The name Casa dos Passarinhos (House of Little Birds) seems to give everyone pause – whenever we talk about or recommend the restaurant, almost all of our conversation partners flash a nervous smile, seemingly wondering, “Are little birds what they serve?”
Far from it (although some restaurants do specialize in serving thrushes). This popular restaurant, which has been around since 1923, took its name from the birds – sparrows, specifically – that used to be allowed to fly freely inside the restaurant. Many years before Hitchcock made them the villains in his movie “The Birds,” original owner José dos Santos Gomes made them the heroes of this backstreet spot in Campo de Ourique, on the border with the Amoreiras neighborhood. (In honor of its founder, the restaurant was also known as Zé dos Pássaros, or Zé – short for José – of the Birds.)
Back then it was “a very small taberna [a tavern serving some food and wine], more like a casa de pasto [literally a pasture house] where you could also buy some fuel for heating and cooking stoves,” explains one the current owners, António Almeida, as he finishes up the busy lunch service.
The older regulars at Casa dos Passarinhos still remember one particular bird that had been taught a trick – he would take a coin from your fingers and place it in a basket with his beak. Nowadays there are no birds flying around, and certainly none to be found on the grill.
Instead, one of the specialties here is steak on a sizzling-hot stone. It comes to the table raw, with a side of homemade French fries, and then you have to cook the beef, seasoned only with sea salt and garlic, on the stone. It’s worth the effort (and the smoke). The activity especially seems to please children, who can be seen happily cooking lunch or dinner under the supervision of their parents.
The monkfish rice with prawns is also very popular, and the daily specials range from fava beans with sausage to cozido à portuguesa (meat and vegetable stew). The latter attract a loyal crowd, with some coming from the nearby office blocks in Amoreiras or from the residential Campo de Ourique neighborhood. At night group dinners can be a bit loud, so we always ask to be seated in the front room, which is a bit quieter.
“We have people that have come here for 30 years and now they come with their children and grand children.”
In 1923, the year that it opened, Casa dos Passarinhos was small, comprising half of what is today its smallest room. Then in 1963-64 it was enlarged and morphed into a restaurant. But its biggest move came in 1992, when the restaurant took over an adjoining commercial space on the building’s ground floor, which used to house a clothing shop.
The current owners have been running the restaurant since 1988. António tells us that when he and his partner, his brother-in-law Américo Pereira, took the helm at Passarinhos, they kept the tradition of serving petiscos (small plates for sharing) all day long. But after the renovation in 1992, they decided to change it into a lunch and dinner place, adjusting the menus and the schedules.
It was a wise decision, one that allowed them to focus on sourcing high-quality ingredients. For a restaurant so well-known for their meat specialties, the quality of their grilled fish, sea bass, red snapper and sea bream is remarkable, and all at affordable prices. Besides the steak on the stone, António mentions that both the tuna bitoque (bitoque is a popular and affordable dish, consisting of a small steak with pickles, French fries and a portion of rice) and the tuna steak with the house special sauce, made of garlic, olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and the cooking juices, are quite popular.
Nearby our table, we notice someone finishing a plate of another one of the restaurant’s specialties: Grenadinos à Moçambicana. This dish is also known in Portugal as escalopes – nothing to do with scallops, these are small steaks grilled with bacon and spicy piripiri, and they look particularly juicy, even from afar.
António is from Pampilhosa da Serra, a town in the central Beiras region, and Américo, who mans the restaurant’s grill, is from Mirandela in northeast Portugal, both areas with meat-heavy cuisines. These regional influences can be seen in the menu, which includes dishes like posta de vitelão (a large veal steak), and in the restaurant’s generous portions – don’t be afraid to share a main.
The two partners have built a loyal following. “We have people that have come here for 30 years and now they come with their children and grand children,” António says proudly as some hungry office workers try to snag a table at the end of the lunch service. In a city that has lost so many traditional places, it’s heartening to see that a restaurant as good as Casa dos Passarinhos hasn’t gone to the dogs, or in this case, the birds.