The restaurant that Inês Mendonça dreamed of can only be described using the Portuguese expression levantar as pedras da calçada – literally, to raise the stones from the sidewalk” –to create something totally new and groundbreaking.
When Porto’s now-popular Ruas das Flores was being restored, the din of construction clanging as workers labored to turn it into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare, Inês was seeing miles ahead. It was there that her restaurant would open its doors, she decided, and it would be a place different from all the rest – relaxed and full of curiosities.
“When we opened, this street was in chaos,” says Inês, now the owner of Cantina 32 at Rua das Flores No. 32. But she knew all the thought she’d put into the downtown Porto location would pay off. “It was fortunate to have found this space,” she says. The restaurants sits on the way to Ribeira, with constant traffic in the form of people and new businesses. Before becoming what it is now, the old space was a perfume warehouse. The industrial style and even some of the old bottles of fragrance are still here – as are old pictures, majestic armchairs, antique typewriters, books with gold lettering and dripped wax from rusting candlesticks. Inside the restaurant sits this panoply of objects, making the décor the first to tell their stories as customers trickle in. “A person will come in here and feel something. This place has a soul,” Inês says.
Though Inês started Cantina “thinking that Porto needed a space that was a little bit different,” she’s the first to admit that now, five years out, what the city has most is different spaces. But for her, this is only a positive thing.
This isn’t the first project for Inês and her team, which includes her husband and the restaurant’s resident chef, Luís Américo. The partnership – and friendship – was built over the years at other restaurants, in Foz (the chic zone of the city), next door in the Ferreira Borges Market, and further north in Matosinhos. Though Inês started Cantina “thinking that Porto needed a space that was a little bit different,” she’s the first to admit that now, five years out, what the city has most is different spaces. But for her, this is only a positive thing. “When Cantina 32 opened, there was no restaurant boom. It has started to appear, and it is good,” she says.
The trio wanted to show Porto that tablecloths and cloth napkins were not necessary. That people could sit at the same table even without knowing each other. That sumptuous decor doesn’t have to equate to formal, buttoned-up service. “We wanted a space that would be relaxed, and Cantina is,” says Inês – and she’s speaking as someone with deep baggage attached to traditional services. She wanted to be rid of tasting tests – “for which I had no more patience” – and “all the prettiest pies with only a little bit of food, which may be good, but no longer tells me anything.” With 18 employees to manage, Inês says she prefers hiring people who are not trained, “who take things more loosely over being already formatted to work in a certain way.” The result is an informal service, with some jokes in the mix.
Then there is the menu. Inês makes her suggestions for the plot: An intro of squid or “lulinhas, which are so go good, they’re never enough” and salmon cured in several mustards served with a mayonnaise of shallots, orange wedges and a mini-grater for boiled eggs. Sharing small plates is one way to go about enjoying a meal at Cantina 32’s table, but for those looking for their own entree, Inês suggests one simple main course in particular: a large piece of tender steer served with potatoes. For dessert is what attracts the most customers to Cantina 32: the banana cheesecake (or if you have an inch or two left in your stomach, the wafer cake with almond paste).
Américo consults for other spaces in Porto, as well as a restaurant in Macau called Fado. It was his idea to plate Cantina’s signature cheesecake in a little flower pot. When a server places the dish on the customer’s table come dessert time, some aren’t quite if this is just another seemingly random object of Cantina 32’s decoration. But once they dare to stick a spoon in, they discover a mixture of flavors: crushed Oreo cookies make up the earth and Greek yogurt and caramelized bananas are the filling.
At the end of the month, the three partners will open a new concept at Molhe in Foz do Porto. It will be a mix of restaurant and bar, but will also serve breakfast in a beach style, with doors open until late. But when asked if she plans to take up the call to open a Cantina 32 in Lisbon, Inês’ response is firm: The restaurant belongs to Porto, and if it were to open elsewhere it could lose its uniqueness. “Cantina is from here, whoever wants it has to come here.”
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