Food is a treasured part of carioca (resident of Rio de Janeiro) life. With roots in African, Amerindian and European epicurean traditions, the tastes of the Marvelous City range from meat-centric churrascarias, hearty feijoadas, vibrant street food and upscale, gourmet selections – all best accompanied by Brazil's national cocktail, the tangy caipirinha.
All-you-can-eat meat: experience churrascaria
No visit to Rio de Janeiro is complete without a true churrascaria (traditional barbecue restaurant) experience, which is generally offered as a set menu that includes a selection of side dishes and salads – and, of course, the perfectly char-grilled, all-you-can-eat meat.
Rio has some of the finest churrascarias in Brazil. The most popular in the city include Porcão in Flamengo, Fogo do Chāo in Botafogo, and local favorite, the 63-year-old family restaurant Churrascaria Palace in Copacabana.
In its sleek, modern interior, the black and white photographs that hang on the walls are the only hint to Churrascaria Palace's historic past. Every night, elegant bossa nova piano notes fill the space as the sushi chef slices sashimi and expert waiters skim from table to table, serving up succulent slices of meat to eager patrons. The peixe pintado (a meaty Amazonian fish) and sizzling butterflied picanha (beef top sirloin with a thin layer of fat) are some of the most remarkable options to try here. There is an impressive wine list with over 200 bottles, including a rare selection of the best Brazilian varietals. And for those who manage to save room for dessert, the Juliet and Romeo is a fantastic pairing of creamy white cheese sorbet and a tangy goiaba (guava) sauce.
Fill up on feijoada
Feijoada is a main staple of the Brazilian diet. It's a feast of stewed beans in a pork or beef gravy, accompanied by crisp yellow potatoes, crunchy pork cracklings, fresh shredded kale, fluffy farofa (toasted cassava flour) and orange slices, which are meant to ‘cut through the calories’ and aid in digestion. Adapted from the food of slaves, it is now regularly eaten for lunch on Saturdays in Rio.
There are endless choices of feijoada restaurants in Rio. But for a truly classic experience, head to the beating heart of Rio’s tourist hub, Ipanema, to Casa da Feijoada on any day of the week. In the quaint surroundings, waist-coated waiters serve up the traditional fare in mini cauldron-like pots. Pair the meal with the smoothest filtered caipirinhas in town, known as ‘batidas’, and end with a selection of traditional Brazilian sweets – goiaba jam, doce de leite (a sweet milk puree) or caramelized banana paté.
Sample the city's best street food
On almost every street corner in Rio de Janeiro, a cart of fresh of sweets or salgados (savory snacks) awaits. The true essence of foodie entrepreneurship in Rio de Janeiro springs from street food vendors who are on the road tossing tapioca and popping pipoca (popcorn).
Tapioca is a mixture of cassava flour and shredded coconut, fried into a kind of crepe with a crunchy outer shell and gooey center. Served either savory, with cheese or chicken, or sweet, with cinnamon bananas or condensed milk, tapioca is a tasty and substantial snack. Head to Feira de São Cristavão in Tijuca to try this treat at some of the top tapioca bars in town.
On a sunny Sunday morning at Gloria’s vibrant food feira, breakfast consists of pastels – steaming hot pastry pockets filled with meat, cheese or palmito (heart of palm). And here, the top pastels in the city are best followed with a swig of pure caldo de cana (sugarcane juice).
It's easy to work up an appetite laying on the beach all day. Fortunately, there is an assortment of snacks to sample without ever rising off that beach towel. Crumbly empadas, (pastries filled with chicken or cheese) quiejo coalho (a skewer of salty grilled cheese) and sacolé (a popsicle made from exotic fruit juices) are all easy to gorge on at a tempting price of R$1.00.
Give gourmet Rio a go
Over the last decade, gourmet food fever has spread across Rio de Janeiro. Fashionable fine dining is now a regular pastime for cariocas who can part with the cash.
One of the most impressive establishments is Restaurante Aprazível. Set on the highest point of Santa Teresa’s winding cobbled streets, the restaurant's intimate bamboo-roofed huts boast stunning views of the city. Experience some of the best ingredients Brazil has to offer with dishes like the gigantic heart of palm starter, which is served with a fresh olive and basil pesto. You'll be transported to the Amazon with the rainha do baoa fish main, featuring a splash of sweet bacuri (Amazonian berry) sauce to complement the salty, crispy-skinned fish. Finish with the classic banana de Santa Teresa, a sensory treat of caramelized bananas with cinnamon ice cream.
Leblon’s Zuka is another choice spot to experience fine dining in Rio. The dining room blends seamlessly with the open kitchen, where expert chefs create plates of edible modern art. The ceviche salad pairs zesty fish with tiny, sweet biquinho peppers. Give the garlicky tomato gazpacho a try and follow it with the sweet, zingy lemon sorbet. For a divine meat dish, try the delicate flank steak.
Taste the sweet life in the Marvelous City
There is only one place that can claim the title of best cakes and pastries in Rio de Janeiro: Confeitaria Columbo in Centro is the 125-year-old master of Brazilian sweets. The vast hall's grand colonial features, stained glass ceiling and Art-Deco tiling is a feast for the eyes.
With surroundings fit for a king, Confeitaria Colombo serves up a selection of sugary temptations to match – try sweet strawberries and cream, rich chocolate or silky egg custard atop perfect tartlets. To beat the queues, the best time to go is before 12pm. Ask to be served by Orlando Duque, the humble in-house celebrity who has been famous throughout Rio de Janeiro as a proud garçom (waiter) for over 65 years.
This article was originally published in February 2015 and updated in June 2016.