Our writer tastes her way through the Lisbon culinary scene on a foodie-focused city tour with two local food experts.
Hailed as an up-and-coming food paradise, the alluring, hilly Portuguese capital of Lisbon is buzzing these days with Michelin-starred restaurants, sceney rooftop bars, and globalized hot spots. On a recent two-day stopover here, however, I arrived hungry for a taste of the real, authentic food life of this city, which seems to be gentrifying even as you blink.
My plan? To snack my way through Lisbon’s different neighborhoods with Ansel Mullins and Celia Pedroso, both consummate local food experts. Ansel, an old friend and a Lisboeta since 2016, is the cofounder of Culinary Backstreets, a website and tour company that curates unique off-the-beaten-track international food experiences in global food capitals. Celia, his Lisbon-based collaborator, is an award-winning journalist, cookbook author, and a walking encyclopedia of Portuguese food mores.
For the next 48-plus hours, we taste our way through regional cheese and wines, scope mercearias (grocery shops), and chow down at traditional cervejarias (breweries) and pastelarias (pastry shops) in neighborhoods Lisboetas like to keep to themselves.
Our snackathon kicks off straightaway at Jesus é Goês (“Jesus is Goan”), a psychedelically colorful 12-seat spot near the majestic, tree-lined Avenida de Liberdade. As we devour crunchy, golden Goan samosas plump with spiced shrimp, Celia elucidates how “Goan snacks have been popular since the mid-1970s, when Portugal’s former colonies like Goa and Mozambique became independent and immigrants came flooding in.” But “now in Lisbon everything’s so mixed up,” Ansel adds. “The owner here, Jesus Fernandes, celebrates the Portuguese feast of St. Anthony with samosas filled with local sardines.”
Bebinca, our dessert, contributes its own cultural mishmash: a fragrant egg yolk–intensive coconut layer cake invented in Goa by a Portuguese nun and then exported back to Lisbon. “Each layer takes about an hour to make,” the waitress informs us proudly as I plunge my fork into the spongy nutmeg-scented confection. I’m in love with Lisbon already!
A short walk away sits Casa do Alentejo, a cultural association and meeting place for people from Portugal’s rustic southern region—another area currently having “a food moment,” says Celia. We mean to just duck in quickly to admire the lofty neo-Moorish arches and lavish azulejo tiles of the former 17th-century palace, but the patio tavern looks so enticing that Celia orders Alentejan cheeses and sausages, including the creamy sheep’s milk Azeitão cheese “still coagulated the old way with cardoon thistle rennet,” and the raw sheep’s milk Nisa, with its addictively rustic allure.
“The Spanish are aces at marketing,” muses Celia, “while we’re still modest about our unique artisanal foodstuffs. We just enjoy them every day, no fuss.” Beholding a fire-blistered link of peppery, crumbly chouriço sausage, I’m envious—I, too, want to enjoy this every day without fuss.
We continue up gentrifying Rua das Portas de Santo Antão in the Baixa district, where gracious old theater buildings and battered cervejarias now rub shoulders with tourist souvenir shops. Our grail? Ginjinha sem Rival, an evocative 1890 cubbyhole, a mini-temple of the iconic Lisbon tipple, ginjinha, made by steeping ginjas (sour cherries) in aguardiente for months. “This place is a small miracle,” Ansel says, as the counter guy asks—“Com elas ou sem elas?” (With or without cherries?)—before filling our glasses with the sweet-tangy housemade liqueur. “The building’s new owners wanted to tear down this old relic,” Ansel explains, “but the locals protested—and saved it! So old-timers continue having their ginjinha ritual, sometimes three times a day.”
A 15-minute stroll south to the historic Rua de Flores, in the up-and-coming Cais do Sodré quarter, and we’re exploring the Alentjo region again: “2.0 iteration,” Ansel declares. We’re at Vicente by Carnalentejana, a newish meat-centric tavern owned by the Alentejan meat producer association, its marble-topped tables set under the sandblasted brick arches of a former charcoal shop. We’re here to quaff fresh-tasting, rustic yet elegant reds from the region, accompanied by stylish takes on petiscos (Portuguese tapas) such as sizzled skewers of succulent porco preto (black pig). Or pataniscos, salt cod pancakes that are “crisp and perfectly light” here, in Ansel’s assessment. Ditto the string bean tempura—“a reminder,” notes Celia, “that the Japanese borrowed the art of frying from their Portuguese visitors.”
I’m ready to collapse from jet lag and calorie overload, but I revive for a spectacular seafood dinner at the new Cervejaria Liberdade inside the freshly renovated Tivoli Avenida Liberdade hotel, a gracious 1930s grande dame near Baixa. The hotel’s rooftop Sky Bar is justifiably famous, while its new restaurant, Seen, draws local swells and visiting celebs for contemporary takes on Portuguese and Brazilian cuisine, as well as sushi. Yet downstairs, and still under the radar of even most locals, Cervejaria is a brilliant new-school take on the traditional beer-and-seafood experience. The glowing space is a kind of Portuguese brasserie where seafood platters glisten with Algarve oysters and shrimp, and small briny clams bob in garlicky cilantro-spiked bulhão pato sauce. Does food get any more Portuguese? I wonder, finally crawling into bed.
The following morning starts on a sweet note at Time Out Market, a trendy food hall inside the historic Mercado de Ribeira, in the Cais do Sodré neighborhood. Ansel frowns at the market’s clamor of selfie sticks, but according to Celia (a proud pastry-holic), its outpost of Manteigaria Lisboa café delivers the definitive pasteis de nata—those Lisbon-signature, burnt-top, creamy custardy tarts, pressed inside flaky pastry crusts. Enough said.
Then it’s a short walk to Lisbon’s savory treasures at Perola do Arsenal, a classic 1950s grocery store where Lisboetas do their bacalhau and canned fish and dried goods shopping. The shelves around us are crammed with brightly packaged sardine tins, sacks of cornmeal and beans, and rows of African piripiri hot sauces and Brazilian palm oil. “Historically,” explains Ansel, “the Portuguese have always been a nation of seafarers and shopkeepers, of importers and exporters of edibles. So they have the most worldly palate in Europe, and this place is a true Portuguese post-colonial larder!”
I’m fascinated by the resident salt cod expert weighing bacalhau innards for regular customers. But Ansel urges us off to Comida Independente in the Santos quarter, a combination tasting room, deli, and wine shop featuring some 150 producers—“a favorite new gathering spot,” he says, “of local wine-growers, chefs, and general food geeks.” The sleek two-year old establishment, with burnished bread loaves displayed on the counter, was a labor of love for Rita Santos, an ex-Microsoft manager turned Slow Food evangelist and curator of heritage products. Each new taste here offers a testament to Portugal’s artisanal prowess, whether it’s the rich blood sausage Santos pairs with a tart apple puree, the dusky papada (cured pork jowl) from the Algarve region, or the grassy-green olive oil from a boutique Alentejo producer.
The shop's terroir-driven wines include a delicious cherry-nosed red called Pulso, produced by a former chef near Lisbon, and the easy-drinking yet complex Alto de Joa rosé from century-old vineyards in the northeast of the country. “The global indie artisanal food and wine trend came late to Portugal,” Celia says, munching on a bean-to-bar chocolate. “But now there’s no turning back.”
For lunch proper Ansel hails a cab to the Campo de Ourique district up a hill northeast of the city center. This residential, untouristy ’hood is “delightfully frozen in time,” he promises, “filled with multi-generational families.” Some of these families crowd our lunch stop, Cervejaria Europa, a classic spot near the lively Campo de Ourique Market, a neighborhood gathering spot. Europa’s meat and fish are displayed on the counter awaiting the grill. Our wise-cracking waiter covers our table with salads: chickpeas and salt cod, fava beans with chouriço, octopus and sweet onions—all dressed with aromatic splashes of olive oil. “The Portuguese don’t show off with their food,” notes Ansel, echoing Celia. “These might look homely but the taste is spectacular.” He’s totally right.
We end our Lisbon food adventure with a bica com cheirinho (an aguardiente-spiked coffee), at the old-school pastelaria A Tentadora a short stroll away. Under an ornate art nouveau mural, calorie-unconscious matrons in dowdy beige cardigans spread butter on torradas (thick toast) as massive sugary sonhos (doughnuts) peer from display cases, and regulars top their hot chocolate with mountains of whipped cream. Outside, young moms steer baby strollers, couples nurse beers by tiled facades, and grandmas tote their bacalhau innards home from the market. “Ah, this is the Lisbon I fell in love with,” sighs Ansel, whereupon Celia delivers an impromptu disquisition on Portuguese sweets.
To book a tour with Culinary Backstreets, visit culinarybackstreets.com.