You’ll begin with a pastel de nata, I’m sure of that. It all begins and ends with pastéis, and rightly so: the first bite, teeth tearing through puffed-up folds of pastry, the crunch and burst and splatter of custard. I felt that I was witnessing, experiencing, eating something with great history. Before I went to Lisbon, I was told of little else. Phil Rosenthal’s annoying, upbeat, para-Bourdain travel show; Tony himself, some late episode of No Reservations; my mother, of course; a friend with some expat experience; a Portuguese colleague; a teller in the bank; an assorted army of Facebook connections. Nobody could hear the words ‘Lisbon’ or ‘Portugal’ without falling into a state of rapturous gushing, fawning for city and pastel alike. It boded very well.
I came to realise quite quickly that the pastel de nata was more than a gastronomic feat; it was a triumph of marketing. Somebody, somewhere, has managed to push it into the global consciousness in such an effective way, the city – Lisboeta life – seems inseparable from it. It’s like the Italian’s caffè al banco (a short-sharp-shock of espresso, taken leaning against a bar). You slam your euro down, grumble about something to the barista, break into the fine film formed on the surface of the custard, wipe flecks of pastry from your face. Two bites, maybe three. Sluice a shot of espresso down your throat like soap suds in a sink. Get on with your day. It’s ritualised, and like all new rituals, it gets under your skin much quicker than you’d expect.
So you start with pastéis. You’ll flock to the westerly Belém – an old store sat in a beautiful garden adjacent to a stunning gothic church, a nod to pastel’s humble monastic pedigree – but you’ll be wrong, because the bar is crowded and touristic and full of Germans and really quite dirty and the service was bad and the waiter was miserable and so was the pastel. Stick to town: Manteigaria in the Mercardo Ribeira is a much better bet, or, for an even more authentic experience, their shop further uptown on the Rua do Loreto.
One pastel isn’t enough, of course, and you’ve got a lot of walking to do. So while you’re in the Mercardo you flit around the stalls, a Portuguese Mercato Metropolitano, at once both food hall and safe space. Stuff your face with something – the Manteigaria Silva stall will do for now: cheese and various cured bits of pig and there’s enough Duoro wine to get you more than comfortably drunk for a morning’s rambling.
Lunch time swings round much quicker than you expect, but so does your hunger, so you don’t mind. A steep flight of steps leads up from Calçada Ferrigal to a small, dusty side road, and on to a cold, anonymous entrance hall, and up another flight, this time carpeted, and through a door which the wind slams shut behind you. You struggle with your lousy Portuguese to befriend the nun behind the counter. She looks confused, then resigned, then dumps you in the canteen adjacent. You’re led by your bemused ex-girlfriend to the terrace where Lisbon’s terracotta rooftops meet the sky meets the hills meet the Tagus all around you. Squid and rice is shovelled onto your plate, and the sun bursts through the clouds. Pigeons throw themselves at you (you always had a way with birds) and the city hums beneath your feet.
The hunger hits again around 3pm, and dinner’s not booked until eight, so you’ll need something to take the edge off. The sun’s hidden away again – it’s only February – so you’ll dive over to Sol e Pesca (insert joke about Michael Fish). Tinned sardines will do it, you’re sure of that. Let the oil soak onto the bread, order a garrafa of alvarinho. Hundreds of varieties to choose from, most cheap, all beautifully packaged. Before you know it you’re sprinting up to the castle, fortified by fish. The sun begins to set around seven so you make your way back down, through the town, past the endless queues of people outside the tram 28. When will they learn?
All dolled-up in shirts and elegant dresses you march onward to Cantinho do Avillez, a last minute suggestion, the comparatively laid-back relaxed bistro affair from José Avillez, sister restaurant to tomorrow’s Belcanto. En route you stop for a ginjinha – ask for it with ice (com xielo, I think) – and, remarkably, the booze tips you over the edge and straight back into hunger. Thank God you’re hungry, because you’re in for a treat. Tuna tartare lightly dressed with sesame but left singing. That’s something I can’t stress enough: the whole point of Lisboeta food is produce produce produce, and, well, fuck me. Tuna tartare. It’s simple, so simple, but it’s a learned simplicity. And such an accomplished one. Alentejo black pork, sat atop of farofa and some black beans that my friend’s fiancé would describe as nothing short of cosmic. Another bottle of alvarinho, a really good one this time. A hazelnut whip - grown-up Nutella in a bowl – a glass of Madeira. A totally respectable €130 bill: food this good, wine this good, for two people, with liqueurs, service included.
Then careering over the road to Topo, hidden in an ugly commercial centre, elevator doors opening to a hit of cold air, cardamom, tequila, cigarettes. Rooftop bar pulsing with music. Shitfaced in the cool Portuguese night. And that’s day one.
You’ve eaten too much. Hah! Do some walking, because you’re going to Belcanto this evening and you’ll need the stamina. One of the more appealing recommendations from Rosenthal’s awkwardly chirpy Netflix debut is Ponto Final, and it’s a treck, but the view is worth it. Pleasant ferry ride across, though it’s foggy, and the ferry is enclosed, so the journey isn’t quite as jaw-dropping as the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, say, or the view of Manhattan glittering at night from the Staten Island approach. Once you’re across the estuary, you walk past boathouses and old, grizzled fisherman, until the path narrows, the sea spraying against the concrete, and you reach a tiny, remote, restaurant. Tables and chairs stick out into the sea – look ma, no railings! – and as the fog starts to lift, the contours of Lisbon start to reveal themselves across the bay. Walk on further, up an elevator, round some dusty streets, and you’ll find Jesus (always in the last place you look, eh?)
In homage to Rio, Salazar and the Church (which, for much of the former’s rule, were much the same thing) decided to install a towering statue of our great saviour in the wee town of Almada. Choral music drifts out of the speaker system, an inexplicable smell of barbecued pork, a phenomenal view. It’s all of five euros to get to the top, and worth every penny. But it’s a stark and constant reminder of a Lisbon that hasn’t forgotten its past, and as he leers over the city, over drinks and meals and exams and interviews, over people fucking and crying and fighting, over the grinding minutiae of life, you can’t help but feel – like with so much religion – it’s all a little bit voyeuristic, excessively paternal, maybe even Orwellian. Exactly the kind of life that the Portuguese collectively remember and collectively wish to forget.
No time for saudade, though, when there’s food to eat. José’s relaxed, informal affair is morphed a few streets over into the indelibly classy Belcanto (holder of Portugal’s only two-michelin stars). A fourteen-course (what the waiter referred to as “moments”, shudder) tasting menu, radical, traditional, incrementally experimental all at once. An ‘elderflowertini’ with frozen olives, shotted as sorbet; “moments” (shudder) two through six delivered together next: chickpea and cod stones; lobster claw with yuzu mayonnaise; Azores tuna tartare; something forgettable and chestnutted; pork; five delicious amuse-bouches all lined up side by side. After the first six “moments” (shudder), the pace begins to slow a little: ceviche; a brief introduction to a lobster who is whisked away and promptly despatched; wonderfully fresh shrimp; subtly poached egg yolk with caviar; sea bass with smoked avocado; the lobster we met earlier, returned to the table (looking much less energetic); calamari and risotto; pork. It is now two hours on, and each of the nine wines on the pairing list (and the champagne you started with) have blended into one and sunk into your stomach, mingling with the seafood. A blur of birthday cake, cheese, chocolate, strawberry and lychee, coffee petit fours. You stumble up the street, unsure where you’re going, but convinced that the brain-GPS will kick in and direct you subconsciously. You were right; you fall into bed.
And that’s day two.
How could I talk about Lisbon without mentioning Cerverjaria Ramiro? The place is legendary for its seafood, and you understand why. It’s packed, queues stretching out onto the street from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave. It’s also quite expensive, but the freshness of the seafood, portion sizes, and general chaos of the dining room is worth the investment. I’m starting to bore myself now, so I won’t provide a full itinerary of the meal, but make sure you try the percebes (goose barnacles; little wrinkled phallic ingrowths surrounded by a protective almost cow-skin, rough, leathery casing; I’m not really selling it, am I?); crab (bigger than your head); tiger prawns (bigger than the crab); and make sure you leave room for dessert, which, confusingly, is a prego, a steak and mustard sandwich.
Cross the street: behind a large door, bouncer, all very ECC-on-Gerrard-St, all very clandestine, all rather unwelcoming, lies Casa Independente. It’s an old palazzo of sorts, now bar-cum-art-project, a series of strange, inviting, Kubrickesque rooms painted pastel-coloured, an outside courtyard where drinks are being shaken and everybody – literally everybody – is cry-myself-to-sleep beautiful.
You can drink wine and talk and smoke cigarettes here for hours. You can argue and debate and sip on cocktails, tiredness creeping over you like a raincloud, full of food, full of happiness and nostalgia. In London, the basic currency is busyness; in Lisbon, it is nostalgia. You’ll see the sad history of the place littered around, hidden from sight but always lurking, weighing down. You’ll see the young brush shoulders with the old, edging their way in, an energy and vibrance poised in the wings, ready to thrust this tired pace to one side. You can drink wine and ponder all of this, the manifest complexities and contradictions, that confused, brief glimpse into a world so familiar yet different. It’s the reason you travel at all.