Perhaps coffee is underappreciated in Rio because it’s so plentiful. Brazil is the world’s largest producer of coffee, but both the selection and the presentation of the stuff you’ll find in Rio is hardly what a gringo dreams of in the capital country of café. Coffees here are cafezinhos, small, potent, highly sugary and with no milk. A cafezinho is taken standing up at a lanchonete (snack bar) or on a work break in the office in tiny medicine cups filled from an unseemly plastic cylinder. When Brazilians have seen the size of our morning coffee, many have expressed a concern that we could hurt ourselves with such a large quantity. (It’s just a coffee cup.)
Gringos who want to ask the local population out often grab at thin air wondering where they could take their dates in the absence of cafés, since going straight to a bar for drinks seems a little fast. (Though that’s really how it’s done.)
A café culture, however, is nascent. Since 2006 multiple Starbucks have opened across Brazilian cities, and chains like Cafeina (upscale bistro plus café) and MegaMatte (fast food with the highly sweetened maté tea and coffee) are prevalent. There are more original options, however, and these are our five favorites.
In Rio’s historic downtown, this vintage parlor serves up sweets and coffee in a variety of formats, like a média (coffee with milk) or cappuccino. Founded in 1860 by a Frenchman and frequented by the Rio upper class in the following decades, its green marquee on the commercial Rua Sete de Setembro is now a central point for the downtown market region where bargain-hunting Brazilians go to haggle on homewares and trinkets. The pastel de nata (custard tart) is a most traditional Portuguese sweet to accompany an espresso com chantilly (whipped cream).
There could hardly be a more beguiling place in Rio. At the foot of the Tijuca forest that would then take you up to the Christ statue, Parque Lage is a public park with an open-roofed mansion inside. Once the residence of a shipowner a century ago, the mansion now hosts art exhibitions and hikers who take the easy trek to a waterfall behind the grounds. Café D.R.I, inside the mansion, offers iced coffee and lattes in addition to an extensive breakfast menu and afternoon tea. Through the mansion’s open roof, diners can see the Christ statue watching over them. The charming locale is such a quintessentially Rio combination of tropical forest with shabby-chic architecture and a big-city backdrop that Snoop Dogg used it for the final scene of his “Beautiful” video.
We’ve written about the resurgence of the Praça da Bandeira when we went to Aconchego Carioca, which sits around the corner from Santa Filomena. The bright and intimate environment of Santa Filomena fits the gringo vision of a low-pressure-but-high-potential first-date locale. Just as important, it is the rare (if not the only) Rio restaurant to offer drip coffee to accompany its thoughtfully prepared Brazilian dishes, such as aipim (yucca) nhoque with shrimp. Spend an afternoon here after strolling through the well-worn Quinta da Boa Vista park, which is within walking distance.
Rio’s most heady café – and we mean that in an excellent way. Curto Café’s young founders would like you to rethink your relationship with pricing and financial transactions. Is that coffee good because you paid a high price for it? In this city of never-ending real estate speculation and ostentatious beachside dining, that’s about as baffling as a one-piece swimsuit. Curto’s staff instead put out a blackboard that counts out their costs and expenses, telling you that their prime material for a small espresso is 50 centavos. You are invited to pay above that amount. The balcony is an open space where drinkers and workers mix while they drink coffee that is purchased straight from producers in the state of Espírito Santo. The café is located on the second floor of a bus terminal in Rio’s bustling downtown, and the hours are meant to bring in the carioca working crowd.
Next to the Federal University’s school of social sciences and philosophy, one of the focal points of Brazil’s 2013 demonstrations, Caffé Olé sits inside a used bookstore. The Harry Potter-esque décor of tall, battered-book-lined walls is charming enough to warrant a visit, but to top it off, the café has a great menu. We suggest the sweet potato nhoque with gorgonzola cheese sauce and a pingado (“little drop”), an espresso with a bit of milk.
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