I hate to admit it, but our first meal in Portugal was nothing to write home about – it consisted of a frozen pizza that we overcooked in our rental apartment on the first night after we landed. To be fair, we had been on our feet all day, having landed that morning after an overnight flight from Toronto, and immediately embarking on a full-day city tour. So by the time we took possession of our AirBnB apartment in the early evening, we were pretty much done in and a frozen pizza on the couch seemed like a pretty good idea. Fortunately, we found much better options during our three-week trip that followed, so here are a few recommendations we’d like to share for where to eat in Portugal:
Sintra – Incomum and Cafe Saudade
Popular tourist destinations can sometimes mean you’re in for a lot of mediocre or overpriced dining, especially if you choose a restaurant adjacent to an historic attraction. But although Sintra is about as popular as it gets in Portugal, and you can’t turn a corner without discovering yet another incredible palace or castle, we had some great meals at both ends of the fine dining/casual eats spectrum at places that were definitely not tourist traps.
Fine Dining in Sintra – Incomum
For an upscale dinner, we chose Incomum, right across the street from our B&B, Chalet Saudade, and we were delighted with our meal, even though by Portuguese standards it was a little on the expensive side (65 Euros for 2). But having paid 45 Euros the night before for a so-so meal at a ‘humbler’ restaurant, the difference in quality made our experience worth every cent of the 20 Euro difference in price.
Definitely try the foie gras (served with warm crisps of what tasted like Italian panettone) or the chestnut soup as appetizers. For entrees, we loved the seared scallops and duck magret, both cooked to delicious perfection, and to finish we tried another twist on an italian favourite – a port-soaked pear, mascarpone and cinnamon version of tiramisu. Yum!
Lunch in Sintra – Cafe Saudade
If you’re looking for a casual breakfast or lunch spot, you simply cannot go wrong with Sintra’s Cafe Saudade.
Owned by the same people who run Chalet Saudade, this super-popular cafe is the absolutely perfect place to go in Sintra if you are looking for home-made breakfasts, pastries, sandwiches, panini or soups, and the atmosphere inside is as authentic and original as the baked goods that fly off the shelves. Located mere steps from the train station, this cafe is popular with day-trippers coming and going from Lisbon, but you’ll also see plenty of locals here at lunchtime – which everyone knows is always a good sign of a great place to eat.
Benagil, Algarve – Sul Mar Restaurant
If you are going to visit the spectacular Benagil Sea Cave in the Lagoa region of the western Algarve (and you definitely should since it is one of the most beautiful in the Mediterranean!), there are only a few restaurant choices (and even fewer places to stay), since Benagil is so small it doesn’t even have a village centre. Luckily for us, we had rented a studio apartment in a house within walking distance of the beach, and halfway between both was a wonderful little local restaurant called Sul Mar.
This family-run restaurant is one of those places that doesn’t even have a website (check out reviews on Trip Advisor instead) and yet has managed to maintain its authenticity and reputation for consistently good, simple food for over 20 years. How local are they? Well, much of the produce served on your plate comes from their own garden, the lemon that is served with your fish is plucked from the trees on the property, and that fish is literally fresh-from-the-boats-fresh. And in case you haven’t guessed already, it was delicious.
Henk and I were two of only a few people at Sul Mar for dinner, (since most of their business comes from group tours making a lunch stop at the restaurant) but we managed to strike up a conversation with the Portuguese owner, who spoke only a little English but was friendly and open to chatting. And by the time we left, he had even loaded us up with fresh lemons to take back with us to the apartment. Sul Mar served up heaping portions of Portuguese hospitality along with great food, exactly what we would have hoped for in this type of off-the-beaten-path place.
Évora – Don Joaquim and Di Casa
Evora may be a relatively small town compared to Porto or Lisbon, but its history and charm draw thousands of visitors every year, so it’s probably no surprise that there are several really good places to eat here. Because we had rented a local apartment in the historic centre, we asked our hostess for her restaurant recommendations, and ended up trying one of her suggestions as well as finding one of our own.
Dom Joaquim was one our hostess’ recommendations, offering traditional Alentejo recipes (along with the large portions of food that Portugal is known for). Their menu included a wide assortment of hot and cold appetizers, dishes made with Pata Negra, or black pork (a Portuguese breed of black pig fattened on acorns), and plenty of cod-based entrees.
Henk and I decided to try some of the black pork, wondering what all the fuss was about, but one mouthful of this delicious, succulent meat, and we understood immediately why this is such a sought-after Alentejo specialty (we did a comparison with another pork dish which was good but not nearly as tender). It also puts our own Canadian pork to shame.
To accompany the pork we also tried two variations of another local dish, Migas, which is basically made with broken-up bread cooked with different stocks and seasonings, to which are added all kinds of peppers, meats, veggies, cheese, chorizo, etc. according to taste. It’s served with the meal as a starchy side dish, and I suspect this is the kind of Portuguese recipe that everyone’s grandmother does differently, and all of them are good. It certainly made for a tasty, filling side dish and we had more than enough to take some home.
For a wine recommendation, our waiter suggested a particular artisan red that was only available at Don Joaquim – Alicante Bouschet from the Herdade do Rocim winery. It turns out that this red wine was actually made with the help of the restaurant owner and senior staff who helped press the wine with their own feet – and they have the label to prove it! (It didn’t taste like feet, but I’m sure it cost more than it was worth – but what a great selling story for the waiter!)
TIP: In many traditional Portuguese restaurants, bread, cheese and other appetizers are automatically bought to your table, but these are not complimentary, so if you do not want to be charged for them, decline them when they are offered or tell your server you won’t be having any when he comes to take your order.
Feeling for a little Italian? Try Di Casa
If you’re craving something other than Portuguese flavours, or you’re addicted to pasta like I am, Évora has a decent italian restaurant called Di Casa that will satisfy your craving for all things pizza or pasta-based. (Strange, too, is that they seem to be known for their hamburger!) Henk and I were tempted to find out what that was all about, but decided to go with what we had come for, and ordered Italian all the way, with a delicious crostini to share (with pesto, buffalo mozzarella and arugula), followed by a cannelloni and a pizza for our main courses and an authentic-tasting tiramisu for dessert.
Family-friendly and casual, with exposed-brick walls and a rooftop patio on top of the 400-year-old aqueduct against which the restaurant is built, Di Casa was an affordable and tasty choice and one we would visit again if we visit Évora in the future.
Bussaco Palace – Royal Dining Hall
There are two reasons why you should spend the money to dine at Bussaco Palace’s Royal Dining Hall in Luso: 1) it’s one of the only ways you’ll get to enjoy the absolutely breathtaking interior of this royal palace country getaway – the other way is to stay overnight – and 2) the food here is top-notch.
Henk and I had already made plans to stay overnight at the Palace, so dining on-site was a given, especially since by the end of our meal, driving would have been out of the question as I was more than a little drunk on the grandeur of it all. (Well, the champagne and wine didn’t hurt either!)
To start our meal, Henk and I both chose a beautifully presented shrimp appetizer, complete with edible flowers and other foliage, followed by tender, crusted cod (when in Portugal, cod is a must), and beef tournado entrées. Each dish was cooked to perfection and accompanied by a selection of greens, seasonal vegetables, and mini stuffed potatoes, in perfectly-sized portions that were satisfying but still left room to indulge in a little dessert. Of course I did, opting for a decadent chocolate brownie/lava cake with melt-in-your-mouth meringue.
Served on signature china boasting the Bussaco Palace crest, our dinner in the elegantly ornate Dining Hall of this sumptuous Palace gave Henk and I a little taste of what it must be like to live like royalty. We could get used to this!
Aveiro – O Bairro
Traditional Portuguese food is known for its simplicity, flavours and generally huge portions, but if you’re looking for a decidedly modern twist on all of this, you’re going to love O Bairro restaurant in Aveiro. Based on reviews posted on that old standby, Yelp, Henk and I took a chance that ‘modern’ wouldn’t translate to ‘mistake’. O Bairro was anything but, and turned out to be one of the best dining experiences we had in Portugal, not just for the quality and presentation of the food, but for the welcome and service of the staff.
Our server, Renato, recommended splitting single portions of their most popular dishes so we could sample them all, and the presentation of each was as beautiful as if they were meant to come that way. Starters included a new take on a traditional Portuguese fish stew known as cataplana and let’s just say, O’Bairro’s version is the only way I ever want to eat fish stew ever again! (it consisted of pureed fish stock, veggies and mixed fish, topped with a ‘foam’ that was meant to tempt your tongue with different textures – absolutely delicious.) We also had two ‘spring rolls’ of duck with cheese on a sweet coulis and a nicely vinegar-y salad to complete the range of flavours. I loved it so much I forgot to even take a photo, but luckily I found one on O Bairro’s Instagram feed posted by joanaalegriamedeiros (so thank you, Joana!)
Our entrees that followed (a cornmeal/pistachio/red pepper-crusted cod, and pork medallions on wild mushroom risotto) were equally delicious, as was the cool-but-melty chocolate cake dessert. And it never hurts to bracket this good a meal with a complimentary glass of sparkling wine to start and a good port to finish!
Lisbon – Gin Lovers Principe Real
I think if they served sawdust and tap water here, I still would have loved the Gin Lovers Principe Real resto/bar for its ambiance alone. Of course, that was not the case, as the food that we enjoyed here was as delicious and decadent as the room itself.
It’s easy to get swept away to another era in this room that is part of a 19th-century palace built by a wealthy “Brazillionaire” with a fondness for Moorish design. The soaring 4-story atrium surrounded by arched colonnades is a nod to that Moroccan flavour, and the former courtyard’s walls have just the right amount of paint peeling off the walls and worn tile floors to hint at its storied past.
As its name suggests, Gin Lovers is primarily an intimate bar/lounge for cocktails with smaller snack-sized portions of food for those who need some sustenance with their sipping. But when Henk and I stumbled onto this just steps from where we were staying, I knew this was where I had to spend some quality time. We were more than happy to make a meal of the small dishes on the menu, as each one was imaginative and more delicious than the last. In fact, I kept ordering more items just to see what the chef’s unique spin would be, and if he could top the previous dish. He did.
We may have copped out on our first meal in Lisbon, but when it came to our last meal here, we redeemed ourselves and Gin Lovers turned out to be the perfect option for our last meal out in Portugal: a romantic, hip atmosphere in one of the coolest new districts in Lisbon; the right amount and variety of imaginative and delicious food; and excellent service from a casual but attentive wait staff. As the last impression of a city and a country, what more would you want?
ALTERNATE: If you’re a ceviche lover, we have it on good authority (our in-the-know B&B owner, plus the dozens of people who line up there nightly) that A Cevicheria is another stellar option on the same block – but since it didn’t take reservations and was characteristically busy, we opted for Gin Lovers instead.)
Deciding where to eat in Portugal is like deciding where to go in Portugal. We hope this post has offered a few helpful suggestions, and if you’re looking for what to see in the country, we hope you’ll keep reading!