Alongside sun-drenched beaches and historical villages, the Algarve region of Portugal is packed with choices for anyone with a passion for simple, lovingly prepared local food. The Algarve's busy hotels and resorts offer an abundance of dining options, and the destination is dotted with impressively plush and Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Vila Joya (at Hotel Vila Joya) and Ocean (at Vila Vita Parc).
But for food lovers looking to delve deeper into the culinary delights of the region, dining with the locals is a foolproof way to ensure you are sampling some of the best dishes southern Portugal serves up. From seafood snack bars to snug mountaintop restaurants, here is how to eat inexpensive but delicious food while rubbing shoulders with Algarvios.
The backstreets of Quarteira
Culinary quests should start at the menu-less Tico Tico (Rua Das Laranjeiras 2), a brightly lit and bustling seafood snack bar hidden in the narrow backstreets of Quarteira. Here you can expand your seafood knowledge beyond the usual favourites by putting your choice of meal in the hands of the expert staff. Arrive early evening Monday to Friday for the best selection of fresh catch, nabbing a table or a spot at the bar and supping a native Super Bock beer with the local clientele. Your meal is chosen from a selection of seafood displayed at the entrance – feast on clams drenched in garlic and olive oil and try the gooseneck barnacles, or percebes, plucked by fearless fisherman from rocks far out to sea and a sought after speciality on the coast. The mains, including lightly dressed octopus and tomato salad and crabs bigger than your plate, are accompanied by a far from average bread basket of lightly toasted slices smothered in melting butter.
Swap leaning on the bar for shared wooden benches and a loud and lively atmosphere around the corner at A Cabana (Rua do Levante 19), not to be confused with the swankier sister restaurant Le Cabane several doors down. Grilled chicken piri piri and pork is the speciality at this family run joint, but mini fried octopus make a mouth-watering starter before moving on to those meaty main events. Each meal ends with a glass of sweet vintage port, fortified in the famous Douro Valley in northern Portugal; it comes personally recommended by the cheery chef himself.
Beachside Olhão and Salema
Towards the eastern side of the Algarve a smattering of pretty villages await, but for a truly local culinary experience head to the food market in Olhão (Avenida 5 de Outubro), a fishing village that has traded in seafood since the Middle Ages. Inside the waterfront market more than 80 stalls are crammed with everything from dorada, to squid and lobster, highlighting the variety of seafood the Algarve’s Atlantic coastline has to offer. Early morning visits (before 11am Monday to Friday) guarantee seeing the market in full swing, followed by a breakfast of strong coffee and pasteis de nata (sweet egg pastry tarts) in one of the many coffee shops along the water. Work it off with a leisurely stroll through the cobbled streets of this ancient seaside town.
Heading west along the coast you'll come to Boia (Rua dos Pescadores 101, www.boiabar.com), a cheap and cheerful beachside cafe in the small town of Salema. Fish is so fresh here that you can watch the fishers hall their nets onto the sand before it arrives on your plate, where it is served alongside regional salad (tomato, cucumber, raw onion, oregano) and boiled potatoes (a somewhat modest but popular side dish in the Algarve). The catch of the day guarantees a delicious meal, and might include a whole grilled golden bream, which is proudly presented and ready for you to douse in lemon, sprinkle with salt and fillet yourself. Other specials here include large portions of grilled sardines, a typical dish of the Algarve’s coast. Stop at Boia for a light lunch break on the way back from the compulsory visit to Cabo de São Vicente, mainland Europe’s beautiful southwesternmost point, boasting endless views out to sea.
Moving inland the cuisine becomes satisfyingly heavy and hearty. Drive upwards out of the charming hilltop village of Monchique and negotiate the bends and inclines before arriving at Luar da Foia (Estrada da Foia, Monchique), a cosy rustic choice for an evening meal, and the place to marvel over both the food and the view – it looks out over the lush green hills of central Algarve. Specials change daily and include anything from wild boar to rabbit, but leaving the decisions to the passionate and very knowledgeable waiter is recommended. Soon a selection of plates will arrive, including a village special – thinly cut slices of black pork ham from Monchique itself – accompanied by quijo serpa, a strong, salty sheep’s cheese from the Serpa region. It’s all about the local touches here, and the restaurant's freshly baked bread is homemade by a woman in the village. Slices of her loaf are ideal for mopping up the divine port, honey and garlic juices from the must-eat mushroom appetiser. For the main course try cozido monchique, another village speciality prepared in gigantic bubbling pots and consisting of a cabbage stew packed with sausages that have been smoked on the outdoor grill, accompanied by delicious chunks of black pudding. The chef’s grilled black iberico pork is renowned in the area – the charred black meat is in fact tender and beautifully salty. Paired with garlic bread mash (far more flavoursome than potato mash), it’s a dish that will satisfy the largest of foodie appetites. Take some time to digest and to chat with the loyal local customers of all ages, and if there’s any room left, a slither of oozing rich carob, fig and almond cake is a treat of a dessert. Finish with a swig of the restaurant’s own lemon, orange or honey liquor.
The Algarve region is impressively managing to establish itself on the international culinary scene, and as the area continues to increase in popularity for visitors, these local restaurants remain proud to showcase the very best traditional regional dishes to devoted foodies. Salty or spicy grilled meats, fuss free seafood and hearty highland stews await hungry travellers in the Algarve.