Grilled sardines, flaky pastries and heady drinks… it is fun to go restaurant-hopping in Lisbon
Every time a car trundles past, I stand and hoist up my red plastic chair. This certainly isn't the most glamorous way to have a drink in Portugal. It is, however, the most atmospheric. In Lisbon's Alfama district — a maze of candy-coloured houses exuberant with dangling clothes lines — bars unapologetically ramble all over the street.
My friends and I dive into a flurry of skinny lanes, watched by old ladies peering curiously from their windows and plump cats wearing supercilious expressions. After an hour of rambling, we end up at a particularly charming bar, with its daily menu scrawled on cardboard paper and plastic chairs set right on the road.
Fortunately only three cars go by in the time we're there, leaving me just enough time between moving furniture to gossip with the neighbours and sample some fried cod croquettes. At the next table, I watch with fascination as an old lady, roughly 80 years old, grandly enters with her dog. She grabs a chair and a beer and then sits down for a languid smoke, the leash casually draped around her shoulders. Beside her a gang of stylish old men with rakish hats order a round of beers. A friend tells us this is how to find a good restaurant — look for the ones filled with retired locals.
The next day, on our way to Castelo beach, we stop at Costa Da Caparica, a scenic ferry and bus ride away from Alfama. Our search for antiquated Portuguese people ends at a tiny corner restaurant where we order the country's much-loved grilled sardines, silvery and crisp, soaked with the unmistakable flavour of a charcoal grill. Over the week we spend in Lisbon, this becomes a familiar smell. Especially because Alfama district, where we're staying, is swinging into street party mode as summer sets in and random street corners are taken over by smoky sardine grills. We take deep appreciative breaths, savouring the aroma every night, as we head out for Fado music, pub crawls or merely another evening of knocking back countless shots of Ginga, the much-loved and dangerously addictive liqueur made by infusing ginja berries (or sour cherry) in alcohol.
Later in the week we decide to supplement our childhood history classes by a visit to Belem, from where Vasco Da Gama set out for India. The Jeronimos Monastery, a fantastical tangle of spires and sculptures, is easily one of the prettiest monuments I've ever seen. Once we've done the tourist thing, José Guerreiro, guide-turned-buddy from the Pancho walking tour, takes us to his favourite haunt: Pasteis de Belem. Loved by the Portuguese as well as tourists, this enormous café has been making its signature egg custard tarts since 1837.
As legend goes, in the beginning of the 19th century this was a small general store linked to a sugarcane refinery. When the Liberal Revolution of 1820 closed down all convents and monasteries, someone from Jeronimos began making these sweet pastries as an attempt at survival. This secret recipe has been passed on through generations of master confectioners. Our waiter at Pasties de Belem proudly brings us a tray and suggests we eat each pastry with a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon. Carefully crafted, the flaky, buttery pastry is balanced by a sweet, wobbly interior.
Back in Alfama, we take to rambling through dark alleys to discover new restaurants. One of our best meals is in a hot, crowded Filipino-run nameless restaurant comprising just two rooms, one of which has unfortunately been captured by a group of spectacularly untalented karaoke singers.
We squeeze into chairs in the main dining room, and are served bowls of deliciously salty olives speckled with garlic along with a generous jug of scarlet sangria.
Plates of golden fried rolls filled with mincemeat follow. And then plates heaped with grilled sausages, rice and steamed vegetables. A pot pourri of food traditions — but one that works. As we leave the gregarious owner laughs as he explains why he has no signboard. “They told me it's 550 Euro to register,” he says, “So I call my restaurant Hollywood Grill, but only in my head!”