How to Pick a Restaurant in Portugal

What are the best restaurants in Portugal? The best restaurants are right for you personally.

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best restaurants in Portugal
Is there a Platonic ideal of the Portuguese restaurant experience?  The truest, most authentic expression of not just traditional Portuguese cuisine, but something quintessentially Portuguese in how a restaurant serves the food?
After fifteen years of dining out in Portugal, and visits to hundreds of Portuguese restaurants throughout the country, for me the answer is yes.  This “Portuguese restaurant essence” as I think of it includes five critical elements: 1) a simple white linen cloth over the table; 2) dark-stained, antique wooden chairs, just comfortable enough to linger over the meal, but not a minute longer; 3) Portuguese azulejos (tiles) or winemaking accoutrements or something about Portuguese colonial history decorating the walls; 4) a rushed, slightly gruff, but impeccably formal server, usually an older gentleman, who cannot be stumped by any question about the menu unless it’s whether the only vegetarian option is *really* vegetarian; and 5) a menu in Portuguese, with a too literal, slightly off English translation underneath some of the menu items but, mysteriously, not all of them. 
For my taste, the best restaurants in Lisbon, Porto, and pretty much all the country – if we define “best” as hewing most closely to traditional Portuguese cuisine – will generally exhibit most of these characteristics.  They are locked in amber, untouched by the ravages of time and the demands of gastro sophisticates.  The ingredient list tends toward the simple, which is hard to mess up and usually tastes hearty and delicious – if you like simple, that is.
Of course, not everybody does.  If we look at the Portuguese restaurants winning awards, the chefs that grace magazine covers and make appearances on the Portuguese editions of shows like Top Chef, many of them have stepped out of the amber – and right into something you might see in New York or London or Dubai. Traditional cuisine is “reinterpreted” or “fusioned” away almost completely and the décor leans minimalist chic. Sometimes, these changes are to good effect.  The food can be a fresh take on the original or an unexpectedly delightful pairing of Portuguese flavors with those native to somewhere else.  And the seating is mercifully comfortable.  But sometimes we’re just talking about six courses of forgettable emulsions and reductions.  However, the atmosphere excites in these places, with sleek design and a carefully calibrated playlist.  You can’t fault the younger generations, in particular, for not wanting to hang out at grandpa’s (and my) favorite haunts.
So, which of these kinds of restaurants are the ones you ought to seek out when you come to Portugal?  Naturally, this depends upon you.
For the hard-core foodies out there, you can stop reading now.  You already know how to find your people, no matter the country or cuisine.  In fact, you probably already have a working list of restaurants you want to try.
But for anyone who isn’t full-on committed to jumping down the internet rabbit hole of certified agricultural regions, flavor profiles, modes of preparation, chefs, and sous chefs – especially if you’re just coming for a short visit – there is a quick and easy way to pick a good restaurant here.  You just need to keep two factors in mind: your “food personality” that will dictate how far you can comfortably venture into traditional versus modern cuisine without regret, and your tolerance for travel planning.

Traditional Versus Modern Portuguese Cuisine: What Does It Mean, and Do you Really Care?

For a country only about the size of the US state of Illinois, Portugal has strong regional influences in its cooking.  In broad terms, though, many common themes show up repeatedly throughout the country and keeping them in mind can help you understand what the “traditional” means in traditional Portuguese cuisine.
Like many countries the world over, the Portuguese historically ate a mostly vegetarian diet, meat being prohibitively expensive, and livestock being used primarily in farming, not food.  Today, leafy greens, cabbage, carrots, chickpeas, and potatoes continue to be stock items in many Portuguese dishes, and the main ingredients in soup, still one of the primary delivery vehicles here for meeting the daily dose of vegetables, especially for kids.  Until about the mid twentieth century, what little meat the Portuguese did consume tended to be enchidos, salted or cured meats such as presunto or sausages, that resisted spoilage.  In general, only a small taste would be added to the soup or vegetable dish for flavoring, or as an accompaniment on the side.  Uncured pork, lamb, and goat were (and are) consumed as well, more so than beef even, but mostly on feast days and special occasions.
If you’ve heard anything about Portuguese food, it’s probably that they eat a lot of cod, or bacalhau, and this fish, too, was dried and salted for preservation, and remains the principal way cod is sold in Portugal.  When you get it home, salted cod is soaked in water to remove the salt prior to cooking.  Bacalhau cozido (boiled cod) is a staple dish at Christmas, which I talk about here, and the Portuguese have so many different bacalhau recipes that people say there’s one for every day of the year.   (Fun fact: cod is actually native to the far northern, and much colder, Atlantic Ocean, not Portuguese waters, and the industry dates back to the Age of Exploration when Portuguese navigators were searching for a route to India but ended up in Greenland fishing cod instead. Whoops.)
Nowadays, the Portuguese are the largest consumers of fish in the European Union, most of which is imported cod, followed by locally caught sardines.  (For my American friends, I highly encourage you to put away your stereotypes and try fresh grilled sardines if you are in Portugal during the spring or summer.  They are delicious.)  For this reason, some nutritionists describe Portugal as following what they call the Atlantic Diet.  It’s broadly similar to the Mediterranean Diet, with its liberal use of olive oil and wine with meals, but includes more fish and meat.
In fact, the Portuguese actually consume more red meat than fish, which brings me to an important point about traditional Portuguese restaurants: you’re not going to be eating like a 19th century Portuguese peasant in any of them.  Basically, you’ll be served an interpretation of what Portuguese peasants might have eaten if, well, they weren’t peasants, with orders of magnitude more animal protein, to the chagrin of environmentalists everywhere.
In that sense, comida típica, traditional Portuguese food, represents more of a nod to the recent past than something strictly faithful to historical reality.  However, in defense of traditional cooking, it’s closer to historical reality than what many, if not most, modern restaurants here serve up, and, usually, a strong dose of humility characterizes this cuisine, something often extinguished by Michelin Stars and breathless magazine spreads.  For me, that’s the charm.
But – and there’s always a but – you have to be honest with yourself.  What do you care most about when you go out to eat?
If you think fish tastes “fishy”; if “whole animal” use strikes the fear of god in you that you’ll accidentally stab a pig entrail with your fork; if you’re more comfortable being served by a pert, young, fully-fluent English speaker than taking a chance with your dicey Portuñol (i.e., some high school Spanish you remember plus six words of Portuguese you learned on the plane ride over); or if you’ve ever been concerned with scoring a reservation to a hot new restaurant at home, you’ll probably be happier in a modern Portuguese restaurant.  And fear not: the best of these will still give you a taste of traditional Portuguese flavors without all the…tradition. 
As an added benefit, modern Portuguese restaurants are easy to find online.  The Fork and Open Table usually list more modern restaurants than traditional ones, whose owners, unsurprisingly, tend not to be Very Online. You can easily search by location and cuisine.  And look, if you would genuinely prefer a high-concept, Portuguese-Japanese fusion restaurant, you’ll get no judgment from me.  But please, at least drink Portuguese wine.  I talk about how to order a decent bottle here.
For the rest of you, especially the ones who want to try at least one place that doesn’t serve anything you can get back home, a good place to look is at the Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurants in Portugal.  These are not expensive Michelin Starred restaurants, just places with good – and usually great – food at affordable prices.  Not all the Portuguese Bib Gourmand restaurants are especially traditional, but many of them are.  Bonus tip: if you are looking to branch out beyond Lisbon, which I hope you do when you visit, I talk here about Bib Gourmand restaurants outside of Lisbon that you may want to check out, including what is interesting to see and do locally before or after you dine

Reservations Versus Serendipity: To Reserve or Not Reserve, That Is the Question

Which of these two tourists in Lisbon do you identify more closely with? 
A) The sun is setting.  You just bravely walked the hills of Alfama instead of darting around in a tuk-tuk because you didn’t want to look like a tourist, a wasted effort because all the Portuguese can tell you’re a tourist from a mile away.  Hungry and tired, you shuffle longingly past a line of outdoor cafés with open seats on Rua Augusta when suddenly a man thrusts an enormous menu into your hands – it’s as heavy as a dictionary – and begins addressing you in German, then Spanish, then English, any language you’ll answer “yes” to so he can coax you to an empty table.  You wonder if this place has “authentic” Portuguese food and look down at the menu.  There is a picture of a paella dish on it.  Don’t they eat paella in Spain?    
Indian Italian
Possibly not be the most authentic restaurant in Portugal. Or India. Or Italy.
B) You step out of the shower in your hotel room, glad you decided to skip waiting in a sweaty line to visit yet another church this afternoon.  You get it.  Jesus is big here.  After getting dressed, you pour yourself a crisp glass of vinho verde from the bottle you picked up at a wine tasting yesterday, then sit down to look at the list of restaurants you put together back home before you left. You choose a place that looks straight out of a different century that some random American blogger said means it’s “traditional” and call the hotel front desk to see if they’ll make a reservation for you, just in case it’s a busy night.  They reserve a table at 8:30 PM – the restaurant isn’t even open yet – and since you’re an American ready for dinner at 6:30 PM, you head over to Rua Augusta to see if you can score some Portuguese petiscos to tide you over.
Let’s face it: not everybody is a planner.  Also, stuff happens when you’re travelling, and you need to be flexible.  Plus, who wants to be confined to a schedule when you’re on vacation? That’s what work is for.  Restaurants are everywhere in big cities like Lisbon, and you can find something tasty just walking around the busy areas.  Not everything needs to be a gourmet experience, right?
This was my general travel philosophy when I was younger.   Then, I met my future husband, Nuno. 
Nuno was a planner.  So.  Much.  Planning.  For any trip we’d take, he’d spend hours putting together a “suggested itinerary” of sights to see and restaurants to try, according to neighborhood and/or travel distance.  The idea was not to do everything on the list, but rather to not find ourselves walking blindly into a place and crossing our fingers that it would be good. 
The first time I encountered this travesty of travel romance was on…wait for it…our honeymoon.  We were getting married in a private ceremony, just the two of us, in Santorini, Greece, and travelling to Rome afterwards for the honeymoon.  I howled in laughter at his three-page, carefully formatted Word document.  He had to be kidding.
But hot damn, I never ate so well as we did in Rome.
Now, maybe that’s just because everything in Italy is delicious, and if we had relied on serendipity, the good fortune of always walking into the perfect restaurant at the perfect time, it would have been equally as good.  My later travel experiences, though, suggest that luck had nothing to do with it.
In some of my first forays as a widowed, single mother traveling with two children, I harkened back to my “I don’t have the time or patience to read restaurant reviews” days and decided to wing it.  It wasn’t long before I realized that Nuno had the right idea.
My advice to you? If you don’t want to do a lot of restaurant planning, try one of two things.  Either commit to a *teensy, weensy* bit of planning before you get to Portugal and identify one or two restaurants, something near your hotel or in the neighborhood you’ll be spending the most time in, that seem interesting enough to try. (Of course, I suggest you go traditional, but you do you.)  And make a reservation, or have the hotel do it for you. If it’s even remotely popular, a weekend, or peak tourist season, you’ll need one. 
Alternatively, just ask the concierge or desk attendant at your hotel to recommend something good nearby that tourists don’t usually go to.  You do not want to leave Portugal thinking that paella served by someone who does not speak Portuguese represents traditional, modern, or any other kind of Portuguese cuisine – even if you do end up eating it once or twice just for the prime people watching the restaurant offers.
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