How do you feel about blog schedules? I bet many of you find them helpful, effective, even exciting; I, on the other hand, can’t get myself to stick to one. I always have three or four drafts in the backlog, and it’s never a case of “first in, first out”: it’s more like “first in, then the second and third, then I’ll mull over a fourth for a few weeks, and there’s no telling which I’ll publish or when”.
Travel posts are the trickiest: the longer I wait after I’ve returned home, the harder I find it to turn the impressions and memories that stuck with me into words. It took me more than a year to finish my series about Prague – and just when I thought I was done with last year’s trip to Lisbon, I found this half-finished post. It feels strange to revisit it six months after starting it, but here goes.
So, to the risk of repeating myself: I’m in love with Portuguese food. Visiting Lisbon gave me the opportunity to learn more about a cuisine I knew little about, and had only tried the sweet side of before. I say “learn more”, but I mean “a lot”; the reason why it’s taken me so long to publish this is the word count, the temptation to dwell and digress, my good old habit to turn posts into essays. Here’s a starter for ten, much shorter than the draft I set out to complete last week. I hope you’ll find some tips you can use if you’re travelling to Portugal; if you want to know more, drop me a line, and I’ll ramble some more.
Five facts about eating out in Lisbon
1) Traditional cuisine is heavily based on meat and fish
You’ll find the Portuguese have a slight obsession for eggs and dairy too, especially when it comes to dessert. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you might find it hard to adapt, and will have to give some of the most characteristic dishes a miss.
2) Restaurants have scheduled closing days
Many places don’t trade on Sundays, and those that do will most likely close the following Monday. It’s also common for restaurants to only open at lunch or dinner on some days. On the other hand, the Portuguese are late eaters, so you won’t have trouble finding an open kitchen after 9 or 10pm (in your face, London!).
3) Most menus are written in Portuguese only
You might need to eat at a few different places, and watch what the locals around you are having, before the words and phrases you spot on menus start making sense.
Many restaurant workers speak some level of English; depending on how fluent each individual is, you might find it more or less challenging to get them to explain that “frango” is Portuguese for “chicken”, or “chocos grelhados” means “grilled squid” (I discovered that on the last day, and could have kicked myself, as I love grilled squid). Some places have double language menus, which help a lot: translations are sometimes rough, but effective enough to point you in the right direction.
4) Each main dish usually comes with two sides
I’m talking about complimentary sides, which menus might not mention. Before ordering extra side dishes, it’s always worth checking what your order will come with. You’ll almost certainly get boiled potatoes with fish, while meat often comes with fries (or packet crisps, which I find plain weird, but know some Brits might appreciate). Side salads, rice and beans are also options.
If you’re not keen on something, you can ask for your sides to be swapped. Portuguese restaurant workers are pretty easy-going, so if you can overcome the language barrier, you’ll most likely succeed.
5) Portions are very abundant
You won’t believe how abundant until they land in front of you, and you begin to wonder if your stomach’s big enough to fit all that stuff. Most of the dishes I tried came in quantities that could have fed two people; hadn’t I spent hours walking up and down steep hills and stairwells, I probably would have been in a food coma for most of my holiday.
This is far from being a bad thing – especially once you find out how cheap it is to eat out in Lisbon (more about that later). If you’re anything short than ravenous, though, consider sharing your food with someone else, or ordering a half portion, which many restaurants allow. Just don’t let all that goodness go to waste.
Savoury food I loved in Lisbon
Even though five days were not quite enough to visit all the restaurants on my list, I tried most of the dishes I was curious about – aside from the world-famous pastéis de bacalhau (salted codfish croquettes), which featured in far less menus than I’d thought.
One of my priorities was feijoada: a pork and bean stew, usually served with rice, also common in Brazilian cuisine. It’s a wonderfully stodgy dish, so make sure you work up the biggest appetite you can before you eat it. Pork loin and different types of sausage are among the most common ingredients; I learnt that the taste of blood sausage is too strong for me. It’s a good job I was sharing a portion with my partner, as I left it to him and focused on the rest of the meat, which I enjoyed much more.
Feijoada was the most appealing dish I’d read about before our trip. Then I discovered açorda de camarao: a thick soup made with prawns and bread soaked in fish stock, typical of the Alentejo region. I wish I had words powerful enough to describe its rich flavour, and the joy I felt as I kept scooping up bread from the deep pot in front of me, even though I’d long crossed the line between eating sensibly and stuffing myself. All I can say, in a sort of culinary Stendhal syndrome, is that it’s one of the best main courses I’ve ever eaten.
Another showstopper was arroz de pato: a main based on rice, shredded duck leg and chorizo, cooked in the oven and seasoned with garlic and herbs. It might take a while to make from scratch (I’m still determined to try it at home), but it’s worth every second spent in the kitchen.
While I savoured my rice, my partner attacked a massive platter of juicy ribs, which he loved. That lunch (at O Lavrador, a restaurant close to the leafy Jardim da Estrela) set us back 7€ for the duck rice, and less than 8€ for the ribs. Any Londoner would call it dirt cheap; in Lisbon it’s the norm.
Cod croquettes or not, I couldn’t leave without tasting salted codfish in some shape or form. The opportunity came when we visited Mezzanine, a slightly more upmarket yet still affordable restaurant near the Cais do Sodré train station. Portuguese family-run eateries can get quite busy and cramped, especially when they’re a favourite destination for locals, so keep this one in mind if you’re looking for a more intimate setting, and feel like experimenting with a different take on traditional recipes.
My salt cod fix came in the form of a bruschetta, combining fish and well seasoned wilted greens with thick slices of crusty corn bread. It’s the kind of stuff I could gorge on for hours and never get bored of – and I would have gone for seconds, hadn’t I had two more small plates in front of me, and the intention to order dessert.
Wait, there’s more!
I reviewed all the restaurants I mentioned throughout this post (plus a few more) on Zomato, so if you want to know more about the food I had and where to find it, help yourself!
- Antigo Restaurante 1º de Maio (Bairro Alto)
- Cantinho da Rosa (Bairro Alto)
- Céu Na Boca (Belem)
- Germano’s (Bairro Alto)
- Mezzanine Creative Restaurant (Cais do Sodré)
- O Lavrador (Lapa – Estrela)
- Principe do Calhariz (Bairro Alto)
You can find more posts about my trip to Lisbon here. If you have a soft spot for cities that ooze character, and an appetite for breakfast pastries, you’re in for a treat.
Note: Zomato Portugal invited me to visit Mezzanine, and contributed to the cost of my meal. All opinions are my own.