Despite the fact that Porto has swelled with tourists in recent years, leading local establishments to evolve in order to cater to these visitors, there are thankfully many places that have swatted away all trends and remained faithful to their roots. In Miragaia, a typical Porto neighborhood that has resisted the pull of tourism, one can still find a place like this on each corner.
A good example is Refúgio 112, which is located deep in the warren of narrow streets, where there are only houses and no awnings or anything notable to report. The restaurant is, as the name suggests, the refuge of Clarice Santos, or Clari for short. It opened eight years ago on the same day as the annual São João festival, a huge party celebrating the city’s patron saint, and was born out of Clarice’s son’s desire to see his mother doing what she truly loves.
After years of working in hotels and restaurants, both as a server and a cook, Clarice, now 70, found herself retired, a role that never fit her perfectly. “I am a dynamic person and, as we [the family] had this space, my son suggested opening something here only for friends, when they asked,” Clarice tells us on a recent afternoon. She lives just up the street, in the same building where she was born.
Friends spoke of Clarice’s cooking skills to their friends, and word of mouth spread quickly, even reaching the ears of visitors. Soon enough, what started as a fun diversion had grown into a successful business. “We got to the point where it stopped being a joke because, if I wanted to close [the restaurant], I couldn’t,” Clarice explains. “People won’t let me close the doors.”
“When they want something out of the ordinary, they call me to ask if I can do it,” she tells us. The answer is rarely, if ever, no.
Her methods remain the same, however, and nothing is done in a hurry. The place is small, and even before the era of social distancing could fit only 20 people, max. Everything is cooked in the tiny kitchen, which has just enough room for Clarice – and she wants it to stay that way.
Most clients – forgive us, friends – order in advance, especially if they have a special request, like the ones she now receives for lamprey. “When they want something out of the ordinary, they call me to ask if I can do it,” she tells us. The answer is rarely, if ever, no. Clarice marks down the different meals on her calendar and goes shopping, always “working with small amounts of fresh food.”
People who arrive without advance notice are served whatever’s on offer that day. There is no menu, not even a specialty. “Even if they arrive at the last minute, I can always arrange something,” Clarice says, and then proceeds to list some of the dishes she regularly makes: golden dorado, tripas à moda do Porto (tripe stew), stewed pork, feijoada à transmontana (Trás-os-Montes-style beans and pork), octopus, francesinha (although she recommends ordering this sandwich in advance as “the sauce gets better overnight”) and the preferred bacalhau à Braga (Braga-style cod), “with a special sauce to soak the bread.” “The traditional [cuisine], isn’t it?” she says, as if suggesting that all houses should have these dishes at the ready. And in Porto, maybe they should.
It may be stating the obvious, but at Refúgio 112 “it’s all homemade food, as my mother taught me,” says Clarice – she’s the type of cook who tastes nothing, instead relying on her instincts and decades of experience. Although she knows how to make gourmet food, Clarice knows that people come here to taste home cooking.
They also come to spend time with Clarice. “They come to chat with me and have fun. Many friendships are gained here,” she says, recognizing that “sometimes I don’t understand my foreign guests, but I work hard to and they find it funny. There is no prejudice. They say it is as if they are at home.”
Despite the small and crowded space, Clarice doesn’t accept reservations, and she prefers to close Refúgio 112 when a large group enters. Like the time 18 Spaniards showed up – their picture is up on the wall, along with dozens of photographs of friends who, Clarice says, “always come back.” Joy, conversation and good food are “my way of creating my customers.” Clarice has even been known to sing on occasion, when the party is particularly boisterous.
Someone always shows up. “I’m never alone,” says Clarice. “Just yesterday, some friends stopped by for lunch and ate what was there: a black bean salad, while I made them a grilled steak,” improvised in the moment.
When her husband died of Covid-19 at the end of January, Clarice contemplated closing Refúgio 112 for good. Once again, it was her son who suggested that she keep the doors open. Even her doctor advised her to go back to work, to the place that brought vitality to her life. Her friends cheer her up, and the restaurant is small enough that Clarice can “give them special attention.” That is her own refuge, “that’s why I can’t leave this place.”
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