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The dining room may be empty but João Gomes, his wife, Adelaide, and their son, Nuno, still beam a warm welcome as I enter their tasca. Monday – the first day when restaurants in Lisbon were allowed to open – was slow, they explain, and Tuesday was not much different, with only a few people sitting down for a meal. But they have faith that their regulars will start coming in June. “Things will get better, people are still fearful but they will come back,” João tells me.

Their tasca, Imperial de Campo de Ourique, is one of the great classics still left standing in the city. They had sold out for many days in February and early March, as lamprey season was in full swing, but now that feels like a distant memory. The only way they have been able to survive is with the help of the Portuguese government, which set up a program – referred to as the lay-off measure – to partially fund workers’ salaries.

They hope June and the summer will see their loyal clientele return. In the meantime they are offering takeaway and have started selling their take on the francesinha, a specialty more closely associated with Porto. João waves and smiles as usual when I say goodbye. “Até breve,” he says in his enthusiastic way – see you soon. Nuno tells me that the health and safety measures – like the required 2-meter distance between tables or the reduction down to 50 percent capacity – are not worrying. “Our only problem are the clients, we need them,” he says.

The Association of Hotels, Restaurants and Similar Establishments (AHRESP) estimates that 30 percent of the country’s restaurants may go bankrupt on account of the lockdown. It’s hit some of our favorite small places, especially the tascas, quite hard. The rules of social distancing have hobbled one of their primary functions: as a place to share a meal, chat and even a hug, the things that made them so fundamental to neighborhood life.

In addition to the distancing and capacity requirements, staff must wear masks at all times, while clients only have to wear them when entering, even if sitting outside, and going to the bathroom. Napkins and menus must be single-use and disposable – menus written on a board or accessed through a QR code are also permitted.

In Campo de Ourique, a residential neighborhood in the western part of the city where restaurants and cafés abound, there are less people on the streets, especially around the market. But the Jardim da Parada is already quite lively, while the esplanadas (terraces) have fewer seats but are mostly full, same with the kiosk.

It’s first day Pastelaria Aloma is open – they’ve been offering takeaway but now we can finally get inside and sit down to eat one of their amazing pastéis de nata or other pastries. It’s still very quiet inside but the outdoor tables already have some regulars. The waiter says it has been a slow morning but “things will improve, it’s our opening day.” It’s my first coffee and pastry post-lockdown in a café, and I get confused with the mask and the coffee drinking – for a moment I almost sip my espresso with my mask on. I’m not the first I hear. I guess we all need more practice before we can master this new social etiquette. The usually noisy pastelaria is silent, which means I can hear the perfect puff pastry crunch as I take my first bite. I realize how much I missed that sound.

Nearby I talk to Paulo at Europa, another Campo de Ourique classic restaurant – the former tasca is best known for their grilled dishes. The first two days were slow, he says, and people prefer to sit outside. But his terrace is small, while inside there are many empty tables. “It’s worrying as our costs are the same, and now even more with the disinfectants, protection gear and all the measures,” he says while getting the grill ready.

I run into Senhor António, a 91-year-old who has been in the neighborhood since 1945 and runs a little corner grocery shop. He will open again in June, mainly because his suppliers are not coming and neither are his clients. “People have run out of money,” he points out. It’s a salient point – many families have lost jobs or businesses during the lockdown. Wearing a mask, he seems chipper in spite of the economic situation and is looking forward to opening again. “I was going to take some vacation days in the summer so I better do it now. É a vida (That’s life),” he says, displaying his typical good mood even in the face of difficult circumstances.

“The outlook is scary because in the best case scenario, if we are always full, we can do less than half of the money we used to do,” he says.

On the same street, the terrace of Tentadora, a beautiful art nouveau café that opened in 1912, is quite busy – locals love to sit here for a coffee and to people watch or read the newspaper. If it weren’t for the waiters with masks, it would almost look like a regular day. Further down, the kiosk of Jardim da Estrela is also lively.

Walking towards Chiado, lots of places are still closed. Many, like the restaurants of the renowned chef José Avillez, won’t open until June 1. Out of his numerous ventures, Avillez will only open Bairro do Avillez to start. The big restaurant is split into two sections, Taberna and Pátio; the former will offer roughly the same menu as it was prior to the pandemic while the latter will essentially be taken over by Pizzaria Lisboa, another of his restaurants that will remain closed. He is also banding together with other chefs to call for a decrease in VAT taxes until the end of the year, a plan that the government has promised to consider but has not yet approved.

I walk past an empty Manteigaria, the famous small pastry shop dedicated to baking pastéis de nata – a far cry from the lines that used to go down Praça de Camões. But the warmth of these pastries – and the staff – is the same. It’s a stark contrast to the iconic old cafés in Chiado like A Brasileira and Bénard, whose terraces are relatively busy. Even the street musicians have come back. It was the first time in 115 years that A Brasileira – a historic café with amazing artwork inside – closed its doors. “Now everyone is waiting for the tourists to come back,” one of the waiters says, “but it will take some time.”

Still in Chiado, Taberna da Rua das Flores, one of the first modern tascas in the city, reopened its doors on May 18. They never closed during the lockdown, offering takeaway for the whole period. After being open for three days, chef André Magalhães, the man behind such delicious dishes as picadinho de carapau (horse mackerel tartare), explains that things are going well considering the circumstances – it’s such a small place that they can only have a few tables to follow the 50 percent rule. “The outlook is scary because in the best case scenario, if we are always full, we can do less than half of the money we used to do,” he says. “But now [we have] added expenses as we didn’t join the lay-off measure and we have to spend a lot on protective gear and cleaning products.”

Magalhães says they will keep offering takeaway and their special lunch delivery, which is aimed at people working in nearby offices. “We’re just trying to survive as so many others in this business,” he says. Taberna will also continue to supply free meals to their local firehouse to “fulfill our mission of social responsibility.” They are working on three different seatings for lunch and dinner, and, for the first time since opening in 2011, are accepting reservations.

Facing similar space issues, the small A Taberna do Mar will reopen on June 2, seating only eight people at a time. They will have two dinner seatings and might open for lunch too. Chef Filipe Rodrigues is worried about operating at 50 percent capacity but says they have to start working.

In Baixa, there are still many doors closed. António Galapito opened Prado on May 21. One of the most popular new chefs in the city, he made Prado an oasis of fresh and creative cooking, working directly with local producers. We had stopped in recently to get some takeaway food and wine, and found that they had already sorted the layout for the next couple of weeks, during which they will only be open for dinner from Thursday to Saturday. Luckily, Prado has a lot of space and even a small patio, so it’s easier to fulfill the distancing requirements. There will be some menu changes, Galapito explains: “It will be smaller and we will have starters, mains and desserts, but people can still share if they want to. And we will keep doing takeaway.” Prado started doing takeaway and deliveries during the lockdown, including special boxes like the wonderful one they did for Easter with recipe tips. The Prado team, led by Inês Pereira, the lovely maître d’,  drove far and wide to drop off many meals and boxes of produce.

Jesus é Goês is one of the spots in Baixa with shuttered doors – while they continue to offer takeaway and are planning to open soon, there’s no date yet. Like others in the business, the restaurant hasn’t received the financial support they applied for under the government’s lay-off measure, and the takeaway operation hasn’t been working so well in the last couple of weeks. Owner Jesus Fernandes is afraid for the future. “I just want to open and start working again but I need to do things properly,” he says. He might be able to host only eight people in his small space, which would pose a big problem for the survival of his restaurant.

Like Senhor João, we can only hope that June and the summer will bring better times for some of Lisbon’s iconic restaurants.

Published on May 25, 2020

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