By: Jaime Cobas

Portugal, on the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula is tempered by the warm southern Atlantic Ocean winds, is one of Europe’s earliest settlements, having been populated by Greeks, Phoenicians Romans and Moors. Its capital, Lisbon is at its center, on the estuary of the peninsula’s longest river, where the Tagus River, empties into the Atlantic. It has always been a seafaring country, and, during the age of the great discoveries, its cartographers were recognized throughout Europe for the accuracy of their charts. Vasco da Gama, in 1498, discovered a sea route to India, in 1Portugal, on the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula is tempered by the warm southern Atlantic Ocean winds, is one of Europe’s earliest settlements, having been populated by Greeks, Phoenicians Romans and Moors. Its capital, Lisbon is at its center, on the estuary of the peninsula’s longest river, where the Tagus River, empties into the Atlantic. It has always been a seafaring country, and, during the age of the great discoveries, its cartographers were recognized throughout Europe for the accuracy of their charts. Vasco da Gama, in 1498, discovered a sea route to India, in 1500, Pedro Alvares de Cabral landed in Brazil and Magellan, in 1522, was the first to circumnavigate the world.

Thus it is most appropriate that a visitor to Lisbon start its exploration on the Praça do Comercio, where majestic buildings and a Triumphal Arch frame three of its sides. It served as the city’s entry point for travelers in ancient times and is now a hub for commuters who daily cross the river Tagus on sleek modern ferries and continue their journey on buses, trams and taxis. It is a lively and bustling area, day and night. On its northeast corner we found the Café Martinho da Arcada, founded in 1782, and on its western side we discovered Terreiro do Paço, both located in grand spaces, serving traditional Portuguese dishes. This sector of the city is known as the Baixa (the lower part), the commercial hub, teeming with tourist shops, banks, and the three main streets that spring from it, the Ruas Oro, (Gold), Prata (Silver) and Augusta, now a pedestrian way that starts on the Arco Triumphal, and starts climbing towards the Avenida da Liberdade, the city’s main artery.

At Martinho da Arcada, its name refers to the majestic columns that define its perimeter, we found an old world establishment, with amber, soft lighting, its walls hung with mementoes of its distinguished, literary clientele. For lunch, the lisboetas opt for the arcade, but it can get windy at night and it is best to enjoy its interior coziness where the friendly waiters guide you through the menu of salads, sausages, soups, fish and meats.  Dishes we enjoyed: the grilled blood sausage, grilled “bacalhau” (codfish) and ” linguado” (grilled sole) all cooked to perfection especially the fish which was flaky, simply dressed with lemon and butter, to bring out its freshness.

Martinho da Arcada, Praça do Comercio 3, tel 218 879 259.

The Terreiro do Paço (the Palace Square) is a cozy restaurant that juxtaposes a modern sensibility within a grand two story high space. The high ceilings are vaulted with exposed brick, with a cartography theme; maps on the walls and a depiction of the continents made up from postcards illustrating each area.

The menu is of traditional dishes reinterpreted with fresh ingredients and a contemporary sensibility. Best dish was the codfish with chickpea puree and pak chai. The cod was a large piece, perfectly cooked, delicious in its freshness, with a flaky consistency. The service was friendly and the wine list offered plenty of affordable choices. (We had a Portuguese Alvarinho, always good with seafood). Terreiro do Paço- Praça do Comercio, Lisbon  tel ( 351) 21 0995679

Nearby, on a side street behind the Mercado da Ribeira (the fresh food market) is Porto do Abrigo, its name means safe harbor. It is a rustic, neighborhood restaurant, at the base of the Chiado neighborhood, unpretentious and appears to have been there for ages. Its interior is simple with wooden tables and chairs. The kitchen is small and visible to all. There is only one waiter and the owners sit in a table, at back, having dinner and reading the newspaper, just like at home. The food is earthy and plentiful, we suggest sharing, because the portions are tasty and large.

There are a slew of entrees of the savory ” porco preto”, the black-footed pork that feed on acorns; grilled, brochettes, steaks and loins. Also, many seafood dishes; shrimp, octopus, John Dory, Sea Bass, etc., but the surprise is the duck. It comes highly recommended and it is underlined in the menu as a house specialty. The meat was moist and tender and fell off the bone. The portion was extra generous and could easily serve three. I t was all heavenly, tasty and filling. Porto De Abrigo- Rua dos Remolares 16-18, off Cais do Sodré. ( 21 346 0873)

The Chiado area was once the center of Lisbon’s intellectual life, known for its theaters, opera house, book stores, and now, as the design center with antique stores and the choice shops of its Rua Garrett. In 1988 a fire almost devastated the area, but it has since recovered and has been restored, following a master plan drawn by Pritzker Prize winner, Alvaro Siza. The area is anchored by two Baroque churches, and attracts tourists to the ” Café O Brasileira” and the sculpture of its most famous patron, the poet Fernando Pessoa, just outside. In this area you find the Teatro do Sao Carlo which offered a month long program of music and dance, and the Museu do Chiado (the National Museum of Contemporary Art), that has been ensconced in a former, eighth century convent, then a bakery, now remodeled by the French architect, Jean- Michel Wilmotte into a magnificent architectural feat of modernism integrating and respecting the of steel, glass and stone, where metal staircases, walls and footbridges float within the existing structure.

Chiado Museum
Sidewalk café at Café no Chiado

The Café no Chiado next to the Teatro Sao Carlo, and the experimental Teatro de Sao Luiz, with a façade of lacelike fire escapes, serves a theater going and a literary crowd on a roomy sidewalk café or, inside, in a cozy library-like interior. On our first night in Lisbon, we sat outside and were pleasantly surprised when a streetcar named ” Prazeres” plied its way past us; it was a delightful and pleasurable omen to a wondrous vacation.

The menu offers gazpacho, beef carpaccio, eggs with smoked salmon and shrimps wrapped in a shredded potato croute, with a crispy covering coddling a perfectly cooked shrimp.

Best was the roasted codfish filet with smashed potatoes, broccoli and olives. For dessert try the artisanal ice creams or ” Pá de Ló da Ti’ Piedade” (a traditional Portuguese cinnamon cake with cream). Then to complete the enchanted and surreal events, we merely crossed the street and watched as a Viennese orchestra played Strauss waltzes, while the local folks danced, in tennis shoes and blue jeans. (Café No Chiado, Largo do Picadeiro 12, tel. 21 346 0501) 

Tavares, Rua da Misericordia 35, Chiado tel 21 342 1112.

For a grand night out, we recommend Tavares, whose Chef José Avilez has earned a star from the Michelin Guide, infusing this, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, with a new vitality. The restaurant’s interior seems inspired by Versailles Hall of Mirrors, where every wall is of gilded framed mirrors and from the tall ceilings hang huge gilded chandeliers with a profusion of crystal prisms, providing the space with a well lit, glittering aura. The black clad wait staff adds a touch of modernity and establishes the tone for the evening.

The menu offers a small list of ” a la carte” selections or three tasting menus, of four, five or six courses. One for fish, another for land and the other, a banquet of flavors. These gourmands chose the four and five course options and shared everything.

In contrast to this traditional fare, Largo, is a modern counterpoint that we sampled twice. On March, the New York Times wrote about the “Tastes of a Seafaring Nation”, Lisbon, and was disappointed in the food tasted in Largo, a chic, relatively new restaurant that had just opened three months before,” in the trendy Chiado neighborhood”. The review was not favorable; liked the décor, hated the food. (” The kitchen, it seemed, couldn’t match the décor”.)

Now, the décor is still stylish, harking back to its historical origins as a convent attached to the Church of the Martyrs that was devastated in the earthquake of 1755, which almost leveled the city. It preserves the original brick vaulting, now exposed, the space highlighted by spun glass cocoons, that establish a rhythm and lead the way in the long space; Largo means a wide space in Portuguese, but it also means “in the offing”.

One is greeted by a luminescent bar of internally lit alabaster, providing a soft light to this entry space which seats 120, in tables comfortably spaced along the sides of the main room, where, at its end, a gaping mouth acts as a Pop Art illustration of the tastings that are to occur. The chef, Miguel Castro e Silva, is highly regarded in Portugal, and here was his opportunity to consecrate his culinary talents. The ” Fixed Price” menu includes a starter and a main course- fish or meat, for 29 euros ($41.00 at a rate of 140 per).

>Notable were the ” Tuna- Japanese style” a  “Sopa Rica do Mar” which was a pleasant blend of seafood (lobster,

shrimp, clams, codfish and scallops), but the highlight was sautéed medallions of foie-gras with honey and mixed greens which were perfectly seared and the honey glaze not cloying. Not to be missed was the ” Sautéed squid with shrimp in “beurre blanc” sauce”. The squid was the freshest ever tasted, soft as butter, the shrimp plump and easily cut with a fork.

 On a second visit we tried the Steak Tartaré, Largo style, it came with a quail egg yolk nestled on top, and a green salad; both perfectly dressed. Desserts were nothing to write home about.

Unfortunately the service was not up to par; a request for olive oil for the bread and of fresh pepper had to be repeated, and the food was ” auctioned,” the waiters asked the guest who got what. In an establishment with these aspirations they should have known. However, the food and the ambiance trumped these faults, and all in all it was a memorable experience.

Lisbon is a city of contrasts, it offers a plethora of attractions; the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is typical of its offerings; it offers a tasting menu of the best, from oriental and classic antiquity; coins pottery, tiles, textiles, ceramics, books, furniture, paintings and sculpture. Each piece is of the best quality and a paradigm of its kind. He was known as ” Mr. Five Percent” for his association with the petroleum consortiums, and his fortune and exquisite taste formed this collection. He was a personal friend of Rene Lalique, who designed many spectacular jewelry pieces for his wife (pectorals, chokers, pendants) that are now in a special room in the museum.

In the same manner, the city offers many museums and sights, it boasts a modern and efficient subway system, and following the EXPO 95 it created a new city, with a modern transportation hub by Santiago Calatrava, an ” Oceanario” (Europe’s second largest aquarium) and a cable car ride that provides spectacular air views of the area.  By the same token, because of its central location, and its international airport, the city serves as a ” pied a terre” for side trips to other cities or its popular beach resorts in the ” Algarve”, all readily available by way of a comfortable and efficient bus system that connects everywhere inexpensively. Thus Lisbon is a pleasurable link from antiquity to modernity, a city that unveils its treasures at a leisurely and enchanting pace.

Photos by Jaime Cobas and Jesus Llanos