Chef Henrique Sá Pessoa has earned two Michelin stars at Alma | Courtesy of Alma
Michelin-star chefs like José Avillez, Henrique Sá Pessoa and Alexandre Silva are cooking their way into helping Lisbon become one of Europe’s most coveted culinary destinations. But in addition to high-end haute, the city’s newfound gastronomic fame harbours delights from bougie to budget.
For decades, Portuguese cuisine was bogged down in bacalhau (salted cod), the country’s beloved national dish, served myriad ways throughout the country and nearly inescapable on menus. The Portuguese remain cod-crazy, but after years of idolising French and Italian traditions as gastronomic pinnacles, Lisbon’s top chefs have finally embraced their own cookbooks and creativity. These days, traditional dishes like seafood rice, polvo à lagareiro (octopus with olive oil and potatoes), grilled sardines and bacalhau à brás (shredded salted cod with fried potatoes, onion and scrambled eggs) remain unmissable, but now serve as foundations of the city’s far more interesting culinary renaissance.
Restaurant, Portuguese, $$$
Belcanto is the pinnacle of Portuguese gastronomy | Courtsy of Belcanto
Superstar (but notoriously spotlight shy) chef José Avillez is almost single-handedly responsible for cementing Portuguese cuisine on the world stage. His somewhat formal two-Michelin-star restaurant, Belcanto, is the pinnacle of Portuguese gastronomy. Choose the classic tasting menu (€165), and your tastebuds will be wowed with signature dishes such as the chef’s most famous work ‘The Garden of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs’ (egg, crunchy bread and mushrooms). Go with the Evolution (€185) menu, and unleash the kitchen’s creative mojo with blind-sidingly good dishes like sea bass with smoked avocado, pistachio oil, lime zest and dashi. Either way, expect Portuguese cuisine, re-calibrated.
Not a restaurant per se but certainly a foodie’s dream place to eat, Mercado da Ribeira, Time Out magazine’s original foray into culinary market curation was revitalised in 2014 and turned into one of the city’s craziest and tastiest dining destinations. The gourmet food hall in Cais do Sodré offers some 40-odd kiosks, including several showcasing the wares of Michelin-star chefs for food court prices (you’ll find those lining the northern back row). The only thing harder than choosing what to eat is finding a seat.
Traditional cervejarias (beer and seafood-heavy restaurants) pepper Lisbon’s cityscape, but old-school Pinóquio stands out from the crowd for a few reasons. Though bigger (and pricier) than most, the restaurant’s efficient staff sling some of Lisbon’s best takes on the classics – arroz de pato (duck rice), arroz de marisco (seafood rice), massada de garoupa (pasta stew with grouper) – with the precision of astute ballerinas. Several dishes, served on pristine white tablecloths amid pea-green walls, are available in portions for one (a rarity with traditional Portuguese dishes). Its somewhat hidden location on an otherwise heavily touristed square (Praça dos Restauradores) means it has managed to maintain some of its authenticity. Reserve ahead.
Alma is home to Michelin-star chef Henrique Sá Pessoa | Courtesy of Alma
Two-Michelin-star chef Henrique Sá Pessoa’s friendly personality has you at hello, but his dramatic, unpretentious cooking at Alma, available à la carte (from €32) or in two tasting menus (€110-120), will stay with you long after. The incredible dish that helped Sá Pessoa soar to new heights – simple but delicious charred red peppers in red-pepper coulis – may or may not appear, but other standouts such as suckling pig confit with turnip top purée, pickled onions, pepper jus or Portuguese sole with green peas, Alentejo chorizo and noisette hollandaise will floor you just the same.
All roads lead to this legendary seafood hall in Intendente. Yes, it’s rowdy and chaotic and has long outpriced locals, but there is no faulting the endless piles of fresh tiger prawns, lobster, clams, goose barnacles, crabs – grilled, steamed, sautéed in garlic butter – that emerge from the kitchen in an outright crustaceous onslaught of Biblical proportions. And you finish things up with a steak sandwich! Despite the high price tag by Lisbon standards, the check will still be marvel-worthy to most. No reservations after 7.30pm, so book early or be prepared to hurry up and wait.
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is the birthplace of Portugal's most famous dessert | Courtesy of Antiga Confeitaria de Belém
Lisbon’s most famous dessert (by multiple landslides) is the Portuguese custard tart, known around the world as pastéis de nata but referred to here – and only here – as pastéis de Belém. It was in this simple suburban Belém confectionary once attached to a sugar cane refinery that this sought-after sweet first appeared in 1837 according to an ancient secret recipe closely guarded by the monks at the remarkable Jerónimos Monastery nearby. Today, its international fame attracts sweet-tooths the world over, many of whom rabidly move on the to-go counter as if it’s the sugar apocalypse. Douse it in powdered sugar and/or cinnamon to your liking, and walk knowing there are few things on earth this good for €1.40.
The hearty cuisine of Portugal’s Alentejo region is the star at Zé VaruncainBairro Alto, one of the few authentic restaurants in a neighbourhood otherwise overrun with touristy shtick and cheap student bars. That means robust stews and a whole load of porco preto (Iberian black pork), the main specialty of the region, prepared various ways. Forget about pleasantries and smiling service – there is more important work to be done here. Colourful ceramic plateware evokes the restaurant’s humble origins in Estremoz, a hotbed of comida alentejana.
Loco features chef Alexandre Silva's adventurous cuisine | Courtesy of Loco
Far and away the most adventurous of Lisbon’s Michelin-star gems, Loco chef Alexandre Silva stays true to name with his daily changing, wildly unpredictable 17-“moment” tasting menu (€113), some of which is served dangling from above, spoon-fed by the server or delivered via embroidery hoops. Sustainability and calling on Portugal’s extensive bounty of local ingredients are paramount here. You never know what you’re getting – a cappuccino made from the juices of scarlet shrimp heads, for example – but one thing is guaranteed: You are in for a crazy night that’s well worth heading west to the Estrela neighbourhood for.
Jesus é Goês means “Jesus is Goan” in Portuguese, and wildly charismatic chef Jesus Lee is indeed a product of Portugal’s once colonial presence in India (he left at the age of 14). The colourful Christian-Hindu imagery of his small – only 12 seats small – but wonderful restaurant near Restauradores is the perfect metaphor for his similarly cross-continental cuisine. Local chickpeas work wonders in the onion-coriander chickpea fritters, and vegetarians will be absolutely delighted with the outstanding 11-spice mushroom and chestnut curry. In both food and atmosphere, it easily tops Lisbon’s Goan inventory.
Sala de Corte is dedicated to carnivorous delights | Courtesy of Sala de Corte
One of Lisbon’s most famous ways to enjoy a slab of wonderful steak is bife à marrare (steak slathered in a creamy sauce) – but you won’t find that here. Sala de Corte – the “Cut Room” – is the Lisbon address most seriously dedicated to carnivorous delights. Chef Luís Gasper (voted both Portugal’s “Chef of the Year” and “Most Promising Chef” in 2017) offers only six cuts (T-bone, porterhouse and entrecôte, to name a few), often aged between 15 and 30 days in a high-tech maturation chamber. He then sizzles them to perfection in a precious and pricy €20,000 Josper charcoal oven. The results? A perfectly charred, perfectly juicy meatgasm. The newly expanded location on Praça Dom Luís I in Cais do Sodré is also very convenient for public transport.
As one of Lisbon’s most popular tascas (taverns) in one of its most traditional Moorish neighborhoods (Mouraria), you can count on a crowd at this longstanding Old World staple. Huge portions of bacalhau (salted cod) various ways (try it baked with chickpeas, onions, garlic and olive oil), bifinhos ao alhinho (beef steaks with garlic), arroz de pato (duck rice; Wednesdays!) and other local specialties on the cheap go down like grandma cooked them. With a dining room chock-full of bric-a-brac and kitsch (classic fado vinyl, traditional blue-and-white tiling, dusty wine and spirit bottles), the stuck-in-time atmosphere carries over from the narrow lanes outside its doors.