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“I’m afraid there are no tables for the next week or so.”

This has become the most-repeated phrase lately at Taberna Sal Grosso, a small space which first made a significant impact in Lisbon restaurant scene nearly eight years ago. Now, after a couple of challenging years due to the pandemic, the 25-seat-spot is again one of the most coveted in town, attracting both locals and in-the-know visitors.

If Sal Grosso (“Coarse Salt”) helped to breathe new life into the old Lisbon tradition of enjoying beer, wine and petiscos in a small tavern, its second life – now with new owners and chefs – brings another breath of fresh air to this corner of Santa Apolónia, on the margins of the Alfama neighborhood.

After Covid-19 hit, Joaquim Saragga Leal, the chef and founder of Sal Grosso, closed the doors of the popular eatery and moved to Évora, where he opened a new restaurant (now closed). Longtime Sal Grosso fans and chefs Jorge Melgas and Luís Pimenta couldn’t bear to see the restaurant shuttered – it was, at one point, one of one hottest spots in the city, and had become a real institution in its short existence – so they joined forces in August of 2021 to make sure Sal Grosso kept its doors open. Their challenge was thankfully accepted by loyal customers and hungry neighbors, and Sal Grosso is now busier than ever.

The tightly packed cubby of a restaurant welcomes each visitor with friendly gusto. Here, the knowledgeable staff explains the shared-plates concept and the preparation behind each dish on the blackboard menu. Sal Grosso is part of the movimento taberneiro, a movement of young chefs working to revive and reinvent Lisbon’s traditional eateries that has been spearheaded by chef André Magalhães at Taberna da Rua das Flores in Chiado and then luckily followed by many small restaurants in town.

“My connection with Joaquim [Saragga Leal, Sal Grosso’s founder] goes back to when we were colleagues at the Escola de Hotelaria de Lisboa,” Melgas tells us. “When he opened Taberna Sal Grosso in 2015 I followed his work. Meanwhile, I was on my own path, [working] in Alentejo, in São Lourenço do Barrocal, Land and Vineyards, Convento do Espinheiro and Pousada dos Lóios.” When he left Alentejo, Jorge moved to Lisbon and worked at Sála restaurant in Tagus Park with chefs João Sá and with Marlene Vieira before becoming the chef at Talho da Esquina. In January 2021, during the most trying time of Covid-19 in Portugal, Jorge relocated again, this time to Évora where he worked with Joaquim at the now-closed Taberna Santo Humberto.

Melgas met Luís Pimenta while Luís was the chef of Pousada dos Lóios: “We got along really well,” says Jorge of Luís. “[We have] similar ideas – he had worked in a Peruvian restaurant in London, and also worked at São Lourenço after I left.”

When the opportunity came up, the two didn’t hesitate in partnering to rebuild what they believe is one of the “most emblematic restaurants in Lisbon.” After being closed for nine months, Taberna Sal Grosso reopened, to the great joy of Lisboetas and tourists alike. With Jorge and Luís at the helm, Joaquim’s legacy is kept very much alive, both in the atmosphere and the menu.

They maintained some of the most popular dishes originally created at Sal Grosso, as well as new plates that change according to the season. Luckily, the waitstaff recommends a variety of plates to share among a group, so it’s possible to try a bit of everything, such as the classic Sal Grosso dishes iscas de pato (duck liver), camarão à alhinho (shrimp with garlic), migas de tomate (tomato with bread paste), rabo de boi (oxtail), pica-pau de atum (diced tuna with pickles), or línguas de bacallhau com puré de ervilhas (cod tongue with pea puree)

The decor at Sal Grosso still the same as it always was – the marble tabletops, the handwritten menu, warm yellow walls – but most importantly, so is the taberneiro spirit: the will to provide great food and wine to share, in a fun and friendly way. No wonder the place is always booked up.

Jose Carlos Carvalho

Published on March 02, 2023

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