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How and Where to Eat and Drink Well in Lisbon

Nouveau bacalao at the Senhora Mae restaurant in Lisbon.

That St. Vincent is the patron saint of wine and also the official patron saint of Lisbon well represents the culinary and vinological feast unfolding daily in the city.

Unofficially, Lisbon has another patron saint, St. Anthony of Padua, who was actually from Lisbon, before he went off eastward and made his name in other lands.

Both saints are celebrated with good food and wine. Locals say that the city, neighborhood by neighborhood, turns into one big party on June 13, St. Anthony’s feast day. A particular signature of St. Anthony’s feast is fresh grilled sardines savored with cold frothy beer or crisp white wine.

Portugal has two important sources of excellent food and wine: the indigenous agrarian-herding-fishing-wine-growing traditions and the seafaring explorations around the world over many centuries.

As Portugal’s capital, Lisbon is the recipient of all the peoples whom the Portuguese Empire absorbed and invited into the great pan-Portuguese global party that really makes its mark in the capital. Here, traditional Portuguese cuisine mingles with Cape Verdean, Brazilian, Mozambiquean, and Goan cuisines among many others. Such diversity pairs well with the locally grown and harvested fruits, vegetables, fishes, meats, nuts, and fowl, making for one of Europe’s most interesting culinary hotspots.

A common practice in Portuguese restaurants is to set down an appetizer of either little disks of sheep’s milk cheeses and olives, or little savory toasts with just about anything layered on top. These morsels are delicious and offer a good sampling of local cuisine, but you will be charged a few Euros and centimes for them. Otherwise the waiter will whisk them away as your order arrives.

Here are my suggestions on how to join the party and eat really well in Lisbon:

Get to know the neighborhoods, especially the Alfama, Castelo, Graça, Rossio, Chiado, and Bairro Alto, by leisurely walking around them and soaking up their unique atmospheres.

Take a Culinary Walking Tour

Lisbon has a bounty of terrific walking tours.

Lisbon Walker offers a great Mysteries & Legends Tour as well as other historic tours of the old neighborhoods.

Another great tour guide operator, Inside Lisbon organizes a Gourmet walking tour designed to broadly expose you to Lisbon’s culinary highlights.

Be sure to tip your guide at the end of the tour, a custom many visitors seem to ignore and one with which the Portuguese are too polite to make issue.

Go to the Market

Take in the daily colors and culinary catch at the Mercado da Ribeira, Lisbon’s famous covered market memorialized in Portugal’s unique blues-like fado music by such greats as Amália Rodrigues.

A sampling of seafood at a market in Lisbon.

Sample the Wines

Sample the varied Portuguese wines at cafes and taverns throughout the neighborhoods. Be sure to stop for a small glass of ginginha, a strong, sour cherry liqueur whose sweet brandy-like liquid is counterbalanced with the whole sour cherries placed in the bottom of the glass. (People fish these out and eat them.) It is not only an institution in Lisbon but a proclaimed cures-everything-that-ails-you drink, making a person young, healthy, beautiful, and wealthy.

Portuguese wine production is a marvel and you can reasonably sample its best results on a visit to Lisbon by taking the lead of the bar and restaurant servers who seem to stay on top of the wine offerings. Also, see my piece, Portuguese Wine Beyond Port, for an overview on growing areas and denominations. For a great piece on port, see Lucia Byttebier’s article, Port Wines of the Douro Valley in Portugal.

One passionate note about port here: Seek out the dry white port, less frequently encountered as an import compared to its red brethren. A glass of dry white port can be the ultimate refreshment on a hot southern European day. The best dry white I have sampled to date is Burmester’s.

A ginginha bar in Lisbon.

Take in Fado in the City Where it Was Born

The best places are in the Alfama and are all-night dinner and music affairs, often requiring a reservation to assure a table. Fado clubs are a great place to sample this unique Portuguese music of life and longing, tribulation and overcoming, and the complementary traditional food and drink. Ask locals and those working at the tourist office for their recommendations. There are many terrific fado places, some pricier than others but most of them are pretty good. There is strong fado etiquette that you are well advised to follow: When the musicians come out to sing and play, all talking and eating stops. People continue to sip their wine, but it is as if the song and dining pace each other for a truly well-enjoyed slow meal. When you turn in at the end of an evening of fado song and food, don’t be surprised by the sense of well-being that flows through you.

The lively Alfama neighborhood in Lisbon.

Three Favorite Restaurants in Lisbon:

Senhora Mãe (Largo de São Martinho, 6 e 7, 1100-537 Lisboa). The chef and staff are inspired. Food and service magically take traditional culinary foundations and reinterpret them as modern masterworks that are as much a taste fantasy as a visual treat. Wines offered have been carefully selected from all growing areas of Portugal. Senhora Mãe also has a wine made for its restaurant by a winemaker in nearby Palmela, just across the river Tejo.

Divina Sedução (Rua Augusto Rosa, 4, 1100-059 Lisboa) is a small place with a big vision and big, robust, yet delicate dishes created in a tiny lavender kitchen by a master chef, whose cuisine is described as “intuitive.”

Estrela da Sé (Largo de Santo António da Sé, 4, 1100-499 Lisboa, right across from Sé cathedral) offers the best of traditional Portuguese cuisine with the freshest of ingredients. The restaurant space is a mix of an open dining area and little, wood-partitioned private areas that hearken back to the turn of the 19th century. Be forewarned, besides the incredible food, the owner also has a wonderful sense of humor and a great command of English.

Related Topics
Culinary Travel
Related Articles
Portugese Wines Beyond Port
Port Wines of the Douro Valley in Portugal

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