen.
Mercado da Ribeira. At first glance, this huge market is overwhelming. Dotting the edges are food stalls with options ranging from classic Portuguese fare to burgers, delicate pastries, and even a place offering beef, fish and vegan tartar. These stalls are headed up by elite chefs, each approved by a board of food critics. Dancing in the middle between rows of communal tables are drink options: think fruity sangria and local wines, your classic gin & tonics, and a tequila bar we wished we'd frequented. Our favorite bites were sushi from Confraria, grilled octopus flanked with wilted spinach and crispy mashed potatoes from Marlene Vieira, and tuna tartar decorated lightly with avocado crema, freshly made mayo and sprigs of sorrel from Tartaria. It would be a sin not to highlight Nós é Mais Bolos, where we devoured a delicious chocolate chip cookie and a decadently fluffy, lime pie. Go here with an appetite, because you're going to want to try everything!
Duque BrewPub. Beware, must climb steps. The walk is intense to say the least. By the time you arrive, you've already earned your beer. There are roughly a dozen craft, Portuguese beers on tap, close to 50 bottled options, and two in-house beers that we didn't get to try. Given that Portugal is largely focused on wine, it was nice to clink a glass full of frosty, craft beer from the region. The decor is pretty straightforward and much like most brewpubs you'll find around the world. Pull up a burlap covered stool and a friendly face will surely help you pick the perfect beer.
Graca do Vinho. Easily the most romantic place in all of Lisbon. If you can imagine, the owner was a knowledgable, lanky fellow in cutoff jean shorts with a knack for knickknacks, wine and wine pairings. He was generous with his suggestions and descriptions of the wines and cheeses, and we really just handed over the reins to him. The first night, we had plans to make it further up the hill to a well-known seafood restaurant, and instead we ended up a few glasses in, noshing on bread and cheese. Before we knew it, it was 11pm and we were full, tipsy and hazy with the glow of the candlelight. When you're in Graca do Vinho, time kind of disappears between wine glasses, conversation and glances between each other and the unique collectibles scattered about the place. We went back a couple days later to relive the magic and get further acquainted with Portuguese wines and cheeses. One unique wine that is stamped into our memory is a vinho verde, a sparkling green wine much like champagne but with a tartness that was much appreciated. It's worth the uphill climb to get here, but good luck not falling under its candlelit spell and sticking around all evening.
Now you know where we loved to eat and drink. We thought it would be helpful to lay out where we stayed, so you can understand the distances we traveled to each spot. We loved our Airbnb location because it was quieter than most neighborhoods and was a pretty stark contrast to the newer neighborhoods that we visited.