I’ve been harbouring a desire to visit Lisbon since one afternoon in 2011 when I whittled away hours in a cushy leather seat at Wellington’s Embassy Theatre watching a film called Mysteries of Lisbon. Doesn’t ring any bells? It’s an elaborate web of love affairs, illegitimate children and extravagant costumes set in 19th century Portugal, so not your usual run of the mill Hollywood blockbuster. It is also almost 5 hours long and all in Portuguese, but I’m a sucker for a convoluted love story and some pretty dresses. In all honesty, I don’t remember much about the film or if Lisbon played a starring role, but what stuck with me was this romantic notion of Lisbon as an opulent and seductive location.
This memory set the bar pretty high for Lisbon and it did not disappoint. From the first moment we ventured into the mild winter’s evening I couldn’t stop smiling at the sight of the cobbled streets filled with beautifully tiled buildings on one side contrasted with its run down counterparts on the other. These sights confirm that Portugal is no longer the wealthy empire it once was but it is still rich in culture and of course, delicious food!
Here’s my food tour of Lisbon’s edible delights…
Pasteis de Nata
It’s near impossible to visit Lisbon and not have one of these custard tarts. You’ll definitely find them in all local bakeries and coffeeshops but it’s not unusual to see them at bars and streetside food carts. The concept is simple- a flakey pastry case filled with a sweet custard, best served a little warm so the custard oozes a little as you bite into it and with a spinkle of icing sugar and cinnamon.
While pasteis de nata are a dime a dozen, the best ones can be found at the Pasteis de Belem, just down the road from the Jeronimos Monastery where they are rumoured to have been invented by the monks. Everyone will tell you this but I’ll say it again, get there early to avoid the queues. We arrived around 10:30am and had to double-take to check we were in the right place, an hour later and the line was out the door!
The Portuguese love their bacalhau, a dried and salted cod, so much they claim to have over 1000 recipes for it. Common bacalhau dishes involve the strips of the fish served with fried potatoes and onions, or poached in milk. We encountered a more modern rendition at 100 Maneiras when we sampled their clothesline of thin, dehydrated bacalhau served with coriander aioli and red pepper coulis.
From the outside there’s nothing particularly special about Cervejaria Ramiro, just another seafood restaurant in a large uninteresting boulevard but what will grab your attention is the queue of people waiting patiently to get a table, even in the middle of winter. This place is old school; fresh seafood, some of it still moving, generally cooked one way- on the grill with loads of butter and garlic. Simple but effective. Less old school are the tablet menus, no doubt introduced to deal with the influx of tourists… inevitable after Anthony Bourdain featured it on his show No Reservations. We’ll confess that’s what swung it for us but we are so glad it did.
Our choices ranged from the comforting garlic prawns and clams to the indulgent giant tiger prawns to the more adventurous spiny dye-murex (imagine fishy snails) and barnacles served on the rocks. We finished our meal with a traditional ‘dessert’ of a prego, a crusty roll filled with a grilled fillet steak slathered with mustard. All this with a bottle of wine for around €100 which isn’t bad for this much seafood.
Time Out Mercado Da Ribeira
I love food markets. I am my father’s child; I love looking at the produce, surveying the varieties available, comparing the quality and prices against what we have at home, mentally noting which stalls I would shop at if I lived in that city. This market is slightly different… it has all the produce stalls but more exciting is the food hall. I’d describe it as a food court but I don’t want to put you off, it’s not greasy Chinese buffet and mystery meat kebabs but top quality food made to order, eaten at nice tables with real cutlery. We went once round and still had trouble deciding with so many good options ranging from dishes by some of their most celebrated chefs, to mini versions of popular restaurants around town. This is a particularly handy option on Sunday nights when a lot of restaurants are closed.
We started with some bijous- mini sliders filled with pulled pork, roast beef, bacalhau from Vitor Claro then moved onto a punchy beef tartare from Tartar-Ia. After much deliberation we finally settled on a selection from Marlene Viera- moreish crispy prawns with curry mayo, embraced the tinned fish obsession with some tuna escabeche, and were truly in heaven with the duck gizzards. We could have happily eaten here every night but of course we had other plans.
Cantinho do Avillez
This is the more casual bistro from well-known chef Jose Avillez of 2 Michelin star Belcanto fame, but that doesn’t mean the food delivered is of a lesser standard. The atmosphere is relaxed but elegant, the staff extremely professional and welcoming, and the contemporary Portuguese menu of comfort food gone stylish is very appealing.
We started with the generously filled partridge empanadas, a baked ‘Nisa’ cheese with ham and rosemary honey, and the ‘head cheese’ or pork head terrine served with asparagus and shredded egg. Yes, you count correctly, we are so greedy we had 3 starters… then followed that up with a main of my dish of the moment, steak tartare, and an Alentejo black pork so tender a certain someone could slice it with the back of his knife. We couldn’t resist dessert, last day of the year and all, so we tried the intriguingly named ‘hazelnut3’ which turned out to be hazelnut three ways- ice cream, foam, praline… if you like ferrero rochers (who doesn’t?) this is the dessert for you.
When You’re Not Eating
In between meals and snacks you can burn some calories power walking around Lisbon’s neighbourhoods- the historic Alfama for the great views of the city, Baixa and Chiado for a spot of shopping, Belem to see Jeronimos Monastery and Tower of Belem, or Barrio Alto for those late night drinks. If you’ve got a spare day up your sleeves, take a day trip to Sintra and visit Quinta da Regaleira, a stunning estate with underground tunnels and elaborate buildings.
So Make A Move
- Fly to Lisbon with direct flights from TAP Portugal.
- The winter low season is a great time to visit- temperatures are chilly but still comfortable enough to be out sightseeing.
- Pasteis de Belem, Rua Belém 84-92, 1300-085 Lisbon.
- Time Out Mercado Da Ribeira, Avenida 24 de Julho 49, Lisbon.
- Cervejaria Romiro, Avenida Almirante Reis 1, Lisbon. I’d get there around 6pm to just miss the queues.
- Cantinho Do Avillez, Rua Duques de Bragança 7, 1200-162 Lisbon. I’d make a booking to be sure to get a table.
- Trains to Sintra leave frequently from Rossio Station, the journey will take around 40 minutes each way.