Lisbon has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and this once powerhouse of a nation clearly liked showing off. The streets are narrow, but beautifully paved, with stunning white and blue tiles. Each street has either a 45-degree incline or the opposite downhill; much like Rome, Lisbon is built on several hills (bring some very comfy shoes as you’ll be earning that Prego or beer).
My brother lives in San Francisco and I would be forgiven for confusing both cities in some instances. The Ponte 25 de Abril bridge is a near replica of the Golden Gate. Well, not quite, but not a million miles away. The fact they were both built by the American Bridge company might have something to do with it. Ok, I’m finished being a bridge nerd.
I must admit this was my first time to Lisbon. Both my brother and father have been here numerous times, as have many of my friends, so as a foodie I must confess I definitely felt a slight bit of embarrassment when asked, had I been to Lisbon yet? This being said, my ‘straight off the boat status’, so to speak, will never impact my ability to access great places to eat and drink. Being a chef has its benefits when travelling abroad. My chef Rolodex, and several messages sent to certain prominent Irish food critics, were definitely used to hunt out the good stuff (thank you Gastro Gays).
Obviously there are a few places one must go to when in Lisbon. Somewhere for good seafood, somewhere for the ubiquitous pasteis de nata, and of course, a traditional sandwich, or Prego (which means nails in Portuguese). Not sure what nails have to do with meat between bread but I definitely nailed a few over my couple of days in town.
Right, let’s get down to it. Lisbon is definitely a more cost-effective holiday than most European destinations by a country mile. Depending where you choose to go dine, you can walk away being very well-fed and watered for a fraction of what you might pay in say Berlin, London and Dublin. Lisbon is now a big hub for international business so perhaps over the next 10 years we may see Portugal start to push those cheap eats up a notch. I mean why wouldn’t they, everyone else is doing it. However, I suspect you won’t pay €9.60 for a pint of Super Bock or Sagres any time soon.
As always, these are just some of the places where I ate and drank in Lisbon. This is not the definitive, best in show list, but I must admit I was not steered wrong by my chef friends.
Let’s talk food!
What can I say about Ramiro that has not already been said? Well, all I can say is I haven’t been as excited for a meal as I was for this one. The purpose of my visit to Lisbon was not only to write this travel piece but to celebrate my birthday, so Ramiro was my birthday lunch. Hopes were very high, and thank the universe, it did not disappoint. Large tanks filled with stunning fresh seafood: crab, langoustines (or Dublin Bay prawns as we know them), incredible clams and lobster, all on display.
This is an institution for a reason. Anthony Bourdain, Rick Stein, and probably every food presenter in history has made the pilgrimage. Everything is stunningly simple. Just boiled, a bit of garlic…perfection. I ate all of the above – I did say it was my birthday! My favourite part of the meal, what seemed very illogical but absolutely necessary, was the steak sandwich for dessert. Very simple – tender, rare beef and garlic, sauced with cheap French style mustard – magic. What was really shocking, again, was the price. A meal of this quality in Ireland or the UK would cost easily four times as much. If you’re not into seafood, I feel sorry for you, because this place is sensational. Booking is definitely essential here, even in the low season.
Prado was a recommendation from a chef friend of mine who had worked here for a couple of months. The word Prado means meadow, and this beautiful concrete meadow is the herbaceous love child of Antonio Galapito and his many years working in fine dining in London. Prado is a real hipster, cool, organic and biodynamic wine-focused restaurant. I love the ethos on the website, which says, and I’m paraphrasing here, but basically, ‘If it’s not in season, it ain’t on the menu.’ This is not only a great mission statement, but the way food should be. The menu obviously changes throughout the year for that very reason.
Myself and the Mrs were nursing a slight post-birthday hangover, so all of the very chlorophyll-heavy, green and fresh dishes were much appreciated, as were their beautiful cocktails. Think fresh fruit and herb juice-based pick me ups. A meal here begins with super sourdough and whipped Iberian pork fat. The way forward is: order pretty much everything and share each dish between two.
Highlights here for me were the two snacks of oxtail tart with super light goats cheese, and mini sardine on toast with Lardo from those same Iberian pigs. I especially enjoyed a warm dish of beautiful sweet cockles and Swiss chard. This was a great example of what Prado is all about: simple, seasonal and fresh. This restaurant is obviously on the TikTok/Instagram hit list, so if you don’t mind a few “influencers” live-streaming their meal next to you, you’ll really enjoy this place.
Restaurant Pica Pau
Restaurant Pica Pau is not cutting edge. It’s not even remotely heading in that direction. In fact, they are staying very much routed in the past and that’s how they want it. This restaurant is the favourite of a friend of mine who lives in Lisbon. Admittedly, he is Irish, which might beg the question, is this a tourist restaurant? On my visit I was delighted to see that myself and the wife were the only non-Portuguese speakers – not always a guarantee of a good time – however, on this occasion, all was well in the world.
The words ‘Pica Pau’ refer to a quick-fry stew of steak and vegetables, from which the restaurant gets its name. Of course, we had to give that a lash – tasty for sure, but a little one-dimensional. The menu here is traditional, and I especially loved the daily special menu. On our visit, the special was goat kid rice, which was very special indeed. We also ate very good Portuguese chorizo, which has a very different texture to that of its neighbouring cousin.
The vibe in this low ceiling restaurant is very much like you’re in your Portuguese granny’s house and she’s doing the cooking… Obviously the ruse worked, because I fell for it. A short but concise wine list of indigenous, organic and traditional grape varieties makes for a nice, long, lazy lunch. The highlight of the meal for me was the salt cod, baked on the bone and covered in garlic and parsley. I didn’t get a kiss for at least 2 hours after the meal.
Restaurante A Valenciana
Open since 1914 and pretty much doing the same thing ever since, A Valenciana is another institution, this time for another delicacy. Portugal’s colonial past has influenced its many culinary traditions, such as the use of herbs and spices one would not find in Spain. For example, you won’t find coriander or spices in any traditional Spanish food. In particular, Portugal’s outpost in Mozambique yielded not only vast wealth, but a love of heat – not from the African sun, but from the Malagueta pepper (African bird’s eye chilli).
Piri piri chicken was, for me, the dish I needed to try in Lisbon, and at A Valenciana, they seem to be very good at it. As the name suggests, ‘pepper pepper’ chicken has got a kick to it. The chicken is slowly roasted over charcoal and served with chilli oil and the famous Piri Piri sauce, which is a mixture of the chilli, garlic, sweet smoked paprika and acid (usually lemon or wine vinegar).
Big baskets of chips piled high and perfect, sweet, smoky and succulent chicken doused in the sauce – my mouth is still drooling thinking about it. This is the place for a long, chilled lunch or dinner with the people you have the most craic with. Ice-cold Super Bock is the order of the day. There are other options here for sure; the Arroz de Marisco, or seafood rice, was fantastic and huge – definitely enough for five people. In fact, all of the portions are generous here, so strap in and expect to have a great time. The smell alone as you walk in the door will put a smile on your face. Bookings are essential on the weekend.
Time Out Market
The envy of most European cities, the Time Out Market in Lisbon has to be the perfect example of ‘see, we can have nice things.’ The responsible and respectful Lisboners have proven to the rest of us that a reused market can be a Mecca for foodies all over the world. Admittedly, its not exactly cheap by Lisbon’s standards, but if I’m honest, I felt I was ripping them off everywhere else.
The market has an energy that not only lowly chefs like myself get excited about, but everyone of all ages; the atmosphere is sensational. From Prego to pizza, super fresh fish and oysters, to restaurant quality plates of traditional dishes…It begs the question, would this work in Dublin? To which I say, why the hell not! We have several unused markets around Dublin. I, for one, would love to see more of this in my life. Grab a high top seat, order too much, and get stuck in.
Yes yes, I know what you’re gonna say! But Eric, what about Pasteis de Belem? If I’m honest, there was so much to see in Lisbon and just not enough time. However, so many of you have been and I thought, let’s give one of the many other pastry shops a go. Ciara, being the bloodhound of cool places that she is, suggested Castro – again a recommendation from our friend. Now, I don’t like bold statements but here goes… this was the best Pastel I have every tried.
Ok, I will explain. You walk into this tiny shop with 6 seats and enough space for ten people standing and are greeted with immaculate chefs in big chef toques, filling the delicate butter pastries with thick custard. They are swiftly cooked in an oven a mere four feet away behind glass for 7 minutes at 375 degrees, and magic! Finished with cinnamon and served with either tawny port or Ginjinha, which is a beautiful, sweet cherry liqueur made from sour cherries. X+Y = the windmill for sure on that combination. The pastry is like glass, the custard is beautifully brûléed but silky smooth. I had two and I’m not even ashamed.
Lisbon has some fantastic wine bars and local favourites; the areas of Barrio Alto and Alfama are definitely perfect for a stroll and a pit stop. For me, there is nothing like an ice-cold holiday beer, and Lisbon will not disappoint. During the day, sit outside one of the many café-style restaurants and enjoy a cold glass of wine. At night, bar crawling is the thing to do.
Lisbon has its own crazy party street, Pink Street. Pink Street is effectively Temple Bar on steroids. I’ll leave it at that! However, be prepared to be approached by ‘questionable’ individuals offering you ‘things’, so perhaps avoid if you’re going with children. When doing my research for this piece, I was trying to hunt down a good bar for my birthday drinks and one name kept appearing: Boavista Social Club.
Boavista Social Club
Boavista Social Club is as cool as they come. It’s nearly hidden on the Run da Boavista – I mean I walked by it twice, but that could just be me. Reservations here are like hen’s teeth, so booking well in advance, or perhaps using a friend’s connections, is essential. On the night we booked, it turned out to be a Peruvian pop up hosted by chef Daniel Campos Sanchez. Daniel is a Peruvian native but currently a wanderer of the culinary world. He told me he had spent time in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe before settling in Lisbon. Boavista seems to be an incubator of chef talent and regularly hosts similar pop ups.
This was one of my favourite meals in Lisbon. It was unexpected if I’m honest. I thought I was going to this famous wine bar and sure, there would be a bit of food. However, I was truly surprised by the quality of the cooking. Boavista is, again, all about super low intervention and organic wines, i.e. hipster wine, but don’t be scared. The staff are brilliant, and only more than happy to point you in the right direction when it comes to what you like to drink. The vibe is East London meets the Lower East Side, with great music pumping (if you know what I mean…), but with Lisbon prices. Give it a lash and thank me later.
Ok I might be biased here, as myself and the wife stayed in this hotel, but the view from the rooftop cocktail bar has to be one of the best in the city. The view is straight over the city towards Lisbon castle. As it turned out, the beverages on offer in this chic bar are actually pretty damn good. The rooftop at The Vintage Hotel is ranked pretty high on the best bars in Lisbon, a fact I was not aware of when I booked our stay. Clever versions of old classics and the best sunset in the city make this place the perfect bar for that pre-dinner drink with the lads, girls, or whoever. Slightly more expensive than most places but definitely worth a few extra Euro.
A weekend in Lisbon is just not enough time to get it all in, which easily gives you an excuse to return. From the stunning architecture and beautiful weather, this city ticks so many boxes, not just as a cheaper option to say, Spain or Italy, but as one of the best cities to get lost in. Make a few strategic bookings but don’t worry, there is plenty on offer even when you’re a bit lost. The food is beautiful, the wine is great, and remember, if you end up at a pop up unexpectedly, go with it – when in Rome!
For the last 6 years Eric Matthews was the head chef at Dublin’s famous Michelin starred Chapter One. Eric has over 18 years experience working in Michelin starred restaurants around the globe, having trained under some of the best chefs in Ireland and internationally, including Heston Blumenthal, Philip Howard and Guillame Brahimi. This year Eric was named in The Independent’s annual Top 50 People to Watch in 2022. Eric is also a food content creator and a regular at Taste of Dublin. More recently Eric was a judge on the RTE series ‘Battle of the Food Trucks’.
Follow Eric on Instagram