While Portugal might be suffering economically, there is a heartening boom in new restaurants and hotels of late, and Lisbon, each time I go, always seems to offer a new culinary temptation or chic little boutique hotel to lay my head. My latest treat was lunch at Café Lisboa, the most recent addition to the José Avillez empire. In Lisbon alone, Avillez now has four restaurants, with the jewel in the crown being the Michelin-starred Belcanto, serving modern Portuguese cuisine with an Avillez twist.
But Café Lisboa is not aiming for such dizzy heights. From its base within the São Carlos National Theatre, in one of Chiado’s elegant squares, it sets out to recreate the Lisbon cafés of yesteryear. The cover of the menu sets the tone with its coloured sketch, by designer Mário Linhares, of the famous 28 Tram – which rattles up and down the cobbled streets in Lisbon’s oldest quarters – with Avillez’s muse, the early 20th-century poet Fernando Pessoa, leaning out of it in his recognisable homburg hat. On the back of the menu is a quote from Pessoa in which he refers to the square as his childhood backyard – and indeed he was born in a large flat right opposite the beautiful 18th-century theatre, the only one in Lisbon devoted to opera.
Inside the restaurant, with its warm lighting, marble floor and gilded cornicing, another great turn-of-the-century artist is represented. Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro was most celebrated for his ceramic work, and hanging on the wall is one of his designs for a huge crab (pictured). Perhaps echoing the old and new which merges on the menu, it has been brought into the 21st century by Joana Vasconcelos, who has covered it with crochet work. And then there is the food…
The specialities are what to go for if this is a one-off visit, for they embody the spirit of Portuguese fare, mixing old favourites with new techniques. It perfectly suits the ambience – an old-school buzzy, café atmosphere populated by well-turned-out locals.
I had the bacalhau à brás (€15.50), a variation on the national dish of dried salted cod, which here was served with “exploding olives” in a perfectly balanced combination. My husband opted for the bitoquerump steak (€12.50), a much-loved Portuguese meal that tops the meat with a fried egg. Our choices matched one traditional with one experimental dish, but the menu revolves around food that Lisbonites hold close to their hearts, such as prego– a steak sandwich (€6.50) – or pasties filled with rice, veal and turnip greens (€12.50). And to finish? The famous pasteis de nata (€1.25) – miniature custard tarts, still warm, lightly sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.
In the summer, tables spill out onto the square, and the restaurant, open all day, is the perfect place to linger with a glass of crisp JA branco wine. And if you have the time and the right companion, dip into a book of Pessoa’s poetry for a complete and total immersion in the Lisbon experience.