Way before brunches, special bowls, latte foam art and white marble counters took the city by storm, restaurants like Petite Folie, Lorde, Saraiva’s, Bacchus and Belcanto were the coolest cats in Lisbon.
You wouldn’t walk in not wearing a nice jacket or a dress. You would never go straight to your table – first, you would sit at the bar, greet your favorite waiter, who knew you by name, and order your usual drink, which he would already be preparing.
But those days are gone, like most of those restaurants – the ones that aren’t, such as Michelin-starred Belcanto or the newly reopened Saraiva’s, have changed dramatically. But not Petite Folie. From the outside, with its elegant golden sign still hanging above the door, it looks like a remnant of this less touristic, less fashionable, less Instagramable but probably more authentic Lisbon.
Its owner, 80-year-old Almerindo Gonçalves, knows the feeling too well. Two years ago he almost closed the restaurant. Revenue was scarce, not enough to pay expenses. “I just couldn’t live in debt. That’s not who I am,” he says. His wife, who used to cook all the northern Portuguese specialties they served, had been sick for a while and ended up passing away around that time. But one of his most faithful customers, lawyer and professor Ricardo Branco, decided to take matters into his own hands and organized a special dinner to spread the word about Petite Folie.
To attract an audience for that night, Mr. Branco convinced Mr. Gonçalves to prepare his famous Perdiz à Convento de Alcântara, a version of stuffed partridge whose recipe is said to have been found by French soldiers during their pillage of the Alcântara Convent, which formerly stood in Lisbon. Petite Folie is one of the rare restaurants in Lisbon where it is still possible to order the dish – Mr. Gonçalves bones the bird manually, with care and precision, before stuffing it with liver, spices and some secret ingredients that allow him to sell it at bargain prices, around €20 per serving. The sides – creamed spinach and apple puree – are also delicate in texture and flavor.
On that night, the restaurant was filled with diners. Joyful ones. Many had never heard about Petite Folie. Others had forgotten about it. An article was written and business picked up enough to avoid closure. But only just enough. Some days, it’s possible that no customers show up for lunch or dinner. But it only takes one to get a broad smile and a warm welcome from the host.
Some classics get forgotten with time. Even the unforgettable ones.
Almerindo Gonçalves got his first job at the age of 13 as a bellboy at the newly opened Infante de Sagres hotel in downtown Porto. He hadn’t even reached puberty. “Actually, I think they hired me because of my baby face,” he recalls laughing. Eight years later, in 1959, he moved south to be a part of the founding team of Lisbon’s Ritz Carlton. He quickly became Ritz’s Maître d’Hôtel, a position of great responsibility that he held for more than a decade. “In those times, we had to prepare several dishes in the dining room, right in front of the clients. That’s how I learned most recipes,” he explains.
After the Revolution, in April 1974, the Ritz fell on hard times. Richer families fled the country, as did most of the hotel’s international guests, fearing violence that ended up never materializing. Because of that, salaries weren’t being paid, and Mr. Gonçalves opted to join his former colleague António Clara – who had been in Monaco serving Rainier III and Grace Kelly – on his new venture: Clube dos Empresários, another quintessential Lisbon restaurant that also no longer exists.
He stayed there until 1988, the year he acquired Petite Folie from a French woman. He kept the name and some of the French dishes but renovated the whole restaurant. “I spent quite some money here but it was all paid after three years,” he says proudly. Petite Folie still looks charming to this day, with Modernist paintings hanging on the walls, whose different tones of wood form curious patterns. Clients sit on red sofas and turn-of-the-century chairs, which are a staple of this kind of restaurant.
At the back, there is a winter garden used mainly for group dinners. On those occasions, Mr. Gonçalves usually prepares an old-school buffet, filled with appetizers and main dishes of all kinds: there might be some classic northern recipes, like cabrito à moda de Monção (roasted kid goat), cabidela de frango (chicken blood rice) and bacalhau à Minhota (fried codfish), a homemade liver pâté or even some hotel classics such as mixed-at-the-table steak tartare or good ol’ fashioned lobster Thermidor. Desserts are simple but flavorful, especially the unbelievably dense – and intense – chocolate mousse. Its secret? “Lots of love,” Mr. Gonçalves jokes.
That versatility is half of what makes Petite Folie such a unique place. The other half is, of course, its lively host, who keeps the place going with remarkable poise and energy, especially for someone his age, never once forgetting all the manners and etiquette he learned while working at those fine hotels. His faithful squire Artur, who has been waiting tables and helping with the wine selection at the restaurant for more than two decades, is the lone survivor from the old times, when there were four employees in the dining room and four more in the kitchen. “This was so much different back then. Someone that comes here now has no idea,” admits Mr. Gonçalves.
But why is a beautiful, unique restaurant like this struggling to survive? That is the million-dollar question. The clientele hasn’t changed with the times – the old ones are dying, the young ones aren’t coming. And in Lisbon, like in any city bustling with new projects and concepts on every corner, some classics get forgotten with time. Even the unforgettable ones. That’s why Mr. Gonçalves has been open to passing the business to a new chef. “Someone that comes with new ideas, that might put some life into this house,” he describes. He won’t just pass on the business, but also his knowledge: “I can even stay for a while and teach [them] everything I know.”
That’s an offer that might be too good to pass up.