It’s not all salt cod and custard tarts in Portugal’s capital. From workers’ cafes to gourmet tapas, seafront kiosks to a smart wine bar, Isabel Choat samples the best of Lisbon’s food and drink
‘We have snails,” declared the sign in the Mercado da Ribeira. Sure enough the stall was piled with net bags full of caracóis, destined for some of Lisbon’s countless tavernas, where the chewy little morsels are a popular snack, especially in summer, washed down with a cold imperiais (draught beer).
The snails were the first surprise on my foodie tour of the city, which started at the huge covered market in the slightly down-at-heel district of Cais do Sodré. My guides were Célia Pedroso and her business partner Filomena Pinto, who together run EatDrinkWalk, offering gastronomic tours of the city on foot.
“There is so much more to Lisbon than salt cod and custard tarts,” said Célia, as we wandered past stalls piled with plump fruit and vegetables and glistening trays of monkfish, eel, octopus, scabbard fish and more. As the cheapest place in the city to buy fresh produce, the Mercado is popular with chefs and locals, but few tourists venture in. That is likely to change: there are plans for an open-plan restaurant and tapas bar area, to make the market into an attraction more like Madrid’s San Miguel market.
A short walk away on Rua Nova do Carvalho is Sol e Pesca, a tiny fishing tackle shop-turned-bar made famous by owner Henrique Vaz Pato, whose award-winning cookbook of the same name helped elevate one of Lisbon’s most famous staples – the tinned sardine – from cheap basic to gourmands’ favourite.Nungwi Village
Despite its brush with fame, Sol e Pesca remains faithful to its roots. Essentially this is a simple bar that does one thing really well: tinned fish tapas. It’s a sign of just how fashionable the humble sardine has become that half the tins of sardines, mussels, squid, octopus, tuna and eels lining the shelves of Sol e Pesca now come wrapped in beautiful modern designs. I’d never thought of sardine tins as things of beauty but these made me think how great they’d look on my kitchen shelf back home. But they aren’t just for admiring. You select a tin – as well as sardines, there are succulent tuna fillets, octopus, squid and eels – and, for €1 more, its contents will be served on corn bread, with a tumbler of red wine.
At night, this once seedy neighbourhood buzzes with life as young drinkers spill out of bars onto the pavement, many of them outside Pensão Amor, a former brothel that harks back to its old life with walls draped in chiffon, tiger fur on the walls, red velvet armchairs and an erotic bookshop. But it was still daylight, so we headed to the river and the new promenade linking Cais do Sodré with Praça do Comércio, the vast square built after the devastating 1755 earthquake.
En route we passed another humble but brilliant Lisbon speciality – a quiosque, or kiosk. They’ve been around for over a century and stand in some of the city’s many viewpoints and parks, idyllic settings for a snack, coffee or cocktail. The newest is the Sea Me kiosk on the promenade, an outpost of a popular seafood restaurant in town. Order sopa de peixe (fish soup, €2.75) or the signature salmon burger (€6.50), and a €2.50 glass of vinho verde, and tuck in as you gaze across the Tagus.
Eventually, the promenade brought us to the square, its elegant colonnades home to smart restaurants: the best of them, in Célia’s opinion, is Populi which, according to its website offers “wine that encloses the heart, beer that undresses the soul, champagne that chills the throat, and gin that rips through life”. But in Lisbon you are never far from a simple, cheap meal, and just round the corner is A Nova Pombalina (2-4 Rua do Comércio), a favourite among office workers for its suckling pig. We took a seat just before the lunchtime rush and ordered croquette-like rissoles, and rolls stuffed with the salty, shredded meat cut directly from a whole pig.
All of which served as a rather heavy starter to a delicious lunch, this time at Tagide, a tapas bar that shares a beautiful 18th-century building with a renowned restaurant of the same name. Dark-wood floors, walls of wine bottles, and fantastic views provide a stylish setting for such classic dishes as caldo verde (kale soup) and amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams in white wine and garlic). For a starter, we ordered Portuguese Ibérico ham, little-known outside of the country. “The Spanish get all the credit for the ham but it’s just as good in Portugal,” Célia said.
After a morning of grazing I didn’t think I could manage a single morsel more but Célia had other ideas, insisting I try Tagide’s pastel de nata (custard tart) with cinnamon ice cream. Pasteis de Belem is widely thought to be the place to eat this famous sweet, but Tagide’s version was pretty much perfect – and it just about finished me off.
A freelance journalist, Célia is passionate about her city and its cuisine. When we weren’t eating food, we were talking about it, and I came away with a long list of seafood restaurants, cafes, rooftop bars and ice-cream parlours to try.Nungwi Village
To my relief, our final stop did not involve food. The Wine Spot is a sleek new wine bar in an attractive courtyard off Calçada Nova de São Francisco. You could spend up to €300 for a bottle, or order a €2.70 glass. Either way, owner Paulo Neto will tell you all about it and will open any of the 400 or so premium wines for you to try to sample.
Even if I’d eaten nothing but salt cod and custard tarts, I would have loved Lisbon. The views of terracotta roofs, churches and spectacular suspension bridge – the city’s own Golden Gate – at every corner, the cute yellow trams that trundle around the crumbling but characterful neighbourhoods – it all makes for a brilliant break. The fact that there is so much more to its cuisine than its two most famous foods made me love it all the more.
• eatdrinkwalk.com offers a variety of tours, ranging from €40 for a three-and-a-half hour tour of Belem to €80 for the gourmet tour