For a city whose natural beauty is what often sweeps visitors off their feet, Rio’s historical gems often look a little like urban ugly ducklings when compared to the bikini crowds and chic bars on sandy Ipanema beach. That’s a shame, because Rio Antigo has a great story to tell. Old Rio runs along the Guanabara Bay rather than the open Atlantic, and it was the former that gave the city its name – River of January – when Portuguese explorers came upon it in the first month of 1502. The now downtown area from São Bento Monastery to Castelo Hill, approximately at the current Carioca metro station, was the hub of city life throughout a dynamic period of Brazilian history. Rio Antigo was the epicenter of the Brazilian colonial project on through the time when the Portuguese court relocated to Rio de Janeiro as Napoleonic forces invaded Lisbon and to when Dom Pedro I – the son of the fugitive royal family – declared Brazil an independent republic in 1822 and Rio its original capital.
Copacabana and Ipanema, by comparison, only began to be populated around the turn of the 20th century, and were once considered distant from the economic hub of the city’s center.
The history that imbues Rio Antigo is why you’ll have to elbow your way through crowds to get into Confeitaria Colombo, many of whom are Brazilian tourists there just to take a picture. Opened in 1894, Colombo is the oldest Rio restaurant in its original building. (Café Lamas takes the cake for oldest Rio eatery.)
The establishment’s belle époque architecture is a reminder of a grander Rio. Wrought-iron-rimmed mirrors extend to the first floor’s molded gold-trim ceiling, and the dining room of the second floor has a large opening that allows the stained-glass ceiling of the building to be visible from the ground. Soft yellow lights illuminate the elegant glass cases on the walls and the round marble-topped tables where sweets and snacks are served on turquoise-accented china.
Until 1970, men were required to come in suits and ties and women in hats. The charm of Colombo nowadays is that thanks to its relatively accessible prices (a pastry can be as low as $3), you’ll come across families and tourists from other parts of Brazil who step inside Colombo’s gilded walls for a taste of what was once Rio’s glamorous life. Distinguished guests have included Belgian King Albert I and Queen Elizabeth, not to mention Brazilian presidents Getúlio Vargas (one of Brazil’s most divisive historical figures) and Juscelino Kubitschek (who would take the capital away from Rio and build a new one, Brasília, from scratch).
With a largely Portuguese menu of sweets, sandwiches and crepes, Brazilian items, such as feijoada, have also crept onto the menu. But as a confeitaria, sweets are hands-down Colombo’s forte. In fact, it sells some 50,000 pastries a month. As we sat down for a taste of Colombo’s specialties, waiter Orlando Duque generously informed us that his favorite is the pastel de nata (also referred to as a pastel de Belém), or egg custard tart. At 76, Duque has become one of the tourist attractions of Colombo. He started working at the Confeitaria at age 14, cleaning floors. “It was my first and only job,” Duque says. His original work contract, with a sepia photo of a boyish face, is on display in the glass case at the Confeitaria’s entrance.
It would take a career as long as Duque’s to try the full sweets menu: highlights include the pastel de avelã (hazlenut pastry), a richly nutty treat, and the mil folhas de creme (flaky pastry with custard). Crepes are almost too rich to eat alone, like the crepe de quatro queijos e nozes, with rich white cheeses and whole pecans.
In a city known for its vices, a pastry at Rio Antigo’s Colombo makes for sweet relief.