If you go to Rio’s Café Lamas to see where leftist organizers met during Brazil’s military dictatorship, go to Majórica to eat steak where the city’s business and political elites gather today. Located on a residential street in Rio’s Flamengo neighborhood, the restaurant from the outside looks like a three-story house, but for the neon red cursive sign with its name. It was founded in 1963 by two brothers from the Spanish island of Majorca and is now owned by the daughter of one brother, together with 79-year-old Galician-born Ernesto Rodriguez, who worked his way up from being the restaurant’s janitor 50 years ago.
“When I was 25, I had a friend in Spain who was a travel agent and told me that Brazil was a good place to have an adventure,” says Rodriguez. “I arrived in Brazil in 1962 and started working in a bakery near Praça Mauá, in the Port Zone, the hub of the city back then. I heard a man from Spain passing by, started speaking to him, and learned they needed help at their restaurant.”
At Majórica, some Spanish dishes are still cooked today, such as a popular seafood paella, but the restaurant’s reputation is based on its Brazilian-style meat grilled over flames and embers – or churrasco. The founders realized this was what pleased crowds and so studied the perfect cooking times for steaks, chicken and sausages. After moving up to kitchen prep, Rodriguez spent 12 years training on the grill and now picks the restaurant’s cuts of meat and fish. “In addition to refining our recipes, another early strategy to attract guests was to give a discount to the attractive female students at the university nearby,” he adds.
Today, Majórica’s clientele includes businesspeople who work nearby and downtown during the week and families on nights and weekends, some of whom have been eating here for three generations. For Sunday lunch, the line out the front door starts at 12:30 p.m. Every Rio governor since the restaurant opened has eaten here, and it is also a favorite of the staff of Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras. (Now that Petrobras is under investigation for several bribery charges, Rodriguez has noted a decline in the number of meals taken here by its employees.)
Unlike many other churrascarias in Rio, service is à la carte instead of rodizio-style (where meats are constantly brought around to tables by servers). Instead, if customers need further convincing than the menu offers, they can go look at a huge deli case of uncooked meats by the grill and select the one they think has a cara boa – literally “good face,” or appetizing look.
Most importantly, Majórica has the most tender, just-salted-enough, taste-lingers-in-your-mouth, can-I-get-a-red-wine-with-that steak experience that we’ve had in Rio. You’re in Brazil, so order picanha, the prized cut of beef known as the top sirloin cap or the rump cap in English. At Majórica, the picanha comes from Argentina, as do many wines (we recommend malbec, or if you’d like a Brazilian wine, the rich and soft Casa Valduga cabernet from the southern Rio Grande do Sul state). Wines from Spain and Portugal are also are available, as are cuts of beef from Brazil as well as Argentina. Majórica’s filet mignon and contrafilé (tenderloin) are also popular, as well as Spanish-style polvo (octopus) and bacalhau (cod). Sometimes, the restaurant grills Brazilian cherne and badejo fish, fresh from the Mercado São Pedro in Niteroi.
But picanha reigns. On the menu as ponto de picanha, it is served for two, three or four people – and although the restaurant can slice the steaks before they reach your table, we recommend waiting until the last possible moment to do so. In traditional churrasco style, the steak is seared with sal grosso, or coarse salt. The friendly, attentive staff recommended it be cooked no more than ao ponto, or medium (mal passado is rare and bem passado is well-done).
Either as part of a couvert with breads and cheeses or on its own, the sausage (linguiça) with fresh chopped tomato and onion molho de campanha is a popular starter here, and to accompany main courses, Majórica is famous for its puffed potatoes, called batata pastel for their similarity in texture to Rio’s fried, dough-wrapped snacks. To make these, potatoes are sliced into sticks and chilled so that the temperature change when they’re popped into frying oil makes them puff up on the inside. For dessert, delicate profiteroles with ice cream and bitter dark chocolate sauce are the house favorite, for a finish that is not overpoweringly sweet.
A wealthy family built Majorica’s house in 1892; it was a hotel before becoming a restaurant, and the front dining rooms still have stucco arches and hand-painted tiles that have changed little over the years. The back of the restaurant was burned in a fire in 2012 but has been rebuilt since, and longtime guests have contributed gifts to the eclectic décor, such as Spanish bagpipes above one archway and soccer balls from the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Plates from different countries line the wood-paneled walls in the rebuilt part of the restaurant. Maroon-vested waiters circle the floor.
While a date in at Rio’s Maré food festival will certainly reveal opinions your significant other may have about public security policy, we recommend Majórica for a quiet evening wistfully staring into your someone’s eyes with a succulent steak below. Then again, the meat is so delicious that you would be justified making a date with the steak itself.