I hadn’t been to Lisbon in over a decade. I remembered the pretty tiles, of course. And the gleaming cream-colored pedestrian walks that could be perilously slippery in anything other than sensible footwear. And the big castle (São Jorge) that looms over the city. But mostly I remembered the food. I looked forward to baked bacalhau, the dried and salted codfish that is Portugal’s national dish, grilled sardines, and other simple, rustic dishes. But I was unprepared for the Nouveau Portuguese fare I’d encounter. Pleasantly unprepared.
Should you be Lisbon-bound, here are six things to seek out to eat and drink:
1. A glass of port at Port Institute: Celebrate yourself with a glass of vintage port from your birth year at the Solar Lisboa (Lisbon Manor), the bar at the Port Institute. It’s located in the Bairro Alto neighborhood, across the street from the wide belvedere of Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, which overlooks the imposing São Jorge castle. You can get there by one of the old, rickety yellow cable cars that still operate; there’s a stop just opposite. Inside, it’s cool (especially on a hot day) and a little serious, with a vast selection of ports, including several by-the-glass options from different years. 45 Rua de São Pedro de Alcantara, +351-21-347-5707, ivdp.pt
2. Green beans at Cantinho do Avillez: There are so many good things to eat at this modern Portuguese that it seems silly to single out the battered and deep-fried green beans. But there are delicious, the best version of this classic snack you’re sure to find. The young chef, José Avillez, is the hot toque of the moment, specializing in traditional dishes vamped up with a modern twist. His green beans are so successful for the same reason his raw scallops with avocado are — he’s an artist with salt, using beautiful product, judiciously and masterfully sprinkled. 7 Rua Duques de Bragança, +351-21-199-2369; joseavillez.pt
3. Suckling pig at Sacramento: Upon first glance, this cavernous restaurant done up in exposed brick and bright red walls, is little more than a trendy hangout, popular with a more attractive breed of tourist and expat. But once the food arrives, you realize this place is more than just a scene. Suckling pig, a traditional dish from the Barraida region, is served here with smashed potatoes and wilted greens. The pork is a monstrous portion with sticky, caramelized skin and an almost gamey flavor. You won’t likely finish it, but you’ll love trying. 44 Calçada do Sacramento, +351-21-342-0572, sacramentodochiado.com
4. Meat and cheese at Garrafeira Alfaia: Red wine is the specialty at this unfrilly wine bar, but you’ll also find glasses of crisp, refreshing Vinho Verde; heady, savory Madeira; and port of every shade — and you won’t pay more than €3 for any of them. As you sip, you’ll want to nibble; choose from cured meats and Portuguese cheeses from the display case as you enter. Why most Americans aren’t privy to imported Niza and Azeitão, two rich sheep’s milk cheeses, is beyond me. Portugal makes lovely cheese that I’d love to see next to the Manchego and Idiazabal at my local cheese shop. 125 Rua do Diário de Notícias, +351-21-343-3079, garrafeiraalfaia.com
5. Snails at any taverna: Escargot in Paris or Montreal is a refined appetizer, usually consisting of six to eight shells, each hiding its own plump, chewy little critter. In Portugal, snails are a bar snack, a plate piled with maybe two or three dozen miniature hulls. You pick out the salty resident with a toothpick or suck it out with the sheer will and suction. You can find this treat in just about every taverna and casual restaurant around this time of year; they’re perfect to nibble during a soccer match or just over beer and conversation. Look for signs proclaiming, Há caracóis: “We have snails!”
6. Egg tarts at Pastéis de Belém: It’s one of things that’s totally touristy, but also totally authentic. The locals do it and so should you: go to Pastéis de Belém for egg tarts. The popular custard dessert with its phyllo-dough casing can be found all over the city — and country, and in Portuguese colonies like Brazil, Goa and Macau — but this is the place to have it in Lisbon. Sure, you’ll probably have a long wait in line, but a warm custard tart, sweet and creamy and crispy, dusted with sugar and cinnamon, is well worth the reward. 84 Rua de Belém, +351-21-363-7423, pasteisdebelem.pt