In a city with no shortage of postcard views, Bar Urca’s may get the title for most picturesque. The eponymous residential neighborhood where the bar is located faces Guanabara Bay, where a colorwheel of boats and yachts bobble on the slow waves leading up to the seawall. Across the bay, the iconic Christ statue watches over everyone from atop Corcovado peak behind the neighborhood of Botafogo.
Bar Urca was opened by German immigrants in 1939, and the second floor of the building was vandalized and destroyed during World War II due to the owners’ national origin. The restaurant on the top floor closed, and only the bar remained open on the ground floor in the following years.
In the meantime, over in the Ipanema area, Armando Gomes watched an invasion of another sort take place around his bar. What was once a leisurely beachside neighborhood was being bought up by a shopping mall developer, and his establishment was the last to sell out.
“At a certain moment, he was alone,” says Armando Gomes Neto, his grandson, now a partner in Bar Urca.
In 1972, Gomes Senior moved his business to Urca, which sits on a narrow peninsula extending from Sugarloaf Mountain out to a large military fort, with highly coveted residences in the strip nestled between Guanabara Bay and the high waves of the Atlantic. The uptight zoning restrictions of Urca would mean that no hotel or mall could ever kick them out. When the grandson wanted to change the sign on the bar’s storefront, it took him six months to get permission from the city.
The bar, which is open from early morning to late at night, sells the standard caipirinhas and beers in addition to favorite carioca snacks, like bolinho de bacalhau (battered and fried cod fish balls), pastéis (fried pockets) filled with meat or cheese and the specialty caldo de frutos do mar, a thick seafood stew – Bar Urca gets fresh deliveries from a fisherman in the Região dos Lagos, about two hours east of the city – full of squid and generous portions of fish, heartily flavored with olives and tomato and popular among the snackers who come to relax on the seawall. The buttery empadas (flaky meat pies), filled with meaty shreds of crab, chicken or beef as well as cheese, shrimp or hearts of palm are a favorite item.
Urca is a rare Rio neighborhood where a bicyclist can be free from fear of the city’s notoriously wheel-screeching, curb-hugging buses, and cyclists often take a spin around the neighborhood before an afternoon pick-me-up.
The Gomes family reopened the vandalized second-floor restaurant 15 years ago. Here families crowd into the small space with a large bay-view window to share heaping platters of polvo grelhado (grilled squid), arroz com brócolis (rice with broccoli), a variety of moquecas (coconut milk-based stews, often with fish or shrimp) and risottos. The rich Portuguese cuisine is heavy on the sauces, and one plate can easily feed three for lunch.
Living by the sea in a country with so much shoreline – head to toe, Brazil has more than 4,600 miles of coast – cariocas have a particularly strong affinity for the beach and can describe in rich detail the sand, wave and water quality in beaches around the country. We have long been impressed with how the carioca, when he goes on vacation, often goes to – why? – another beach. That aptitude is captured in the phrase, “fazer praia.” What are you doing this weekend? I’m “doing beach,” the carioca says.
Consider Bar Urca the cherished watering hole for the carioca beach-doer and water-gazer. “You come here, eat well, and watch the sun set,” says Neto.