Let’s go back in time to 1981 – the beginning of a decade of hope in Lisbon. Portugal is about to enter the EEC (European Economic Community, precursor to the European Union), and word on the street is that funds will start flowing into the country and living standards will improve. People really need to believe that word, as the inflation rate is almost at 20 percent and the illiteracy rate even higher.
Next to the always busy Santa Apolónia train station, a new snack-bar opens. Green Apple is the chosen name, both because English names are ‘in’ and because one of their burgers features a green apple purée. The owners? A pair of Josés. José Carlos, from Tábua, right in the heart of Portugal, between Viseu and Coimbra, and the minhoto (from Minho, northern Portugal) José Brandão. They are not serving hearty dishes – yet – but rather quick meals, grab-and-go type food: toasts, burgers, sandwiches, etc.
Clients come and go in a hurry, from and to the station. “Many young men serving in the military would come here before or after visiting their families. The action around here was crazy back then,” José Carlos recalls today. “Sometimes, one would be eating a bitoque [a typical Portuguese recipe: steak with a fried egg, chips and a special sauce] and five others would be queuing behind him, waiting for their turn.”
All of this happened in half the area the restaurant takes up today. José Carlos still smiles nostalgically when talking about the old days: “We had wall-mounted tables, high stools, lots of mirrors and we would put the music really loud for the young guns. It was good times.”
Gone were the burgers, toasts and other quick fare; in were the regional recipes and the fresh fish.
But the snack-bar didn’t last forever (thankfully, or we probably wouldn’t be writing this article). In 1996, fifteen years after opening Green Apple, both Josés decided to convert it into a real restaurant. With real Portuguese food. And a real Portuguese name, literally translated from its original one: Maçã (Apple) Verde (Green). Why? “Well, by then military service wasn’t mandatory anymore, and they were starting to build the Expo’98 [a World Fair organized in Lisbon that changed the Eastern part of town], so the clientele kind of changed. We had to adapt,” explains José Carlos.
Gone were the burgers, toasts and other quick fare; in were the regional recipes and the fresh fish that still attract so many customers to this day, over 20 years later. And not just any customers: some of Lisbon’s best chefs, like Alexandre Silva of Loco and João Rodrigues of Feitoria (both awarded a Michelin star), regularly name Maçã Verde as one of their favorite – if not their favorite – places to eat traditional food in Lisbon. Some of the restaurant best sellers include chafana (goat stew), lagarada de bacalhau (roasted cod with olive oil and potatoes), choco frito (fried cuttlefish) and secretos de porco preto (fatty strips of black pig).
All come from the experienced hands of cook Dona Laura. When it’s in season (January to April), lamprey is also served. And there is always a nice selection of fresh fish on the display at the entrance, ready to be put on the grill. Clients can either choose or ask for José’s advice like some tourists did when we were talking to him. “What is this?” one of them asked, pointing at a sea bream. “Dourada, very good. I’ll grill it for you,” he replies.
“Many tourists come here now. I have to thank them. If it wasn’t for them, I honestly don’t know if we could hang in here,” he admits. That’s Lisbon, 2018.
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.”