Lisbon is one of the food capitals of the world today, as I expect it has always been. A melting pot of cultures, located by the sea, with a weather that affords lots of fun and going out, it has lots of fantastic cafés and restaurants from the super casual to the haute.
Pastéis de Balem
On the street across the Bélem Tower is an institution called Pastéis de Balem, where they specialise in – you guessed it, Pastel de Nata, the best in the world. OK, I don’t think there’s an actual award for the Earth’s Best Pastel de Nata, but we can safely assume that since the Pastel de Nata was invented in Lisbon and Pastéis de Balem does have the finest egg tart in all of Lisbon, it thus is the winner for this award. Personally, I think the Pastel de Nata tops the charts for tasty sweet snacks, it’s creamy, rich, cool and crispy at the same time, while being small and quite manageable – I’d be hard pressed for a finer dessert.
A Ginjinha was featured in one of the great late Anthony Bourdain’s travel programmes. In usual Bourdain style, he takes us to a local haunt located by the site of significant importance – the Igreja de São Domingos, or the Burnt Church, which had its interior burnt out during the fire of Lisbon (and it has not been fully restored, in memory of the lives that were lost during the fire). Here, they serve the famous Portuguese cherry liquor in deceptively petite shot glasses. Because the glasses are small and the liquor is pleasantly sweet, we had no qualms helping ourselves to more. So be careful, or maybe not!
Tram 28 Café
Near the São Jorge castle is a cute little café called the Tram 28 café. As its name suggests, it’s a theme café, and a really well done one at that. There’s some memorabilia related to the trams of Lisbon inside, the famous Tram 28 in particular, which is nice, but the best thing of course are the tables and chairs that make you feel like you are actually dining in a tram. The food is nice, simple, tasty café fare. It’s a great place to stop for lunch if you are visiting the castle.
Restaurante Mesón Andaluz
Located on a flight of stairs nearby a steep bridge that connects two districts in Lisbon is Restaurante Mesón Andaluz – a cute little restaurant and bar which serves excellent gin and tonics, along with a fine selection of dried meats and cheese. There are many restaurants and bars in the area, but this one stood out for some reason. We got to meet and talk to the owner and realised why it was so lovely – you can always tell the establishments that have soul – the people who run it really love what they do.
Café Beira Gare
We had a local guide take us around Lisbon, and he took is to this fast food place right outside the main train station. It is the sort of place we’d never go to ourselves, had we been wandering around – it was too hot, too crowded and to be honest, the deep fried snacks displayed at the main window just looked too unhealthy.
But the moment we entered, we knew this was a place that was a real local haunt, and for all the good reasons. For a couple of euros, you can get this thing called a Bifana sandwich, which is basically slices of pork marinated in the most delicious stock, served on a soft white roll. We don’t eat meat often, but we made an exception for this. It was absolutely, mouthwateringly tasty.
Time Out Market
What can I say about one of my favourite food markets in all the world? Time Out takes a spin on “street food” and gathers some of Lisbon’s best restaurants in one location, serving up restaurant fare at food truck prices. OK, some of it is a bit more expensive than food truck prices, but they’re still pretty hard to beat! Slow roasted Iberian pork cheeks in plum sauce? Soft shelled crab burger? Beef medallions with a medley of seasonal veg? Here you can find fusion food from all over the world, and some seriously amazing cakes and pastries.
We’ve seen Ramiro featured in multiple travel programmes. Both Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern visited it, I think. We heard the queues are long (they are), the staff are brusque (they are), the prices are shocking (yep), but the food is so, so superb.
We had barbecued king prawns, buttered shrimp, steamed barnacles, and a number of other odd looking sea creatures which were all tasty and oh so fresh. Honestly, it had been a long time since I’d had prawns this sweet. They were really something. And of course, as is the tradition at Ramiro’s, we had the steak sandwich, which we were convinced was sweet, mostly because, I suppose, we’d been told it was the dessert.
Mini Bar Teatro
The dining experience at Mini Bar Teatro is nothing short of fantastic. We had the tasting menu, and it was a riot. We started off the meal with a cocktail for an aperitif, which I highly recommend as they are very creative here with their drinks.
The meal itself was all sorts of creative. There was, of course, the item that molecular cuisine is most known for, the burst in your mouth jelly ball – a liquid that has been coerced into an unstable solid that is basically an essence bomb.
We also had the foie rocher – foie gras coated in chocolate and covered with almonds – chocolate and foie, I can tell you, is an amazing combination. Not sure about the gold flakes though – they taste of nothing in case you’re wondering, but I’ll have to admit they look quite nice.
The experience dining at Teatro was absolutely lovely. For the price, I thought it was quite some bang for our buck. You wouldn’t be able to get this in many other places. It was also not too difficult to book a table, which was a plus. Most of the other casual molecular dining experiences you can get tend to be booked out for months on end.
I think what I liked best about it was how surprising everything was. Some items were a complete surprise, like the foie rocher and the lime ball dessert (which was limier than lime, maybe the vivid green was playing tricks on my senses?), some were simpler, like the tuna tartare cones, but they were all packed with layers upon layers of flavour. And such gorgeous presentations too!
(Please note that while all the photos from the Mini Bar Teatro are indeed from our evening there, we did not take them – it was our friend Greg who did, and so many thanks for letting us use them.)
I would highly recommend going to Lisbon if you’re looking for a gastro holiday, there’s so much variety packed in such a really small city, with quite an incredible variety of cuisines from all over the world. I think what Lisbon does really well is the mix of traditional with the contemporary, and you can get this at almost all the restaurants. Moreover, the Portuguese are not the sort to cling tightly onto culinary traditions, which I think is an excellent way to cook, eat and live.