Walk in through an anonymous iron gate, halfway down a road you would assume to be completely spoiled by mass tourism, and a surprise awaits. Casa do Alentejo in downtown Lisbon is one of the many old-school regional associations in the city – but none of the others look quite like this.
Many who come across this 17th-century building think they are visiting a Moorish palace, perhaps a remainder of the time Muslims ruled over Al-Ishbuna. It’s a misleading impression. In fact, this was a generic building that served different uses over its long history, including as a residence and as a school.
A turning point came in the 1910s: An architect renovated the building, at the time called Palácio Alverca, according to the belle époque style, transforming it into the Majestic Club, the first casino in Portugal. That’s why, on closer inspection, many different architectural styles can be spotted, from the recreation of a 16th-century saloon on the first floor to the reproduction of the typical Andalucian patio – an unusual style despite the long presence of the Arabs in the region (the caliphate’s cultural and artistic centers were mainly Seville, Granada and Cordoba in today’s Spain).
In 1932, the casino went bankrupt and this decadent building ended up being rented out by the Casa do Alentejo association, then frequented for decades by the Alentejan elite – the few rich landowners of this poor, rural region south of the capital. However in the 1970s, another change came, mirroring the political shift that was occuring in Portugal and abroad: Casa do Alentejo became democratic. The restaurant, located on the first floor, opened its doors to people from all different places and walks of life, while still maintaining a menu of quality regional dishes with reasonable prices.
While other regional associations in Lisbon are threatened, Casa do Alentejo seems to have a solid future ahead.
Despite the association organizing several cultural events a year (the Moroccan tourism board in particular loves to use it for its promotional events), the restaurant is the principal raison d’être, with the aim of popularizing the cuisine from Alentejo. The main dining room has an imperial look to it, with a chimney, high ceiling and frescoes depicting rural scenes; for such a grand place, however, the menu is humble.
There is a characteristic selection of fish and meat dishes from the “region beyond the Tagus” (as “Alentejo” is translated in English). But the star is migas com entrecosto frito – the dish most representative of the region, a soft mass of bread crumbs, garlic and paprika accompanied by flavorful pork ribs marinated in smoked paprika and served with orange slices (this area of Portugal is a major producer of the citrus fruit). Another staple dish served here is carne alentejana, a surf-and-turf-style mix of pork loin and clams, prepared with garlic and pepper paste, smoked paprika and coriander.
A second, large aristocratic-looking saloon, complete with a stage left over from the palace’s cabaret days, is on the other side. This 400-capacity space can be rented for group events. At the back of the building, a bar/cafeteria with a small patio serves Alentejan soups and snacks to locals as well as curious tourists. There seems to be something for everyone here.
And unlike other regional associations in Lisbon, many of which are threatened (including Os Amigos do Minho in Mouraria, which is sadly closing down), Casa do Alentejo seems to have a solid future ahead. “We already suffered a few sieges from real estate agencies, but as we have owned the building since 1982 and our association is in a good state of health, we feel protected,” says Rui Laranjeira, the assistant director.
Despite all the changes it has seen in the last century, it’s a relief to know that Casa do Alentejo won’t be transformed again anytime soon.
This article was originally published on October 30, 2017.