“Amigo!” Antonio calls out to a harried waiter trotting by us outside Pavão Azul, a tiny bar two blocks from Copacabana Beach. The waiter, carting plates heaped with Brazilian bar snacks, doesn’t stop. Antonio, my carioca (Rio local) drinking guide, and I are just two of many revelers vying for his attention.
One of the first things you learn about a pé-sujo, the Brazilian equivalent of a dive bar, is that catching the attention of a waiter is a sport unto itself. When “amigo” doesn’t work, you can shift gears to moço (young man), upgrade to chefe (chief), flatter with capitão (captain), or crank it up all the way to faraó (pharaoh) until one of the men jots down your order. Persistence pays off. Our waiter finally stops, scribbles chopp and frango à passarinho, and soon returns with two ice-cold draft beers and a platter of chicken morsels that have been marinated in lime, then fried and topped with slivers of garlic. They’re salty, oily, and zesty—just what you want on a languid afternoon.
I first fell in love with Pavão Azul seven years ago when I met Antonio, an acquaintance of an acquaintance who introduced me to the pé-sujo. By the end of the night, he was a true friend and Pavão Azul was on my all-time favorite list—despite the absence of the expected accoutrements. The bar, like most pé-sujos, has no real facade. Once the servers roll up the doors, the white-tiled space simply becomes part of the sidewalk, and its size requires you to get friendly with your neighbors—fast. The few tables are plastic, and the food and drink are classic: salt cod fritters, the rustic black bean stew feijoada (Brazil’s national dish), beer, and caipirinhas (the national drink).
But that’s the charm of the pé-sujo. More than the $1,000-plus box seats at the glitzy Sambadrome or the overburdened bleachers of the Maracanã soccer stadium, a sidewalk table gives you front-row access to Rio’s ever-changing spectacles: the sudden combustion of a marching band, a drag queen strolling by, or a parade of Ipanema girls who are, as the song goes, tall and tan.
The century-long history of the pé-sujo isn’t entirely clear. One theory speculates that its name, literally “dirty foot,” comes from the old practice of sprinkling sawdust under the tables, while others figure that the name owes to the regulars of yore, who were slaves without shoes. Today, following the salty scent of the pé-sujo will take you all around the city and allow you to sit elbow to elbow with cariocas from all walks of life. Menus vary little from place to place; the dependability is part of the homey comfort. You’ll always find teardrop-shaped coxinhas, whose crunchy savory shell gives way to tender, shredded chicken meat. Deep-fried cod balls are a reminder of Brazil’s maritime Portuguese heritage. And pastéis, half-moons of fried dough, are filled with such beloved ingredients as hearts of palm and salted beef.
That’s not to say that all pé-sujos are the same. In bourgeois Santa Teresa, locals, expats, and travelers mingle at the roomy Bar do Gomez. The nearly century-old institution began as a Spanish grocery, thus the faded tins of olives and aged bottles of cachaça crammed onto the wooden shelves. Bar Urca, near Sugarloaf Mountain, is best for people-watching and empadas, mini pot pies filled with beef jerky, bay shrimp, or crab meat.
Years after my first visit, Pavão Azul remains my favorite. I always encounter characters here: a local professor who spoon-fed me feijoada; a Brazilian architect eager to mark every art deco monument on my map; even a collagen-enhanced society lady who invited me back to her mansion. The bar is so popular that its owners, sisters Vera and Bete Alfonso, opened an equally no-frills branch across the street in 2011. Once, over batida, a cocktail of cachaça and coconut milk, Bete shared their secret to success: “We’ll never change.”