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Cities experiencing rapid urban transformation often find themselves suspended between past and future, with those respective cultures in close juxtaposition.

The Santa Apolónia train station, a simple neoclassical building from the 19th century that once served as Lisbon’s central rail hub, is a good example of this; a visit to its north and south sides reveal different routines, atmospheres and of course, flavors.

On the waterfront, a few former dock warehouses are the home of gourmet palates. Cais da Pedra, the project of the famous chef Henrique Sá Pessoa, is a modern restaurant decorated in stone, iron and mirrors. Its specialities are epicurean hamburgers that include high-flying ingredients such as smoked pork belly, foie gras and truffle mayonnaise, often nestled in bolo do caco – a special circular, flat bread from the Portuguese island of Madeira, traditionally baked on a caco, a flat basalt stone slab.

Next door is Deli Delux, an haute gastronomy shop where it is possible to find dozens of mustards, unexpected jams, several varieties of dried tomatoes and real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese – well-aged and displayed in entire wheels. The eatery behind the shop is a well-loved spot for a glass of wine, and here the selection is frankly unmatched, with servings poured into the glass without pulling the cork, using a Coravin machine (which keeps the wine from oxidizing). But the star of the house is the weekend brunch – a new and popular habit for comfortable Lisboetas.

Both restaurants are a good choice for those who want to experience the flavors of new Lisbon in a casual and stunning setting. Their terraces are literally on the riverside, a privilege given that access to the main central part of the waterfront has been closed for many years.

On the other side of the station, which coincides with the southern end of Alfama’s hilly and enchanting landscape, Santa Apolónia’s other face appears. Here, a disorganized mix of buses, cars and pedestrians serves as the backdrop for several old-school tascas. For more than five decades, these authentic establishments have remained almost untouched – both in terms of interiors (walls covered with tiles, austere glass cases decorated with odd compositions of fruit, bottles and mirrors) and in their menus: cod with boiled vegetables, grilled scabbard fish, steak with a fried egg on top and the standard omelette are some eternal dishes.

The owners have also remained unchanged, with an often common back story: they moved to the capital in the 1950s from other Portuguese cities to open near the city’s then main railway station. They’ve since seen a lot of changes in the surroundings. Joaquim Pinto, who has been serving at O Cantinho do Museu since 1955, says, “Santa Apolónia is not the same anymore. In golden times there were many people in transit, there was always a queue of customers outside my café; since the tube stop was installed inside the railway station and the cargo boats stopped docking here, the area has been declining.”

“Not even the huge cruise ships that are starting to dock here are helping, as the tourists are brought by bus or tuk-tuk somewhere else straight after leaving the ship,” says Mr. Pires from Lisboa Tejo.

Like others on this side of the station, he wants a new image for Santa Apolónia, but is nonetheless skeptical about the regenerative effects of the new, higher-capacity cruise terminal due to be completed here in 2017. The project will pour thousands of cruise passengers directly into the city center – a plan that has been criticized by locals who, despite being persuaded by the idea of the reconnection with the river, fear its undermining impact.

In spite of this, the old as well as new seem to agree on the fact that the area will soon have a new look – and that the restaurants here, both gourmet and humble, will not benefit from mass tourism. A meal here gives a sense of the permanently fleeting character of Santa Apolónia, where change has always been part of its nature.

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Published on January 19, 2017

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