A city resisting revolution, Lisbon is sticking to its culinary guns. Alex Harris crisscrosses the city for custard tarts and cherry brandy, but can’t slip the man whose family has salted cod for generations
Lisbon is the capital of Portugal. Flights from the UK take around 2.5 hours and the time is the same as GMT. Currency is the euro. The weather in May is pleasant and warm, with average temperatures around 21C and there are 15 hours of daylight.
British Airways flies to Lisbon Portela Airport from London Heathrow daily from £153 return. britishairways.com
TAP Portugal is the national carrier. It flies from London Heathrow and London Gatwick to Lisbon from £129 return. flytap.com
Visit Lisbon is the city’s official website. It contains all the key information you need to book your trip. visitlisboa.com
Out of the Shadowsby Neill Lochery (Bloomsbury, £25) is an account of post-authoritarian democratic Portugal (1974 to present) following the Carnation Revolution, which began on 25 April 1974.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Lisbon, go to climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 0.52 tonnes CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £3.91.
Lisbon is a capital experiencing ‘the change’. In an age of city uniformity, with facsimiles of hipster trends springing up all over the globe, it’s refreshing to find a place that stays true to its roots while still bending a knee to the crusade of modernity.
It’s a city on the lips of every gastronome and hit list of every Europhile. It’s exciting, challenging and racking up the Michelin stars. It’s bright and bold. Like Barcelona was a decade ago. So grab your bottle of piri piri sauce and strap yourself in. Lisbon is on the move but in no rush to get anywhere.
Truth be told, it’s moving molasses-grade slow. For all the famous pan-slingers putting Lisbon’s modern food scene on the map – and there are some big names, indeed – the roots of tradition run deep. As I arrive in one of the city’s squares, amid the pulsating throng of both locals and tourists, I can immediately see why this heritage is so hard to weed out. Everyone is busy performing one of the city’s most traditional pastimes: lunch.
Petiscos (in Portugal S is pronounced ‘sh’ – now get your mouth around that word) is Lisbon’s answer to light, tapas-style bites. Most of it is deep-fried and siesta-inducing heavy. Lisbonites and out-of-towners lean over the glass counters of tiny shops, picking one breaded snack or another. Everyone shares bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod croquettes), it’s a dish that defines a restaurant and everyone has their favourite.
‘We use all of the cod,’ says Luís Godinho, who runs Manteigaria Silva, one of the oldest shops in the downtown area Baixa. ‘It’s now salted elsewhere but we used to do it right here.’ The shop has been in his family for more than 100 years and remains one of the city’s favourites. If Don Corleone traded fish, this would be his HQ.
Some of the best food is born out of poverty, a necessity for frugality that demands creativity – Spanish paella, Italian arancini and soup are all peasant dishes – and preservation: pickles, anything Scandinavian. Lisbon has dried salt cod. Designed to last through winter, it’s lasted centuries. At Luís’s deli, they vacuum-pack it for you, which is quite useful if you plan on taking any home – the smell can certainly take some getting used to.
A glance at most menus and family dinner tables will leave you thinking it’s the only thing they eat. ‘Bacalhau has a recipe for every day of the year,’ the deli workers tell me. Attempting to swerve this fish here is like going to Burgundy and trying to avoid butter.
Lisbon’s cobbled streets take you through a pastel smorgasbord of buildings, replete with colourful doors and those unmistakable azulejo tiles. At full tilt, the unforgiving Portuguese sun reflects off pavements and buildings to almost bleach out the city, and this is especially true on hazy days. It is best observed when either the lark rises or during the golden hours before sunset. The subtler light reveals a riot of colour, enhancing the terracotta rooftops and picking out the yellow walls and blue walls.
This is my observation the next morning over my brunch of coffee and samosa – the latter an acquisition from Portuguese Goa. I’m lining my stomach. Equally, Lisbon is for knocking back a few glasses of ginjinha, the local cherry liqueur, and I plan to go native. Punctuating many of the squares and streets are tasquinhas, humble holes in the wall in which you’ll find dapper older men slurping on their ginjinhas. Sour, highly fermented and unpalatable to some, the men are nonetheless apt to greet you warmly if you drink with them. ‘Eat the cherry,’ one barks at me. The liqueur is delicious.
It’s wonderfully European and at odds with Lisbon’s Eurosceptic bent. This allure is compounded when you travel between districts with that unique, warming buzz that comes from shotting something when you should be at work. Though watch out for the trams.
Tramming is best treated as a spectator sport, unless you want an immersive tinned-sardine experience akin to Lisbon’s famously colourful canned fish shops. Consider the 28 a no-go; it’s the most popular and always far too full. The 25 is better. However, all of them are better observed than ridden. There’s something profoundly symbolic as the rickety carts intersect graffiti-lined streets, oversized yellow toys festooned with Irish whiskey adverts, somewhere between Nineties Brooklyn and modern-day Berlin.
Lisbon’s architecture is defined not only by its tiles and colours but by disaster, too. Most of the old city was completely destroyed by the 1755 Great Lisbon Earthquake and the subsequent tsunami and fires. Few pre 18th-century buildings survive but the ones that do, particularly up in Alfama, are worth seeking out.
Here even 12th-century buildings are in evidence. Some memories of the earthquake reverberate still: Rua Da Regueira is worth a visit, if only to find the two buildings leaning to create one of the narrowest alleys in Europe. You probably won’t want to linger in what is one of Lisbon’s most touristy areas, though. Find the old Jewish quarter and stop off at the newly opened Jewish museum while you’re here but then head to the other hills for more exciting fare.
I make my way to the Príncipe Real district where restaurants such as Tasca da Esquina – run by much-loved chefs Vitor Sobral, Hugo Nascimento and Luís Espadana – reveal the Lisbon I’ve been expecting, serving up local dishes with modern twists. Here you’ll see the botoxed brows of the great and the good almost rising with delight at dishes like octopus and mushroom. It’s where I eat my favourite dish of the trip: bacalhau à brás, flaked salt cod with fried julienned potatoes bound by a beaten egg. It’s fish and chips meets umami with a pleasing wetness.
Lisbon is also a city for rice. Portugal has the highest consumption of the stuff per capita in the whole of Europe. That means menus will often have multiple rice dishes and it can be difficult picking just one. Generally they’ll be wet, soup-like rices such as arroz de marisco, which is more like a rice-laden fish stew. It’s heavy and delicious and the portions can often be overwhelming. These are cheap, old-school meals that are best shared.
Lisbon’s history permeates these foods. Both the Moors and Romans left many influences. The time of The Discoveries brought back a multitude of exotic ingredients and, with it, the city’s obsession with coffee. But we’re not here to dwell on the past.
Conversations of gastronomic modernity inevitably lead to the Mercado da Ribeira. Here you can eat onglet or chicken innards at the stall of revered cook Miguel Castro E Silva. Or grilled octopus from Henrique Sá Pessoa. These are chefs with Michelin stars serving up simple street food to locals. It’s aiming quite hard to be hipster and perhaps missing the target, hitting something closer to sterilised school hall. But the appeal to Lisbon’s young is palpable: from midday the place is packed to the white metal rafters.
Those with trendy bars in mind would be remiss not to nip around the corner to visit Pink Street, a road once the haunt of sailors and ladies of the night but now the hottest part of town for cocktails and wine bars. Expect locals spilling out on to the streets: Lisbon’s bars are deliberately small to encourage street bonhomie.
Just like the Spanish, the Portuguese dine quite late. ‘Eat at 7.30pm and you’ll be surrounded by tourists,’ one hotelier advises me. ‘If you want to eat with people from Lisbon, then go out about 8.30-9pm.’ It is a city that never sleeps. Or at least one that goes to bed late, perhaps after just a little too much wine. And Portuguese wine is grossly underrated. There’s good moscatel, obviously. But some solid dinner wines too. Touriga nacional is considered this region’s finest. The low-yield grapes are small, with a high skin-to-pulp ratio that delivers an aromatic, high-tannin red. I’d definitely recommend stuffing your suitcase with a few bottles of 2014 Quinta do Piloto touriga nacional, which was the best bottle of the trip. It’s cheap and could easily accompany the finest of fine dining. It’s worth paying a visit to the vineyard itself too: it can be found just south of the city.
Looming over Lisbon’s top-end dining scene is Michelin-star chef José Avillez – proprietor of five of Lisbon’s best restaurants. Mini Bar Teatro, a theatre-style eatery, is a real treat, serving up delicate takes on petiscos. Avillez’s time under Ferran Adrià at elBulli is immediately obvious: spherified olives and frozen margaritas nod to his molecular creativity, while the gutsy dishes such as beef shin on polenta mash remind you of his love for local traditions. I later learn over dessert that Avillez’s restaurants get their salt cod from my friend Luís back at Manteigaria Silva.
Food is intrinsic to culture and never far from religion. In Lisbon, though, the desserts are positively biblical. Many of those you’ll find on restaurant menus and in shop windows are doce conventual, literally covenant sweets – eggy puddings that originated in convents where nuns seemingly had nothing else to do but make use of their abundance of chickens and sugar. However, its most divine is arguably Portugal’s most famous export, the pastel de nata. The Cristiano Ronaldo of custard tarts came from equally as humble beginnings as the footballer.
The best ones – and they are the best, don’t let any contrary local hipsters tell you otherwise – are found not under the light of a Michelin star but in Pastéis de Belém, a pastry shop just outside Lisbon. Visit the Jerónimos Monastery where Belém’s original pastel de nata recipe was born in 1837, and remains unchanged today. God has a sweet tooth, it seems. And so do the Portuguese: Pastéis de Belém shifts up to 20,000 tarts a day.
Four tarts deep, I learn from the proprietor that the full recipe is kept under close guard and only three pastry chefs at one time (and the family that owns the bakery) know the secret. It’s testament to the place’s authenticity that despite its enormous tourist draw – queues literally wind down the street – you’re still surrounded by locals. One patron interrupts and starts telling me about the tart’s ecclesiastical heritage. I’ve heard it already but I love his enthusiasm.
If his English is broken, my Portuguese is anaemic. However, I do learn that Jesus loves a party. The festivals of Saints Anthony (12-13 June) and Peter (29 June) make for decadent street feasts and are the best times to visit Lisbon, he says. Plus he tells me that the Portuguese word for grace – graca – can also mean fun. It almost seems like religion is just an excuse to eat more.
Speaking of eating more, we have lunch nearby at Nunes Real Marisqueira, a seafood restaurant populated entirely by locals. Lisbon has an abundance of shellfish in its waters and places like this take full advantage of them. There’s a dizzying array of prawns, lobster, winkles and clams all served up with wet rice dishes and moreish bread. If you’re in Belém, eating at this stalwart is a must.
Lisbon, like many European hinterlands but unlike most capitals, still puts up a resistance to globalisation and homogenisation. It welcomes tech start-ups and doesn’t cover over any worthy street art. Big-name chefs may be bringing worldly cuisine and exciting ideas but true Lisbonites still clutch vice-like to age-old recipes and even older traditions. It really is a picture of old-meets-new.
Scouting for recommendations, I’m told by an enthusiastic vineyard owner that an unassuming restaurant called Granja Velha is where true locals like to lunch. We find it and then gorge ourselves on even more mountains of shellfish, as is only polite. Huge platters of rice follow (this is the true Lisbon, complete with bad tablecloths, grumpy waiters, low prices and incredible food).
In a moment of comedic coincidence, in walks Luís Godinho, the salt cod seller I met when I first arrived in Lisbon. He’s greeted with embraces in a scene straight out of The Godfather. It turns out his shop supplies this restaurant, too. It may be big names like Avillez on every Lisbonite’s lips but whether they know it or not, it’s Luís’s food that’s in their shops, restaurants and mouths.
Lisbon’s food scene is having a moment. Its chefs are of the moment, however, many of their suppliers and cooks are as old as the traditions that they proudly phold. If the city can retain this balance, it might be able to resist ‘the change’ after all.
Where to Stay
Altis Belém Hotel & Spa Escape the city’s bustle and stay in picturesque Belém. The river views are entrancing and the spa is excellent. Michelin-starred restaurant Feitoria is a destination in its own right. Doubles from £117. Doca do Bom Sucesso, 00 351 210 400 204, altishotels.com/
Inspira Santa Marta Stay here for the location: it’s near the airport, some of the area’s nicest buildings and the famous funicular. The price belies the quality of this hotel. Doubles from £110. Rua de Santa Marta 48, 00 351 210 440 900, inspirahotels.com
Memmo Príncipe Real Sat among the traditional tiled 19th-century palaces of Príncipe Real, this luxury hotel has panoramic views of the city to the Tagus River. It’s the first five-star offering in the district. Doubles from £199. Rua D. Pedro V, 56, 00 351 219 016 800, memmohotels.com
Palacete Chafariz D’El Rei There are just six suites in this eclectic, neo-Moorish building. Its impressive restoration has resulted in jaw-dropping bedrooms. Doubles from £246. Tv. do Chafariz de El-Rei 6, 00 351 21 888 6150, chafarizdelrei.com
Pestana Palace Lisboa If opulence is your thing, this luxury hotel, housed in the Palace of the Marquis of Valle Flor, is an opportunity to experience the bygone days of Lisbon’s palatial past. Doubles from £155. Rua Jau 54, 00 351 213 615 600, pestanapalacelisbon.com
Where to Eat
Prices are per person for three courses with wine, unless stated otherwise
Bairro do Avillez An homage to all aspects of Lisbon cuisine, there are three areas here: Mercearia (a grocery store), Taberna (tavern) and Pateo, for dining. José knows his way around a steak and his hazelnut dessert is a piece of heaven. From £42. Rua Nova da Trindade 18, 00 351 215 830 290, bairrodoavillez.pt
Loco Executive chef Alexandre Silva’s brilliant restaurant offers either a 14- or 18-course tasting menu, both of which focus on his delicate take on Lisbon classics. Salt cod is offered up in canapé-sized explosions of flavour. Tasting menus £59 and £72, respectively.
Rua dos Navegantes 53-B, 00 351 213 951 861, loco.pt/en/
Mini Bar Teatro Situated in São Luiz Theatre, José Avillez’s intimate concept restaurant serves up New York-style decor and a menu that is far from traditional Portuguese. The cocktails – to eat rather than drink – are a pure delight and the tasting menu, with drinks, is surprisingly reasonable. From £50. Rua António Maria Cardoso 58, 00 351 211 305 393, minibar.pt
Nunes Real Marisqueira It’s worth taking the short train ride from Lisbon to Belém just to try the percebes (goose barnacles) here. Each dish is plucked fresh out of the water you can see from the window. From £35. Rua Bartolomeu Dias 120, Belém, 00 351 213 019 899,, nunesmarisqueira.com/
Tasca da Esquina Nestled in Lisbon’s hip, high-end shopping area, this restaurant is well-placed for passing trade. The team behind the place are culinary heroes in Lisbon, with books and TV appearances aplenty. Eat the bacalhau à bras (salt cod, scrambled eggs, fried potato and marinated olives) – it won’t disappoint. From £50. Rua Domingos Sequeira, Campo de Ourique 41C, 1350-11, 00 351 919 837 255, tascadaesquina.com
- Adega: A traditional winery or cellar
- Alho: Garlic, widely used in Portuguese cooking
- Almôndegas: Meatballs made with pork, paprika and onion
- Azeitonas: Olives, Portugal has about 30 indigenous varieties
- Bacalhau: Dried salt cod is a staple, known as fiel amigo (loyal friend)
- Cabrito assado: Kid goat, slow-roasted and served with potatoes
- Caldeirada de peixe: Fish stew similar to a French bouillabaisse
- Cataplana: A Moorish dish which was first introduced to Portugal in the 8th century. Ingredients vary but it always includes some white fish, potatoes, seafood, peppers and a hint of chilli
- Dobrada: Tripe stew, typically served with butter beans and chorizo
- Imperial: Regular glass size for beer
- Morcela: Black pudding, made with beef blood, pork fat, garlic and spices, including cloves and cumin
- Pastéis de nata: Slightly burnt egg custard in a puff pastry shell. The best ones can be found at Pastéis de Belém
- Piri piri sauce: A chilli sauce synonymous with chargrilled chicken
- Queijadas de Sintra: Sweet cheese-based cinnamon pastry produced in the town of Sintra, a 20-minute drive from Lisbon
- Sardinhas: Don’t leave Libson before you’ve eaten the freshly grilled sardines with boiled potatoes, peppers and tomato
- Vinho verde: Effervescent young wine from the Douro Valley region
Alex Harris and Laurie Fletcher travelled to Lisbon courtesy of Visit Lisbon. http://visitlisboa.com
This article was published on 10th May 2017 so certain details may not be up to date.