Eat like a local in Lisbon
This is the meal you have when there’s no time to sit down for lunch, but your hunger can’t be satisfied by a snack - like in the middle of Popular Saints’ celebrations in June (Santos Populares), or at the height of winter. It’s thin cuts of pork leg, lean and boneless, seasoned with garlic, bell pepper paste, bay leaves and onions, though each establishment and food truck puts its own ancestral knowledge into the seasoning. Usually, through the windows of the specialised bifana joints you can always see an old, large pan with meat cooking and smoking all day long. It is served in a “papo-seco”, a type of puffy and very light bread (though some serve it in denser bread, with thicker crust).
It’s the top specialty at Beira Gare, which has been located at the entrance of Rossio train station since the 19th century. But don’t expect a vintage restaurant with waiters wearing vests and bow-ties: this is a local venue for everyday Lisboners, with an aluminium counter, quick service and pictures of the food on the wall. Unwary tourists order grilled fish, but you informed reader must perch yourself at the counter, order a bifana (as well as a vegetable or rice soup), and season it yourself with mustard or hot sauce.
These are probably on the list of fixed expenses for your trip, alongside transport and accommodation. They’re a classic around the world, not just because because their fame is international, but also because there exist some rather dignified versions of it in various other countries. If you google “Portuguese custard tart”, you will find countless recipes, including one by Jamie Oliver, who guarantees they can be made in five minutes - what would the Pastéis de Belém bakery, which keeps its recipe created centuries ago in the Jerónimos Monastery a secret, have to say about this? Let’s not create controversy, we know how the internet works. They may seem similar, but pastéis de Belém and pastéis de nata are not to be confused (beware the heresy): the former are made from a 19th century convent recipe known only to the house’s master bakers; the latter can be found everywhere and also come from the past - the first known recipe dates from the 16th century, and was created in the Santa Clara Convent, in Évora, a town of the Alentejo region. Good ones have a thin and crispy crust where you can’t notice flour or fat, and their filling is a harmonious balance of egg, lemon and vanilla, with none overpowering the others.
At Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata, the magic happens in full view of everyone, since the counter, kitchen and customers all share a very small space, divided only by a glass pane. This place used to be called Manteigaria União - the letters of this historic dairy company are still engraved on the building. It was closed for decades and replaced by this custard tart factory in Chiado in 2014. You can eat them on the spot (there’s a small counter where you can have your pastry with a coffee or “bica” - a very typical combo) or take them home in boxes of two or six. Choose the golden ones over the burnt ones and top them with icing sugar and cinnamon.
When in doubt, order a bitoque. This is the motto of many Lisboners who consider this dish a safe bet. But even so, when its various elements don’t all come together at full potential, bitoque can be a massive stab in the soul. Don’t expect a full tray as this is not how it’s done: it comes in a plate (a deep one, normally, to keep all the juices). Basically, it’s a beef steak fried in garlic and wine (if prepared diligently), French fries (though some versions use sliced potatoes), a spoonful of white rice and a fried egg on top, with the yolk still raw, just waiting to be waded in with bread and fries. Great hangover cure.
It’s better when this dish is not just a safe bet, but rather the house signature. This is the case at Floresta do Salitre, where bitoque is more than an everyday staple. It’s made with deliciously tender beef sirloin, served sliced potatoes and a luscious sauce. And the selection doesn’t stop there: all the meat and fish that passes by the grill reaches the tables in great condition, and even the simple dishes served as specials are worth considering - fried mackerels with tomato rice, duck rice and the classic bacalhau à Brás are all valid options.
People sometimes associate “cozido à portuguesa” (Portuguese-style stew) with cold weather, since this is probably the most quintessential of traditional Portuguese comfort foods. But conversations with the owners of traditional bistros and restaurants quickly revealed that as soon as the summer holidays end in September (and while Lisbon is still at its hottest), people start asking for the stew. For some mysterious reason, this is usually a Thursday lunch special in Lisbon, but it’s easy to find restaurants that serve it on other days, and it would even be possible to have this dish seven days in a row. Cozido à portuguesa consists of several types of meat - beef, pork ears and snout, chicken; and sausages - the must haves are farinheira (which is made of pork fat and flour), morcela (blood sausage) and chouriço (a type of traditional pork chorizo); all cooked in the same water with vegetables - cabbage, potatoes, carrots and turnips. The broth is then used to cook rice which gives it a special flavour.
Some restaurants add or exclude certain ingredients. At Os Courenses, they are all considered essential. The meat and sausages are good quality, and they add a piece of vinegared morcela. The rice is worthy of high praise and this is why every Thursday and Saturday, in the residential neighbourhood of Alvalade, this restaurant draws crowds with this dish, a Portuguese classic from North to South, including in the islands, with some regional variations. This restaurant from the northern region of Minho has been around for 25 years, serving dishes like octopus fillet with octopus rice, cow’s hoof with chickpeas or veal à la courenses.
The concept of “salgado” is not an easy one to translate, writes chef Nuno Mendes in Lisboeta, the book he launched at the end of last year about the Portuguese capital’s cuisine. And we agree, there are various factors to consider: these are small savoury pastries, good to eat with your hands and in a few bites, probably mid-morning or afternoon; they are generally fried and when freshly made they are crispy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside. We will leave the definition at that to avoid sounding like a dusty encyclopedia. We could recommend many, many types of salgados (try the shrimp or meat “rissóis” or patties, or the classic “pasteis de bacalhau” or codfish cakes, since it’s all about bacalhau here), but we’re going to stick to the breaded meat sticks called “croquetes”. This is the Portuguese version of a snack present in various other countries, but here it’s plain and simple: meat, meat, meat, and good seasoning.
At Gambrinus, the croquetes are not trying to fool you (as can be the case in other venues, where other ingredients are added to save money on meat). You don’t even need to go into the indoor dining rooms, where they serve traditional Portuguese food alongside some German dishes (the native land of the man who founded the restaurant in the 1930s), and which has been the discrete setting of business meetings for decades. Don’t underestimate the counter seats, where the city’s artists have sat for nights on end over the years. Before you even say “hello”, some thin, crunchy toasted bread and butter will materialise before your eyes, and then you’ll just need to order the croquetes and dip them in high-quality mustard. And this is just the beginning: you could continue with beef loin à la Gambrinus, Iberian ham or roast beef sandwiches.
To the common question “and what do you cook at home?”, countless chefs told us “when I go home the only thing I feel like is frango assado (chicken piri-piri)”. This is yet another type of comfort food, the one you pick up in an instant when there’s no time to make anything, or simply when you feel like a delicious bird, expertly seasoned with a lemon or spicy sauce, cooked on a grill. Grill restaurants are a classic in this city, especially in the more residential areas, and they are always equipped with a deep fryer to make French fries, a rice cooker, and a fridge filled with 1-liter beer. It all comes together in warm family-size aluminium takeaway boxes that make you drol the whole way home. The only trick is finding a compatible chicken diner: it’s very rare to find someone who devours the breasts with the same enthusiasm with which you eat the thighs - generally the most-coveted part.
A Valenciana is probably the first name that comes to mind when it comes to frango assado in the center of Lisbon. It has been around for 104 years, and reopened with a fresh look in 2017 with the type of vertical garden that’s more commonly associated with Instagram likes than with 100-year-old restaurants. This Campolide venue welcomes tourist buses by the dozen - and it has the space for it - but the people who know it best and fill it every day are Lisboners that have come to eat (or to take away) Valenciana’s frango assado, as well as for daily specials such as rabbit or cow’s hoof. But chicken is the company’s star product, we will agree - the kitchen makes 500 of these a day, 1,000 at weekends. And quality-wise, you can sleep easy since “my son also works here, the chickens are guaranteed by yet another generation”, says Homero Videira, the owner.
The digestive system of birds is a complex machine, and that’s good because we get to enjoy every different part of it in little saucers, with tomato sauce. The gizzards, pouches where chickens soften their food, are made of muscle tissue and for that reason, if properly stewed, they have a particular tender texture that is not often found in other petiscos. Eating offals - the bowels of small animals like chickens - is not as common as it used to be, but you can still find grilled hearts, gizzards or chicken feet, stewed or in soups, in some resilient tascas (Portuguese bistros). “Moelas estufadas” are gizzards cooked well in a tomato and onion sauce - a petisco to have as a late-afternoon snack and dip your bread in.
At the start of Rua dos Sapateiros when you enter through the arch, on the right there’s Rossio’s Animatógrafo, a peep-show venue recognisable by its red curtains, and on the left there’s Merendinha do Arco Bandeira, an old tasca with armfuls of onions and garlic heads hanging over the counter, rushed tables and a waiting line at lunch time. This tasca was founded in the 1940s by a Galician (as was often the case at the time in Lisbon), and is now run by David Castro, who arrived years ago from the North of Portugal. In the kitchen is his wife Fátima Castro, who makes gizzards “cinco estrelas”, as the Portuguese like to say in appreciation, all day every day.
Eusébio, Benfica’s football legend, used to say that lupin beans were the shellfish of the poor, but he could have said the same of snails - no one would have found that strange. In fact, they probably would have hailed the comparison. Caracóis (snails’ Portuguese name) are the perfect summer snack, when you spend the afternoon on terraces, drinking cold beer and watching a football game. From April, when the heat starts, to September, snails can be caught in the morning - rainy weather makes them bury themselves into the earth. They are cooked in a lot of water, usually with bacon or chouriço, oregano, garlic and red pepper. But first, as they are still alive, they are thoroughly washed in water to make them expel a kind of snot - you may think that handling that snot is the tough moment, but the real test is when you’re sat at a table with a tray of snails and someone who’s a champion at eating them and doing it fast. And there are many here: they take them by the shell, suck out the ground mollusc and swallow it in seconds. The shells start stacking up and by the time a novice preoccupied with savouring the snails gets to them, the only thing left is the sauce.
At Pomar de Alvalade, no sooner have the sun and heat come out than the paper towels with the words “há caracóis” (we have snails) written in black marker appear on the walls, right next to the pictures of Paulo Bento, an ex-footballer who played for the teams of Benfica and Sporting and later became the national team coach. The athlete’s parents used to run the restaurants, which is now in the hands of Carlos Martins, a proud Benfica supporter: the club’s memorabilia, displayed all around the venue, are an obvious reminder of that fact. According to a survey conducted in the Time Out offices at the time of writing this article, no one ever ate badly at this tasca. Respondents also recommended the stewed broad beans with sausages (favas guisadas com enchidos), the shrimp bread soup (açorda de camarão), and a layered cake with egg cream for dessert.
The Portuguese predilection for bacalhau (dry and salted cod) is not just a cliché, it is the beautiful truth (for a complete list of the best dishes, PM us). Pataniscas de bacalhau can sometimes be eaten as a salgado, in two bites in the middle of the morning or of the afternoon, but it’s much more common to eat them as a meal, with “arroz malandrinho” for example - rice in a creamy sauce, tomato sauce, for exemple. They are slices of bacalhau seasoned with onion and parsley, dipped in a batter made of flour, eggs and milk (or sometimes the fish’s cooking water) and deep-fried. They are eaten all over Portugal and as such, present some regional variations - while in the North they tend to be fluffy and soft, in Lisbon they are usually flatter.
The first contest to elect the city’s best patanisca took place in 2017 and the winner was Casa do Bacalhau. As the name suggests, they are specialists in handling this fish - from the most common Lisbon dishes like bacalhau à lagareiro (oven-baked with potatoes), à Brás (mixed with thinly sliced fries and eggs) ou à minhota (cooked with onions and bell peppers), to the more exotic cod tongue, bones or bladder. In this restaurant owned by head chef João Bandeira, the pataniscas are made by Manuela Martins, who has been using the same recipe for 20 years, she swears. The menu mixes traditional dishes with new ideas, like bacalhau carpaccio or bacalhau curry with asparagus risotto.
“It used to be the fish of the poor, now it seems like it’s the fish of the rich” - we have heard this complaint every year since the European Union set limits on how many sardines can be fished and how they should be divided between Portugal and Spain. This fish, associated with the working class, is a particular Lisbon icon during the Popular Saints Festival in June, when grilling shacks pop up all over the city. But it’s not in June that sardines are the best: they are best eaten from the end of July to the beginning of August, puffy and with a layer of fat on its skin. The recipe seems simple - fresh fish seasoned on the spot with rock salt. But the science is in the fire, which can’t be too strong, or they will be scorched. You need patience to let them cook about five minutes on each side. They are served with boiled potatoes and roasted pepper salad or, if you’re in the middle of a street party and you want to dance, on a slice of bread to be eaten with your hands. Make sure you eat all the bread, as it’s soaked with the fat you need.
If you’re on foot, reaching Último Porto could be tough. You’ll probably have to cross the footbridge over the railway line, and then another bridge to get to the pontoon where the restaurant is located, leaning over the river next to the containers. But it’s worth it, because the grilling of fresh fish is a science that Último Porto has entirely mastered. Whatever the fish - pompano, cuttlefish, sepia, seabream, swordfish, sole, roes, grouper or corvina heads - it will certainly be on point.
More food in Lisbon
Alfama and the eastern part of Lisbon have a great range of restaurants to satisfy any culinary craving. If you want to try a traditional Portuguese restaurant, try A Casa do Bacalhau. If you're more in the mood for authentic Italian, there's Casanova, and if you are a meat lover, try Rui do Barrote. Read on for our recommendations for the best restaurants in Alfama and the eastern part of Lisbon. Do you agree with the choices? Use the comments box below and let us know your suggestions.
The heart of the city. A fancy area, once a gathering point for Lisbon’s major intellectuals and still the hub of its most elegant restaurants, its main theatres and its most luxurious cafés. Next to some significant addresses, such as the world’s oldest bookstore, you will find upmarket stores, all of them with a cool look. It’s an an imperative stopping place if you are in Lisbon or are planning to come here, so save this location on your GPS. Thinking ahead, we’ve selected for you the best restaurants in Chiado. Recommended: the best hotels in Chiado
Here you can find the most alternative shops, the most colorful nights and the trendiest restaurants. There are plenty of options in terms of cuisine and they won’t let you down. Oriental, Italian, Peruvian… Please have a seat in the best restaurants in Príncipe Real. Recommended: the best restaurants in Chiado