Heaven awaits. But leave any preconceptions at home about what kind of place might serve good food and drink. For the best overall experience, including value for money and quality of food, choose modest establishments offering traditional Portuguese food in simple surroundings.
In addition to selling wine produced on an estate, an adega may also have a restaurant or bar. The best adegas will use the opportunity to offer the other produce of the property (if there is any – some adegas are purely for wine making and have no public facilities). This produce may include fruits that have been made into liqueur, farm-pressed olive oil and preserved olives, jams and preserves, sausages and or Portuguese salami as well as wine from the barrel. There will often be traditional wine making paraphernalia or olive oil presses. The adega may only be open on weekends, or for special functions.
Agro Turismo (Agricultural Tourism)
This is one of the best ways to get to know the produce of a region, the ways in which it is traditionally prepared, and the people who may have been doing it for generations. Working properties offering accommodation in an active agricultural environment are centrally registered, and some can be wonderfully grand. It may be as simple as staying in a 17th century quinta (vineyard) and eating strawberries and fresh cheese from the farm; watching with pleasure as the new season’s lambs are driven by shepherds down the laneway past your door; eating fresh woodfired bread made by the village matriarch at her home; or drizzling fresh local honey over your other spoils.
In Portugal you can get a drink at just about any kind of establishment anywhere in the country, so there’s no special reason to go to a bar. Some bars are cafe-bars, where you can have snacks as well as drinks. Others are bars for shaking your booty until the wee hours, although it’s also possible to choose from a small bar menu of a few hot dishes and sandwiches. There’s plenty of nightlife, and Lisbon has a dedicated bar strip down at the Docks, which is quite mad.
The Portuguese are very particular about the quality of their coffee. There’s a price difference between standing and sitting, and many people simply drop in for uma bica (a short black) at the bar and a two minute pit stop. Others will hang around with the newspaper, and unless you’re in a tourist area with people lining up at the door to get in, you’re unlikely to be asked to leave once you’ve finished the coffee.
Casa de Chá (Teahouse)
A teahouse will, usually in addition to excellent coffee, offer a range of herbal and black teas. They will also offer a sometimes staggering range of sweets and cakes, since it would be a wasted opportunity not to eat as well. They are unlikely to be the type of pastries offered at a pastelaria (pastry shop), but may include some of the extraordinarily rich and sweet doces regional or doces conventuais (regional or conventual sweets). While the offerings will vary from region to region, the basic ingredients will not: egg yolks and sugar, maybe with some almond and spice. Teahouses are for all those in-between-meal sugar hits that people are so fond of, and often there are also savoury snacks for a simple lunch.
Casa de Pasto (Cheap Restaurant/Diner)
These are large dining rooms found in bigger towns and cities, offering budget, three-course meals that usually represent good value. The food is simple (entree, main, and dessert or cheese) with a house wine and coffee. While this type of eating may not inspire you, it can be a lot of fun to check out the buzz here during a busy service.
Cervejaria (Beer House)
A beer house is indistinguishable from some of the less expensive eateries in that there is a small, seasonal menu and simple surrounds in which to eat it. You will not find a thousand different beers on tap or even in bottles. You can drop into a cervejaria at any time of the day and far into the night, and simply stand at the bar nursing a beer and snacking on the types of foods that complement it: a little salty and savoury such as roasted pig’s ears, pastéis de bacalhau (salt cod fishcakes), olives, finely sliced presunto (smoked ham) and chouriço (a garlicky pork sausage flavoured with red pepper paste).
Churrasqueira/Churrascaria (Barbecue Restaurant)
Welcome to chicken land. These are family-style restaurants that specialise in frango no churrasco, or barbecued chicken. It’s one of the most distinctive Portuguese exports. The reason they’re popular in Portugal is because the chicken is so delicious and the bill so reasonable. Other foods are also served grilled, but the chicken is the reason people come here. It will be simply prepared for cooking with olive oil, and perhaps paprika. All you need to do is order some batatas fritas (potato chips) to go with it, and splash on the piri piri (red hot chilli pepper sauce).
These are family-run fun. Found in the Home of Ham belt from the Alentejo region up to the Beiras, smokehouses are where the serious business of preserving pork products through smoking and curing goes on. Apart from being able to buy the products, there may also be (and often is) a tavern area out the back with huge slabs of wood as share tables and rustic stools. And this is where you can tuck into some of the pork products in situ. Suspended from the ceiling will be innumerable smoked hams waiting to be pronounced cured and ready to eat, as well as strings of preserved sausages. As soon as you walk in the door you’ll get one of the more wonderful slabs of cheese, deep golden broa (corn bread), and spicy olives. Clay jugs of tinto (red wine) or branco (white wine) will be put down in front of you, along with ceramic cups. Then you order: maybe some salpicâo (smoked pork fillet) slices; farinheira (sausages made with chunks of lard and flour); roasted spicy chouriço; slices of morcela (pork blood sausage); chunks of house smoked presunto, of course; and, for something completely different, a clay dish of freshly deep-fried enguias (baby eels).
This is the all-meat version of churrasqueira chicken-fest, where you’ll get improbable quantities of all types of regional meats soundly skewered, or otherwise tied down, and deliciously grilled in front of you over leaping flames. Servings will be generous to the point of pornographic. You will not find better grilled-to-order premium cuts of meat anywhere, so take your appetite with you and tuck in.
Marisqueira (Seafood Restaurant)
Hang on to your credit card, as these specialist seafood restaurants can be expensive. Oysters, crabs, lobsters and all the little clams etc will add up and you won’t even necessarily have to eat a lot. Prices are by the kilo. Naturally enough you’ll find these places on the coast and often in a perfect location for outdoor eating. These are the best places to look for bottled vinho verde (light sparkling wine) from the Alvarinho grape, which will complement the food perfectly.
Bread was traditionally made by a village baker, who was often the only one in the village with an oven, but this practice is sadly dying out. In its place is the local padaria, which may be a commercial operation or an artisanal one. Apart from being retail outlets, it’s also possible to eat in some of them. What they offer depends on the region. It may be as simple as coffee and sandwiches or it could be something quite special where you can sit down and feast on bread and anything else that might go with it. There are also sweets, and especially common are pastéis de nata (custard tarts). A padaria can be a cross between a cafe and a pastelaria (pastry shop), except that the goodies may come straight from the oven in front of you.
Pastelaria (Pastry Shop)
What you should scan the place for are the magic words ‘fabrico próprio’ (made on the premises) – when it comes to pastry, this is definitely preferable. This is where you’ll be for breakfast every day. If too many white breakfast rolls are binding you up, ask sweetly for a sandwich made with pão de trigo (wholemeal bread). Or try a simple, not-too-sweet cake such as bolo de laranja (orange cake). Pastries range from flabby and dull versions of croissant (don’t go there) to deliciously crisp and light fruit or almond pastries. There are also savoury pastries and pies to be had, which means you can drop in for a quick bite at meal times as well.
Pousada (Government Inn)
Pousadas are government-run, deluxe accommodation in castles, monasteries and palaces throughout Portugal. There are about 60 in total, and they are expensive to stay at. All have a restaurant and they are required by law to feature regional wine and food on their wine lists and menus, so even if you’re not staying, it might be worthwhile booking into the restaurant. The quality and service varies, so this can be an expensive mistake. However, the buildings that have become pousadas can be gobsmackingly grand and the locations absolutely superb. So ask around about the particular restaurant’s reputation. Otherwise, just go along for the other aesthetic benefits, if your credit card will stand it.
This is where to go when you’re up for a more formal, full two- or three-course lunch or dinner. Don’t assume that a restaurant will be more expensive than some of the other eateries, or, if it is, that it will therefore offer better food. Some restaurants are terrific. Others are the pits. Try to recalibrate your expectations or you may find the experience frustrating and, whatever you do, don’t make comparisons with France.
Restaurante Típico (Typical/Traditional Restaurant)
This type of restaurant is legally required to serve typical regional food and wine, offer traditional entertainment (such as fado – Portugal’s tradition of melancholic singing) and display regional artefacts in its interior design. The staff are also required to wear traditional costume. Admittedly these places can have a bit of a communist feel and be a little unfashionable, but they can also offer superb food at reasonable prices. Have a look at the business card which may list regional food and wine specialities on the back. These places are definitely worth a look, and don’t judge the book by its cover.
Ticket Restaurante (Ticket Restaurant)
As in other Western European countries with a tradition of eating out at lunch, Portugal has a ‘Ticket Restaurant’ system. As part of wage packages, employees are sometimes provided with ticket books that allow them a discount on dining at restaurants and cafes displaying the Ticket Restaurant sticker on their window. Lots of eateries belong to this system, and it’s a good indicator for visitors that the food served is likely to be simple, traditional and inexpensive as well as probably turning over a lot of local custom. Even if you don’t have a book of tickets, navigating by this system is usually a fairly reliable way to choose where to have lunch. Often such places are only busy at lunch, and in the afternoon and evening revert to snack foods and alcoholic drinks rather than sit-down meals. Look for the sticker on a glass entrance door or nearest window.
Sala de Jantar (Lunch Hall)
If you see people streaming upstairs from a tiny cafe, they may all be headed for the sala de jantar. So if it’s lunchtime, you’re in luck.
You can purchase a drink, snack or sandwich here. Look for piri piri amendoims (chilli peanuts), broas (in this case, small sweet potato cakes – not corn bread), pistachios, amêndoas (almonds) or cajus (cashews) or more substantial pastéis de bacalhau (salt cod fishcakes, delicious hot or cold) and pataniscas (salt cod fritters). In the north look for the wonderful bola de carne, an enriched bread dough (a little like brioche) that is served in slices layered with different cured meats. Simple and superb.
While there isn’t a lot of food sold on the street other than on big market days, on the island of Madeira it does happen on a regular basis. Driving around the island on a weekend means you’re likely to run into a local man or woman making the traditional bread bolo do caco (hot, garlic filled griddle bread) by the roadside. It can be bought to take home, or, joy of joys, will be hot garlic buttered to eat immediately. Sometimes the dough will be wrapped around a spicy chouriço before being cooked on the griddle, and it too is served hot with garlic butter. This alone is worth travelling to the island for. On weekends locals will also be char grilling home grown chickens, or selling the extra fresh produce of their home gardens. On the mainland, the char grills frequently seen outside homes are likely to be for sardines. Sometimes you may be able to buy the char-grilled sardines, and during independence celebrations they may be given away to revellers.
A tavern, or its pipsqueak cousin the tasquinha (small tavern), is where locals hang out, and the clientele is likely to be made up of loyal regulars. Usually the word ‘taberna’ will be on the eatery’s business card, but it can be confusing because sometimes there’s not much difference between a tavern and a restaurant. However, look out for taverns that have one special regional dish each day and most of the action will be at lunchtime. Tables will possibly be shared, and manual labourers, local government officials, intelligentsia and gastronomes alike will squash in to become instant friends and enjoy the spoils of the day. This is local food prepared for locals, and there won’t even be a menu. Just look at what everyone else is eating, and order the same.
Tasca (Cheap Eatery)
A tasca is not, as in Spain, a tapas bar. It is an inexpensive eatery that is often run by a husband and wife team or extended family. A good tasca is worth its weight in gold, both to the proprietors and anyone with an appetite. You’ll usually find fresh, seasonal produce simply cooked, and the cuts of meat and types of fish will be at the less expensive end of the spectrum. Tascas can be tiny – just half a dozen tables. Find one you like and stick with it. You’ll soon be treated as one of the family. Grilled sardines, various bacalhau (dried salt cod) dishes, bean soup and char-grilled chicken are some of the simple dishes on offer, and it is common to order only a main dish (as they’re so filling). There is always a soup and cheese or sweets and desserts for bigger appetites.
More guides to eateries in other countries here.