Despite top-notch chefs, ethnically diverse cuisine and a rich bounty from farm, forest and sea, Rio hasn't earned much of a culinary reputation abroad. Within Brazil, however, it's a different story, with cariocas (residents of Rio) convinced that there's no place quite like home for sitting down to a first-rate meal.
The Dining Scene
Variety comes in many forms in Rio, which is unsurprising given the large immigrant population. Lebanese, Japanese, Spanish, German, French and Italian cuisines are among the standouts, though there's an equally broad selection of regional Brazilian restaurants.
Diners can sample rich, shrimp-filled moqueca (seafood stew cooked in coconut milk) from Bahia or tender carne seca (jerked meat) covered in farofa (manioc flour), a staple in Minas Gerais. Daring palates can venture north into Amazonia, enjoying savory tacacá (manioc paste, lip-numbing leaves of the vegetable jambú and dried shrimp) or tambaqui (a large Amazonian fish) and other meaty fishes from the mighty Amazon. Cowboys and the gaúcho from the south bring the city its churrascarias, Brazil's famous all-you-can-eat barbecue restaurants, where crisply dressed waiters bring piping-hot spits of freshly roasted meats to your table.
Wherever you end up, try to pace yourself. Brazilian dishes are normally quite large – and some dishes are meant for two. When in doubt, ask the server to clarify.
Most cariocas start their morning with a stop at the local juice bar, where they can enjoy two or three dozen varieties of vitamin-filled elixir, including the very popular açaí (healthful juice made from an Amazonian berry and whipped to a thick consistency – it's eaten with a spoon).
Other unique flavors to try include cupuaçu (Amazonian fruit), caju (fruit from the cashew-nut tree), acerola (tropical cherry), carambola (star fruit), graviola (custard apple), fruta do conde (sugar apple) and cacau (made from the creamy pulp of the cocoa pod; nothing like cocoa). More traditional fruits include maracujá (passion fruit), manga (mango), goiaba (guava) and tomate de árbol (tamarillo).
Juices are made from frozen pulp, with sugar added. To order yours without sugar, request 'sem açúcar.'
Juice bars also serve snacks (on display in the counters), hot sandwiches such as misto quente (ham and cheese) and other quickly prepared bites.
At lunchtime, locals favor pay-by-weight restaurants, which range from simple, working-class affairs to sumptuous buffets lined with fresh salads, grilled meats, pastas, seafood dishes and copious desserts. These are found all across the city, and are a great way to sample a wide variety of Brazilian dishes.
Most places charge around R$60 to R$100 per kilogram, with a sizable plate of food costing about R$40 to R$60.
Snack stands, juice bars and botecos (small open-air bars) serve a wide variety of delicious, if utterly unhealthy, salgados (snacks). After a day at the beach they go quite nicely with a few rounds of chope (draft beer).
A few top picks:
Pão de queijo Bite-size cheese-filled rolls.
Esfiha Triangular pastry filled with meat and spices, spinach or other fillings.
Kibe Deep-fried Middle Eastern snack with a thin whole-wheat crust and a filling of ground beef and spices.
Bolinho de bacalhau Deep-fried codfish balls.
Coxinha Pear-shaped cornmeal balls filled with shredded chicken.
Pastel de carne/camarão/queijo Square of deep-fried dough filled with meat, shrimp or cheese.
Tapioca A crepe made from manioc flour, filled with chicken, cheese, fruit preserves and more. Found primarily at food markets.
The feiras (produce markets) that pop up in different locations throughout the week are the best places to shop for juicy mangoes, papayas, pineapples and other fruits. For an authentic slice of homegrown carioca commerce, nothing beats wandering through a market and taking in the action. The best time to go is from 9am to noon; the feiras end by 2pm or 3pm.
You can also stop in at Ipanema's Hippie Fair on Sunday for delectable Bahian fare.
Cobal do Humaitá The city's largest farmers market sells plenty of veggies and fruit; it also has cafes and restaurants, and a huge open-air pavilion for alfresco dining.
Cobal do Leblon Fruit stalls, as well as indoor-outdoor restaurants and bars.
Copacabana Markets are held Wednesday on Praça Edmundo Bittencourt, Thursday on Ministro Viveiros de Castro and Ronald de Carvalho, Saturday on General Azevedo Pimentel and Sunday on Praça Serzedelo Correia.
Gávea Friday market on Praça Santos Dumont.
Glória Sunday market on Av Augusto Severo.
Ipanema Markets are held Monday on Henrique Dumont, Tuesday on Praça General Osório and Friday on Praça NS da Paz.
Jardim Botânico Saturday market on Frei Leandro.
Leblon Thursday market on General Urquiza.
Leme Monday market on Gustavo Sampaio.
Santa Teresa Friday market on Felicio dos Santos.
Urca Sunday market on Praça Tenente Gil Guilherme.
As distinctively carioca as Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) or Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), the feijoada completa is a dish that constitutes an entire meal, and often begins with a caipirinha aperitif.
A properly prepared feijoada consists of black beans slowly cooked with a great variety of meat – including dried tongue and pork offcuts – seasoned with salt, garlic, onion and oil. The stew is accompanied by white rice and finely shredded kale, then tossed with croutons, fried farofa (manioc flour) and pieces of orange.
Feijoada has its origins in Portuguese cuisine, which uses a large variety of meats and vegetables; fried farofa (an ingredient in indigenous dishes) and kale are also Portuguese favorites. The African influence comes with the spice and the tradition of using pork offcuts, which were the only part of the pig given to slaves.
Traditionally, cariocas eat feijoada for lunch on Saturday, though a few restaurants serve it on other days. Among the top places to sample the signature dish is Casa da Feijoada, which is one of the few places in Rio that serve feijoada daily. Vegetarians can sample tasty meat-free versions of feijoada at Vegetariano Social Club.
6 cups dried black beans
500g smoked ham hocks
500g Brazilian lingüiça (Brazilian sausage; substitute chorizo or sweet sausage)
500g Brazilian carne seca or lean Canadian (loin-cut) bacon
1kg smoked pork ribs
The intrepid can add one each of a pig's ear, foot, tail and tongue
2 bay leaves
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 strips smoked bacon
salt and black pepper
orange slices to garnish
rice, farofa, kale or collard greens to serve
hot sauce (optional) to serve
After soaking the beans overnight, bring them to a boil in 3L of water and then keep them on low to medium heat for several hours, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, cut up the ham hocks, lingüiça and carne seca into 3cm or 4cm chunks, separate the pork ribs by twos and place all the meat into a separate pan full of water and bring to a boil. After the first boil, empty out the water and add the mixture, along with the bay leaves and salt and pepper, to the beans. As the pot simmers, in a separate pan sauté the garlic and onion in olive oil, adding in the smoked bacon. Take two ladles of beans from the pot, mash them and add to the frying pan. Stir, cook for a few more minutes, then add the frying-pan contents to the pot; this will thicken the mixture. Simmer for another two to three hours, until the beans are tender and the stock has a creamy consistency. Remove the bay leaves and serve over rice with farofa and kale or collard greens. Garnish with fresh orange slices. Add hot sauce if desired, and be sure to enjoy with a cold caipirinha.
Need to Know
Most restaurants open from noon to 3pm and 6pm to 11pm. On Sunday many restaurants open only for lunch, if at all. Juice bars open around 7am or 8am and close at midnight or later.
A 10% tip is usually included in restaurant bills. When it isn't included, it's customary to leave 10%. Some higher-end restaurants recommend a 13% gratuity.
Most restaurants accept reservations for both lunch and dinner, so call ahead to avoid a wait. Reservations are essential at high-end restaurants, and the answering host will usually speak English.
Some restaurants serve multicourse lunch specials, which often provide decent value for money. Prices hover around R$35 but can be upwards of R$60 for more elaborate offerings.
Cariocas (residents of Rio) are quite casual when it comes to dress, and dining out is no exception. Even at the nicest places, a pair of smart jeans and a collared shirt or blouse will do just fine.
Brazilians can be fastidious when it comes to eating. Use a knife and fork when eating pizza. In fact, never touch your food with bare hands: always use a napkin when eating sandwiches, bar snacks etc.