To describe something that is better than good, Portuguese speakers sometimes use the word espectáculo (show, spectacle) as an adjective. João Gomes, the owner of Imperial de Campo de Ourique, does it every five minutes. He practically trademarked the phrase “É um espectáculo” (It’s a show/spectacle), to the point that he has it embroidered on his apron. His wife Adelaide’s reads “A chef do espectáculo” (The show’s chef) – she’s the cook and a very good one indeed. Nuno, their son, doesn’t have an embroidered apron but he is also part of the show, waiting tables and managing orders effortlessly.
Imperial used to be one of Campo de Ourique’s many outstanding tascas. Now it is probably the last one standing. Last year was a rough year for the neighborhood’s traditional eateries: Stop do Bairro was transplanted to the further out Campolide district, Venezuela closed, giving way to a French-inspired bakery specializing in croissants, and Outeiral, another 40-plus year old classic, also closed for good. In most cases, spiking rents are to blame, as the neighborhood has been attracting a growing number of expats – especially French – and real estate investors.
But, at least for the time being, nothing has changed for João Gomes. He is still running the show at Imperial with remarkable freshness and vigor, making sure that no one’s ever hungry or thirsty at his premises. It’s no coincidence that most customers call the place Tasca do João (João’s Tasca) instead of its official name.
Originally from Ponte da Barca, a small beautiful village in Minho, in northern Portugal, João Gomes came to Lisbon more than 50 years ago. He and Adelaide both worked in other restaurants before taking over Imperial, which had been founded in 1947. João quickly established a tradition: putting bibs on customers before lunch to avoid stains on shirts and ties.
“She is the real star around here,” says João pointing at his wife Adelaide, the cook.
It didn’t take long to amass a faithful clientele, not only because of the bibs and João’s hospitality but also because of his wife’s culinary talents. “She is the real star around here,” says João pointing at the shy Adelaide. He is right. For instance, her chanfana (goat stew) might very well be the best in town. They serve it every Friday but cook it the day before so that the goat meat really absorbs the red wine and all the herbs. Friday is also feijoada (bean and meat stew) day, a dish that is also done in advance to enhance the flavor of the pork meat and the sausages.
João and Adelaide carefully choose their food stock. Most mornings, before opening, he stops by Mercado da Ribeira to choose fish. “When we were younger, sometimes we would close the restaurant right before dawn and go straight to the market,” recalls João, smiling. “For a long time we couldn’t accept [social] invitations, we were always working,” adds his wife. They might be older and wiser now, but they are still working hard, even when the restaurant is closed. “Every Sunday we go to Feira das Galinheiras [a weekly farmers’ market in northern Lisbon] to buy fresh produce,” says João, who still handwrites all menu cards with the daily specials. “I really like to do it,” he explains, before grabbing the one he just finished. “Look at this. É um espectáculo!”
Editor’s note: This piece is part of our regular feature, Tasca Tables, which covers Lisbon’s tasca scene. Tiago Pais is the author of “The 50 Best Tascas of Lisbon.”