If you love the climate and culture of Mediterranean countries like Spain and Italy with half the crowds and at a fraction of the price, you should start looking into Portugal. We were driving through the winding roads of the beautiful Douro Valley, the equivalent of Napa in Portugal, making our way from one winemaking quinta estate to the next, and we were struck by how accessible this country was. In any other European city, there would be a harrowing traffic jam from place to place, and we would have had to call the best vineyards and restaurants ahead of time to fight for a spot, only to fend off the crowds once we arrived. But not in Portugal. A meal at the top restaurant or a photo of a stunning castle can be yours, hassle-free. And it doesn’t make it less delicious or less beautiful because it’s less competitive. People just haven’t caught on to Portugal just yet.
The best meal of 2016 so far was my lunch at Belcanto, Jose Avillez’s fine dining restaurant in Lisbon. But I also loved the comforting, homestyle braised meats at Ze Manel dos Ossos, a traditional restaurant in Coimbra, and the shrimp dishes at sister restaurants DOC and DOP. I even liked the meal served at our charming b&b Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros in the Douro Valley! The food here is fabulous, especially the seafood, in which wild-caught and fresh seem to be the norm, not the exception. The Portuguese are fun and gracious people who love to eat and live well, and they want to make sure their guests are well taken care of. If you’re making a trip out there soon and need some ideas for where to eat, read on for a list of my favorites in Porto, Lisbon, Douro Valley and Coimbra.
The Orangerie at The Yeatman Hotel // Rua do Choupelo, 4400-088 Lagos, Portugal // +351 22 013 3100
The Yeatman is a luxury Relais & Chateaux property in Porto with some of the best views of the city. It operates a Michelin star restaurant on the premises as well as a more casual dining concept called The Orangerie. We had a very posh 5-course lunch tasting on the outdoor patio of The Orangerie that was only 45 euros a person. The flavors were clean and elegant, pairing well with the Quinta do Vallado rose that I had in my hand. It was fun being amidst the ladies of leisure and pretending to be one of them for an afternoon.
Restaurante DOP // Largo São Domingos 18, 4050 Porto, Portugal // +55 84 98141-6315
DOP is in the center of Porto. It has this generic contemporary look and feel about it, like an upscale steak or seafood restaurant you could find in any city, so I initially wasn’t all that excited about dinner there. But then I had the most amazing plate of prawns in garlic butter and this sea bass with lobster rice that was phenomenal. This place kills it with crowd-pleasing seafood. I loved it so much that I went to its sister restaurant in the Douro Valley and pretty much ordered the same things.
Restaurante DOC // Estrada Nacional 222 | Cais da Folgosa, Armamar 5110-204,Portugal // +351 254 858 123
After eating the phenomenal seafood at DOP in Porto, we stopped by its sister restaurant DOC when we drove through the Douro Valley. All the blogs and Chowhound boards unanimously voted DOC as the fine dining place to eat in the area, and I absolutely agree with them. The views are also quite stunning, as you are front row to the winding vineyards and the lake that runs through Douro Valley. Yes, we ordered another prawn and lobster and rice dish, and to shake things up, we ordered a Portuguese stew, which had been remade as a sleek puree with the heat of a Thai red curry. Even though we ate a similar meal the night before, I was nowhere near being sick of it.
Ze Manel dos Ossos // Beco do Forno 12, 3000-192 Coimbra, Portugal // +351 239 823 790
There was a stretch on our trip where our food itinerary was a bit too fine dining heavy, and I really needed a break. I wanted a place that was a little more down to earth, an authentic hole in the wall, mom and pop place that every traveler dreams of stumbling upon. For us, this restaurant came in the form of Ze Manel dos Ossos, a spot in Coimbra that specialized in braised meats. People were queuing up for a table, which is always a great sign, and the tables turn over pretty fast. And if it doesn’t, no worries, you can drink your beer outside while you wait. We had a grilled sea perch that was lightly seasoned with a little garlic, salt and pepper, and bowl of braised pork ribs, beans and chorizo that came with a side of rice. It was simple, hearty, filling and delicious.
Belcanto // Largo de São Carlos 10, 1200-410 Lisboa, Portugal // +351 21 342 0607
For a celebratory meal that will blow you away, the tasting menu at Belcanto will not disappoint. Chef Jose Avillez interned at El Bulli for a season, and you can see that “think outside the box” training come through at Belcanto, where Portuguese classics get elevated as impressive Michelin-star creations in interesting and beautiful ways. Sometimes these culinary feats at the high end restaurants can get tiresome, and it seems like more went into the technique and presentation than the flavors, but not at Belcanto. You’ll be just as content eating a fish stew here as you will at your grandmother’s house. For a more extensive write-up and pictures, click here.
Pasteis de Belem // R. Belém, 1300-085 Lisboa, Portugal // +351 21 363 7423
Portugal is known for its pastel de nata, an egg custard tart, and the most famous place to get it is at Pasteis de Belem. Belem is a nearby suburb about 15-20 minutes away from the central hub of Lisbon, but a train or bus ride to this neighborhood just to try these delicious sweets is very much worth it. (Of course, there are other things to do in Belem, like visiting the majestic Jeronimos Monastery and the Belem Tower). The take-out lines outside are extremely long, but the trick is to enter inside for table-side service, where you will be seated pretty quickly.
Cantinho do Avillez // R. Duques de Bragança 7, 1200-162 Lisboa, Portugal // +351 21 199 2369
Avillez has a more casual eatery at Cantinho do Avillez. Like at Belcanto, the focus is on updating traditional Portuguese dishes for a more refined palate, although it doesn’t push the boundaries nearly as much. The flavor influences almost seem broader, as I saw Asian tuna tartare and meatball with green curry on the menu. Portugal did have an illustrative past in discovering new territories, so perhaps these outside influences aren’t so far-fetched. We enjoyed the seafood soup, the 21st century eggs and the flaked cod, but the lamb tagine fell a little short.
Choco Louco // R. da Rosa 39, 1200-381 Lisboa, Portugal // +351 967 858 655
America has its lobster roll, the UK has its fish and chips, and Portugal has the “choco frito” fried cuttlefish sandwich. Choco Louco in Barrio Alto serves up their choco frito sandwiches in a white and airy restaurant that feels like an urban surf shack. The cuttlefish is perfectly crisp and not greasy in the least, and with a glass of beer, it preps you for the night of drinking that will come your way in the nearby notorious nightlife zone the “Pink Street”.