After Portugal, Spain is second in exerting the most influence over the traditional bars and botequins of Rio. Even though the number of immigrants from Spain is less than that of Germany or Italy, the Spanish, like the Portuguese, took over much of the popular commerce in the city at the end of 19th century and the first half of the 20th.
It’s no wonder, then, that so much of carioca gastronomy these days shows the imprint of the Spanish kitchen. Even botequins – humble bars that serve cheap, tasty snacks – that aren’t straight-up Spanish might serve the tortilla-like fritadas, made with eggs, ham, cheese and, very often, sardines or tuna, as well as huge sandwiches, similar to bocadillos, filled with salami, ham, meat and cheese in various combinations.
Unsurprisingly, the place many people consider the best sandwich bar in Rio is the famous Cervantes (Rua Barata 7, telephone: +55 21 2275 6147), in Copacabana. The bar that carries the name of one of the most important Spanish writers of all times is a symbol of Spanish pride in the popular gastronomy of the city.
But Cervantes has become so famous that it’s practically an official tourist attraction and not considered a botequim any more. There are plenty of other bars that are not as famous – some are even obscure – and that are definitely worth a visit. These are a few of our favorites.
Mr. Juan’s establishment is one of the most traditional among those of the Spanish school. In the old days, back when Rio was the capital, important political figures would frequent this bar. One of them, Oswaldo Aranha, was the minister of foreign affairs during World War II. Nearly every day, Aranha asked the cook to prepare a tender cut of beef with rice, potatoes, toasted manioc flour and lots of garlic – a dish that became known as “Filé à Oswaldo Aranha.” It’s now one of the most popular in carioca gastronomy and is well known all over the country.
In 1953, two Spanish friends opened this botequim in the heart of the city. Another pair of friends made it famous, however: It was at Casa Villarino that Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim first met. The most popular music partners in Brazilian history – they wrote “The Girl from Ipanema” together – would sit at their regular table to talk about compositions, accompanied by copious amounts of Scotch whisky and peanuts. Villarino is also immensely popular because of the tapas it serves, such as plates of thinly sliced ham, salami, bread and canned seafood. We also recommend lunch here, featuring that particularly Iberian dish of grilled octopus with rice and broccoli.
Fifty years ago, two Spanish immigrant friends took charge of an old bar called Gaiato da Veiga and rechristened it Gracioso. Since then, it has become the best botequim in Região Portuária, the neighborhood located near the old harbor. Nowadays, Gracioso is run by Tino Iglesias, the son of one of the founders, and is known particularly for its cachaça, or sugarcane liquor, terrific bolinhos de abóbora com carne seca (little fried balls filled with pumpkin and dried meat) and wonderful Spanish-inspired dishes. The “Filé a Gracioso” is one of the most delicious meat dishes you’ll ever find in a botequin.
Two years ago, a serious fire almost destroyed the bar, but the place reopened at the beginning of 2014, totally refurbished and without losing any of its traditional Spanish ambience.
(top photos by Vinicius Camiza; above photo by Lianne Milton)
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