Seating around only 20 people, Taberna dos Mercadores is a microcosmic reflection of contemporary Porto: a mixture of high-concept design and traditional food.
From a design perspective, the focal point of the small yet comfortable dining room is the ceiling, where white metal supports create the outline of a false dome. Although sculptural in nature, the distinctive design is not merely ornamental but also practical: it doubles as a wine rack, cradling neatly stacked rows of bottles.
Wine buffs will be satiated at the diverse but humble selection on offer here, which mainly originate from the Douro valley, the sumptuous growing region that extends from Porto along the Douro River all the way to the eastern border with Spain. Grape growing has ancient roots in this part of the country, but the importance of Porto’s wine economy was consolidated in the 18th century, when England and Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty, a military and commercial agreement that safeguarded England’s textile exports to Portugal in return for a reduction in duty tax for Portuguese wines imported into England.
The simple pine-mounted menu is divided between food ‘from the sea’ and ‘from the countryside.’
In addition to its local wine offerings, Taberna dos Mercadores has classic national flavors, as well as regional specialties on its food menu, which is a simple pine-mounted list divided between food ‘from the sea’ and ‘from the countryside.’ “Our cuisine is rustic,” says Carlos, the headwaiter. The restaurant is known especially for its açorda de marisco, a stew of day-old bread, garlic, vinegar, coriander, eggs and seafood (mainly prawns, clams, cockles and chunks of other fish). This Mediterranean meal apparently dates back to the period when the Arabs were settled in Portugal, with a very similar version of the dish included into the Fadalat al-Khiwan, an important treatise about Andalusian-Moroccan cuisine from the 13th century.
The meat dishes are also tasty, be it the cozido, stewed lamb chops and potatoes topped with boiled collard greens, or the Arouquesa meat casserole, a high-quality beef from a protected Portuguese species of cattle that normally grazes on the Arouca mountains, a village about an hour from here. Among the desserts, it is worth trying the apple meringue, a pie topped with little sugar flames made from condensed milk and cinnamon.
The restaurant’s name is inspired by the narrow street on which it is located – Rua dos Mercadores is an obscure, sloped alley with a view onto the river. It was one of the major axes of circulation in medieval Porto and home to many merchants connected to the Ribeira docks area. Yet Rua dos Mercadores and its surrounds are currently undergoing the classic Portuguese historical flip: commercial zone that is now a tourist trail.
Opened only two years ago, Taberna dos Mercadores is already quite popular, especially for those working in the local wine industry and passing tourists. Sitting on a table just beside the permanently open door, it is impossible not to appreciate the contrast between the well-finished interiors and the spontaneity of the not-yet gentrified street – a site of transition that, for the time being, is holding on firm to its roots.
This article was originally published on September 11, 2017.