Lisbon’s cafes are spartan, no-frills establishments, made for the only purpose of sitting down, ordering food, and consuming as much of it as you please while relaxing with friends or family. You get lots of places like these in Italy, almost none in London; there’s something refreshing to eating in a place where you’re simply left alone with your cup of coffee, other customers chatter in a foreign language you wouldn’t decipher if you tried, and you don’t feel compelled to post over-filtered, hashtagged-to-death pictures of your food on every social media account you’ve ever had.
That isn’t to say I didn’t take any pictures of my food; in fact, I can’t wait to show them off, as that food was too good not to share. And the coffee – good heavens, that coffee! Lisbon regaled me with the best espresso I’ve had outside of Italy; so good I could have cried tears of joy every single morning. London’s artisan-roasted hipster blends with-nutty-notes-and-a-bold-fruity-aftertaste have a thing or two to learn from it; most of all, that simplicity goes a long, long way.
In London coffee shops, there’s no such thing as table service: you get your order at the counter, then bugger off as fast as you can, to avoid holding up the fast-moving queue. When I first moved here, it took time to get used to it; Lisbon re-trained me to a slower pace, a different way of enjoying breakfast. While not all cafes offer table service, those that do consider it mandatory, rather than a nice-to-have. More than once I’ve stood waiting at the counter, while staff members stared in horror, as if I was pressuring them to serve me quickly. All I wanted was to take my stuff to the table, so they didn’t have to (being helpful, y’know?). Thoroughly organised routines (such as logging orders on magnetic cards, ready to swipe at the till to pay before you leave) go hand in hand with haphazard processes: in some places, even cold pastries took a long time to arrive, and we dealt with missing orders and utterly unconcerned waiters more than once. As I’ve said before, I don’t mind it much; in fact, I find it amusing. How distinctively Mediterranean; how reminiscent of home.
Eating cake for breakfast without attracting bewildered stares from the natives was also refreshing. I’ve seen more locals eat a sweet breakfast than a savoury one, and it only takes a short walk around the city to understand what people visit Lisbon’s cafes for. Every bakery has a window display flaunting man-sized pastries, promising yet more wonders once you enter, and never underdelivering with unsatisfying and overpriced small portions. Speaking of which, you’ll find that food in Lisbon is incredibly cheap. I was used to spending 3€ for coffee and a pastry in Italy, and still cringe at any breakfast bill amounting to more than £5 in London, but even I was in shock when I was billed 1.70€ for two pastries and an espresso. Filling my stomach with all kinds of baked goodness (plus my morning fix of caffeine), without worrying I’ll spend a day’s salary to only feel mildly sated: I’ve never believed in miracles, but surely this has to be one?
Sweet food I’ve loved in Lisbon
I’ve talked about pastéis de nata quite at length. Most bakeries in Lisbon sell them, and the quality is consistent everywhere you go. They’re among the cheapest pastries on offer, so go on and stuff yourself – you’ll never be disappointed. That’s not to say they’re the only treats worth trying: the variety of Portuguese patisserie is immensely fascinating. Egg cream, custard and puff pastry are among the most popular ingredients, but by no means the only ones; just look for the cafes that advertise “fabrico próprio” (meaning bread and bakes are artisan made), feast your eyes looking at the impressive range of food on offer, and order one of everything that takes your fancy. You can’t go wrong.
Being a regular of Lisboa Patisserie in London taught me that Portuguese people love their croissants. More similar in texture and sweetness to thick brioche bread, rather than flaky French pastry, they are a favourite at breakfast time. You can have them plain, or packed with savoury ingredients such as ham, cheese and vegetables, or filled with sweet stuff; I picked one with egg cream filling (similar to custard, but stickier and more sugary). It was my first breakfast in Lisbon, bought at Pastelaria Emenda, a bakery just a few steps away from our apartment; probably my favourite among the cafes we’ve tried in Chiado and Bairro Alto.
The cake you see in the picture is Rocha Real: knobbly and slightly charred on the outside (“rocha” is the Portuguese word for “rock”), it hits you with a distinctive taste, a combination of candied fruit, citrus peel and hints of cinnamon. Belem’s pastéis aside, it’s my new favourite Portuguese sweet treat. I had it at Pastelaria Real Príncipe, a quiet, spacious cafe opposite Lisbon’s Botanic Gardens; I haven’t seen it anywhere else, which was a shame, as I’d happily have had it again. On the other hand, you could well say I avoided the risk of developing a rocha real obsession, and missing out on the other fabulous pastries I got to taste during my stay (now that would have been a real shame). I’ve been looking far and wide for a recipe, but can’t seem to find it anywhere – so if you know one, send it my way!
My holiday ended on a sweet note, with another treat I’d been longing to try: Pão-de-Deus (“Bread of God”), a soft, brioche-like sweet bread topped with coconut flakes. Pastelaria Emenda’s window display flaunts some pretty large ones, but you’ll find smaller bites inside, if you need to satisfy a lighter appetite. On that day, I also got to try a bite of my partner’s chocolate slice, similar in concept to Italian Chocolate Salami, but thicker, less buttery, and richer in biscuit crumbs.
Wait, there’s more!
I’ve reviewed all the cafes I mentioned throughout this post (plus a few more) on Zomato, so if you need advice on where to get nice pastries and a good espresso near where you are, help yourself!
- Pastelaria Camoes (Chiado)
- Pastelaria Emenda (Chiado)
- Pastelaria Real Príncipe (Príncipe Real)
- Pastelaria Orion (Bairro Alto)
- Pastelaria Casulo (Rossio)