Rua das Portas de Santo Antão is probably the most touristy food street in Lisbon. This pedestrian road is full of restaurants with guys outside hawking their specials and menus offering out-of-season sardines and frozen pizzas. But there’s more to this downtown thoroughfare than just luring American vacationers to overpriced mediocrity. Located on this road, buzzing even before the tourist boom thanks to its central location, musical theaters and local commerce, is one of the city’s timeless classics, O Churrasco.
This restaurant looks different from the usual chicken restaurant, with impressionistic paintings hanging from its wooden walls and waiters in bow ties, and has been a camouflaged gem for many years, a particular favorite of middle-class families and theater lovers. Around half of O Churrasco’s clientele are regulars who attend shows at the Politeama, a Broadway-style theater a few doors down, and the concert hall Coliseu dos Recreios. Both venues have been here for over a century.
José Costa, co-owner of O Churrasco, is himself a regular spectator at Politeama. “I have attended every show since I’ve worked here, which has already been more than 30 years,” he says.
Costa moved from the interior city of Viseu to the capital when he was 15, and since then has been working in the restaurant industry – the only interruption being military service, which was mandatory pre-Carnation Revolution.
“We always have many customers thanks to the surrounding cultural movement; most of them come here for our chicken,” Costa says. Between 50 and 100 chickens are grilled at O Churrasco every day. The popularity of the restaurant’s star dish probably has something to do with the way it’s prepared. Before they reach the embers at the grilling station just behind the restaurant’s front window, the birds are rolled in a special salt flavored with bay leaf and mashed garlic. Sold by the quarter, half or full portion, the bird usually comes with fries and esparregado, a dense purée of turnip greens that is one of the city’s vanishing traditional side dishes.
Another crucial element here is the piripiri sauce, contained in a small clay ampulla on each table. Made by Manuel Fernandes, the head waiter, this piripiri uses fresh (instead of dried) Malagueta pepper, which is originally from Portugal but imported from Jamaica when it can’t be found on the national market. The slim red pepper is crushed and macerated in olive oil, salt and brandy. Daubing a plate of grilled chicken with the small piripiri brush is an experience to savor for as long as this institution still stands.