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The locals of the Morro da Conceição are a proud bunch, and with good reason. To the north the cargo and cruise ships of Rio’s Port Zone steam in and steam out of Guanabara Bay. To their south the centro overflows with working cariocas during commercial hours. By evening, the centro becomes sparsely populated stretches of concrete and highway. The residents of Morro da Conceição have witnessed Rio history on its various sides.

The samba at Pedra do Sal at the quilombo – traditionally a runaway slave community, though the term has also come to be used for urban areas that blacks settled in after abolition – abuts the small hillside. The New Blacks Cemetery, where African slaves who died shortly after arriving in Brazil were interred, was discovered about a decade ago by a resident in neighboring Gamboa, who thought she’d found the site of a massacre. The hill overlooks Valongo wharf, where an estimated half million blacks entered Brazil to make this now the country with the greatest number of African descendents outside Nigeria.

Now the Morro da Conceição is a charmingly preserved page in the Rio history book, and the pages around it are being rapidly rewritten. The Port Zone is undergoing a rapid government-led reform that promises to clean up the industrial region in a way that promises to bring the good, the bad and the ugly of gentrification. Presidente Vargas and Rio Branco avenues are a sea of honking horns and jaywalkers.

In Conceição, however, you will still find the vestiges of the Rio Antigo that was the capital of Brazil and the Portuguese empire. The refurbished Valongo Gardens offer a charming passeio (jaunt) in the neighborhood, while the São Francisco da Prainha Catholic church looks like that mothballed vintage dress no one remembered to clean for decades, with its dirty white walls and patches of grass growing on its ceiling.

Bar Imaculada sits at the end of a cobblestone street so steep that taxi drivers resist going there, afraid they won’t be able to reverse and get out. It’s connected to the ground-level Mauá plaza by a staircase. The bar was once a small grocer, which turned three years ago into a gallery and restaurant. It’s packed during lunchtime, when cariocas take their sacred horário de almoço (attention, journalists: do not count on calling your sources between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.). Cheery stragglers keep the bar open until at least 10 p.m., when the petisco (appetizer) menu is on tap. Imaculada is taking part in Rio’s annual Comida di Buteco, so until May 11, you can order the bar’s entry in the competition: white cheese covered in Doritos, fried and served with guava sauce – a twist on the Brazilian favorite of white cheese and guava, which are said to go so well together they are Romeu e Julieta. A house favorite is the Bola 7, black beans and bacon covered with ground corn and served with garlic mayo and spicy jelly.

The bar gets its holier-than-thou name (“Immaculate”) from the hill’s name (“Conception”), but that doesn’t mean they’re not partial to sinful humor. One bawdily named petisco is Fátima’s Miraculous Punheta. (Punho means “fist,” therefore making punheta recreational activity that does not lead to conceição.) Kyvia Rodrigues, an actress, performer and multi-tasking employee and host of Imaculada, remembers a day when a regular client ordered the dish and the restaurant was out. “I owe you a punheta!” she told him apologetically.

In a city rushing to enter the coterie of global cosmopolitan capitals, Imaculada instead looks inward to national culture for its expos and events. On the first Saturday of each month the bar invites up-and-coming Brazilian artists to display their work, and at the middle of the month, it displays a well-known national artist.

“We always privilege national culture when we can,” says Ms. Rodrigues. A bar where workers slowly drink the evening away is already about as carioca as its gets, she adds. “The botequim is a very Brazilian thing.”

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Nadia Sussman

Published on April 28, 2014

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