Lisbon is still one of the best cities in Europe for fresh, unpretentious seafood dining, despite the onslaught of fads and newfound taste for speculative real estate.
Eating mollusks here – as at a cervejaria-marisqueira, a sort of old-school beer and seafood house – is not at all associated with the luxury it symbolizes elsewhere. Here, it is normal to dig out the insides of unique, claw-like barnacles or suck the heads of the freshest prawns for a decent price in a genuine atmosphere. And in such restaurants, forget the lime tart or crème brûlée afterwards: the purist’s dessert after a shell-laden chowdown is a prego – a garlic-laced beef sandwich that couldn’t be fancy even if it tried.
In this kind of establishment, seafood is consumed year-round, with some obvious seasonal differences. Clams, crabs, lobster and prawns are almost always present in the restaurant display windows to entice passers-by. Other species, such as razor clams, barnacles and oysters, catch the eyes and stomachs of locals as soon as they come into season along Portugal’s abundant coastline.
But despite the fact that seafood seems to be a timeless part of the national diet, in Lisbon specifically it is a more recent tradition. The taste for seafood was supposedly brought here by Galician migrants, who moved to Lisbon in droves after the Spanish civil war and opened the first cervejaria-marisqueiras, particularly on the modern Avenue Almirante Reis, the long road connecting downtown to the airport. This imported food culture became a local mainstay in just a few decades.
The seafood king of this avenue (and the whole of Lisbon) is Cervejaria Ramiro, founded by what is known here as a “successful Galician.” While this two-floor restaurant is flooded with tourists, rain or shine, it still draws plenty of local families as well. That is thanks in part to the high quality of its sapateira, or stuffed stone crab, a Lisbon classic, as well as other less common delicacies, such as gamba á la aguilho (shrimp with garlic and pepper cooked with brandy and lemon), giant Mozambican prawns and carabineiros (scarlet shrimp) – all of which are cooked in copious amounts of garlic and butter. The 5J Pata Negra ham included in its tender prego also makes it well worth the wait: Ramiro is now as famous for its queues as it is for the food.
If Ramiro is too busy, there’s the neighboring Marisqueira do Lis, another Galician-founded eatery that has stood the test of time. Opened in 1973, it got its name from the building that sits just in front – one of the many cinemas along Almirante Reis that closed down in the 1980s.
We recommend the barnacles (percebes) from Berlengas, the archipelago of small islands and natural reserve located approximately 15 km off the Portuguese coast. At Lis, they’re boiled and consumed without any condiment “to better experience the taste of the ocean,” says Paulo Fernandes, waiter and son of one of the founders. This time of year and March, June and September, are the best times to eat them.
Another concentration of cervejaria-marisqueiras can be found around Largo de Alcântara, in the western part of the city. There, O Palácio is our choice, as it’s mostly frequented by locals and serves up a perpetually inspiring menu. Besides the legendary mariscada – a long platter decadently piled with giant prawns, lobster, clams and other seasonal options – there are many other dishes from both land and sea. We recommend the cozido à portuguesa – the traditional multi-meat stew – or arroz de tamboril (monkfish rice).
In a city that has lost several of its well-loved establishments in 2016 alone, and where the investment boom has been matched by a rise in disconcerting culinary trends – “Italian burger and lobster house,” anyone? – it’s hard to say whether Lisbon’s most convivial food establishments will have much of a future, particularly downtown. In this climate, a messy plate of shrimps in a noisy, family-run restaurant should be savored while it lasts.
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