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imperial de campo de ourique

Last Monday was an emotional day for João Gomes, his wife, Adelaide, his son Nuno and Nuno’s wife, Ludmila. Imperial de Campo de Ourique, the family’s tasca, reopened for business after being shut for almost three months due to anti-Covid measures in Portugal.

Hungry Lisboetas can once again enjoy the traditional and hearty dishes cooked by Adelaide, the heart of Imperial’s kitchen, and the joy of a warm welcome by João, the tasca’s enthusiastic frontman. “The biggest pleasure is to be able to talk to my clients again, I really missed this,” he tells us, a mask covering his wide-open smile.

It was easy to slip into old routines. Very early on the morning of April 19, João went to Mercado da Ribeira to shop for fresh ingredients. By 9:30 a.m., the whole family was hustling around the restaurant’s homey two-room space in Campo de Ourique, already preparing for the lunch service ahead. When we arrived, the stainless steel counter and kitchen were spotless, as were the tables.

For a family-run business such as Imperial, the most recent lockdown in Lisbon has been exceedingly difficult, not least because the government had imposed a weekend curfew of 1 p.m. prior to the national lockdown, which began in January. In other words, Imperial was forced to close for weekend lunches in December, which is normally a very busy month.

It’s been a worrying few months for João and Adelaide. Restaurants were allowed to stay open for takeaway and delivery, but neither option covered their expenses, so they decided to keep their doors closed. Outdoor dining was finally permitted starting on April 5, but Imperial doesn’t have a terrace (although they are thinking of creating one). Now the tasca’s chance to reopen has finally come, but similar to the conditions after last year’s lockdown, they’ve had to sacrifice 50 percent of their capacity. Even so, the family is hopeful for the summer ahead.

“The biggest pleasure is to be able to talk to my clients again, I really missed this,” he tells us, a mask covering his wide-open smile.

“It’s a bit tough as we all earn a living here,” João says, referring to the fact that his son, Nuno, and daughter-in-law, Ludmila, also work full time at Imperial, with Nuno waiting tables and Ludmila helping Adelaide in the kitchen.

Whatever the summer brings, the long winter pause made them that much more determined to serve the same traditional dishes that make regulars so happy: pataniscas com arroz de feijão (cod fritters with rice and beans) on Monday, favas à Portuguesa (fava beans with sausages and pork) on Tuesday, cozido à Portuguesa on Wednesday, the bacalhau à Brás on Thursday and chanfana (goat stew with red wine) on Friday. All made “with the quality ingredients we source for our clients,” João adds. “I’m proud to get the best olive oil and vegetables.”

Imperial is situated in a building that between 1921 and 1942 served as a fire station, the first in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood. In 1947 it was converted into a restaurant and given its current name. João and Adelaide came to Lisbon from Ponte de Lima, a small town in Portugal’s far north, and worked in other restaurants in the neighborhood, before taking control of Imperial in 1985. They kept the name, but it quickly gained a nickname: Tasca do João, because of its enthusiastic new owner, called by many clients as “o meu amigo João” (my friend João).

Now in his 70s, João says the worst thing about the post-lockdown rules is the requirement to close at 1 p.m. on Saturdays. “It’s our best-selling day,” he says. “People from the neighborhood and other parts of Lisbon come here on their day off, often for a long family lunch.” The measure will be enforced until May, at which point the government will reassess the conditions. If things are looking good, restaurants will be able to open without restrictions after May 3.

Although Monday was a relatively slow day, the tasca has had more bookings as the week goes on. Many clients are coming in for lamprey, a seasonal seafood specialty that must be pre-ordered. Adelaide cooks it in a cabidela (a rice stew) after preparing and gutting the lamprey and then leaving it overnight in a marinade of red wine and spices. The delicacy comes directly from Rio Lima, their hometown, in northern Portugal.

Nuno, João and Adelaide’s son, joined the family business 15 years ago. He tells us he feels out of shape after so many months away from work. “I’m out of the habit of running from table to table, but it feels so good to be working again,” he says

Before we finish our pataniscas, João comes to our table with his usual energy and checks how they are. “They are spectacular!” we say, riffing on his famous line: “Isto é um espectáculo!” It’s a reminder that what we missed the most over the past three months was not so much the food (although it is delicious) as it was the joy of being in restaurants with such lovely people.

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