June is probably Lisbon’s most euphoric month, due to the city’s biggest street party that celebrates the patron Saint Anthony. Though the festival officially takes place on June 12-13, the party runs all month long, especially in Alfama, Mouraria and Graça. The smoke of sardines grilling, colorful decorations, makeshift neon fairgrounds and pimba music blaring from outdoor speakers enliven the narrow roads of these traditional neighborhoods.
The bedlam isn’t for everyone, however, and for those who want to find a quieter spot that still celebrates fresh, seasonal fish, Largo de Alcântara is a good alternative. Located in the western part of the city, between Santos and Belém, this zone is a concentration of cervejarias and marisqueiras – beer halls where you can eat good quality fish and seafood for a very decent price.
This area, whose name comes from the Arabic al-qantara, meaning “bridge,” has a strong industrial past due to the proximity of the docklands. It has undergone some transformations in the last few decades due to deindustrialization and more recent urban developments related to leisure and tourism. In Largo de Alcântara, which has just joined in on the wave of renovations, the number of cervejarias-marisqueiras still gives a clue to the legacy of the area, which was strongly related to the fishing and canning industries.
Marisqueira O Palácio is the most frequented, both for its consolidated fame among locals and for the large variety of fresh fish and crustaceans displayed enticingly just behind the front window. Opened in 1982, this traditional marisqueira was an old carvoaría, a kind of tasca that sold wine, bagaços (hard shots of local spirit) and coal, a typical business of Galician immigrants in Lisbon that no longer exists. In June the grill is, of course, full of sardines, but waiters with abundant trays of mariscada still zigzag among the busy tables. Its offerings change according to the season, with giant prawns, lobster, clams and barnacles quality choices for the summer.
O Palácio is an ideal place to take a break from the omnipresent sardine, a humble fish that has become an overused emblem of Portugal, particularly during festival month. As ubiquitous as the sardine is, ironically, its consumption has been on the decline in Portugal in recent years, likely due to shrinking catches. In June 2015, the country consumed 13 sardines a second, which seems like a huge amount but in reality shows a decline. According to recent studies, Iberian sardine stock has decreased because of environmental factors – one of them being rising water temperatures, unfavorable for reproduction.
That said, O Palácio still has sardines on the menu, as well as seafood and other excellent dishes that can satisfy the craving for tastes of the sea. Arroz de tamboril (monkfish rice) is the star plate of the restaurant, according to its manager Sergio Sequeiros. “Monkfish, together with sole, red porgy, grouper or small hake are some of the Portuguese sea coast species that we count as our specialities,” he told us as we sat in the restaurant’s informal dining room, decorated with great painted tiles depicting the nearby Palacio das Necessidades – a former convent that today houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. O Palácio, as well as offering many appetizing dishes to be enjoyed in a simple atmosphere, preserves an original local legacy.