The Portuguese love to sit down for a meal, whether it's a traditional little restaurant that offers office workers home cooking at a modest price or a fancy white-tablecloth place with modern takes on old classics.
Although Portugal's plush, luxury restaurants can be very good, they don't always measure up to their counterparts in other European countries. The best food by far tends be found in the moderately priced and less-expensive spots. Don't expect much in the way of decor, and if you have trouble squeezing in, remember the rule of thumb: if it's packed, it's probably good.
Restaurants featuring charcoal-grilled meats and fish, called churrasqueiras, are also popular (and often economical) options, and the Brazilian rodízio-type restaurant, where you are regaled with an endless offering of spit-roasted meats, is entrenched in Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve.
Shellfish restaurants, called marisqueiras, are numerous along the coast; note that lobsters, mollusks, and the like are fresh and good but pricey. Restaurant prices fall appreciably when you leave the Lisbon, Porto, and Algarve areas, and portion sizes increase the farther north you go.
While you ponder the menu, you may be served an impressive array of appetizers. If you eat any of these, you'll probably be charged a small amount called a coberto or couvert. If you don't want these appetizers, you're perfectly within your rights to send them back. However, you should do this right away.
Portuguese restaurants serve an ementa (or prato) do dia, or set menu of three courses. This can be a real bargain—usually 80% of the cost of three courses ordered separately.
Vegetarians can have a tough time in Portugal, although sopa de legumes (vegetable soup) is often included as a starter, together with the inevitable salada (salad). In general, the only other option (for vegetarians) are omelets. The larger cities and the Algarve have a few vegetarian restaurants, and Chinese, Italian, and Indian restaurants are increasingly common and always have plenty of vegetarian (and vegan) options.
Meals and Mealtimes
Breakfast (pequeno almoço) is the lightest meal, usually consisting of nothing more than a croissant or pastry washed down with coffee; lunch (almoço), the main meal of the day, is served between noon and 3 pm, although nowadays, office workers in cities often grab a quick sandwich in a bar instead of stopping for a big meal. Some cafés and snack bars serve light meals throughout the afternoon.
Around 5 pm, there's a break for coffee or tea and a pastry; dinner (jantar) is eaten around 8 pm, and restaurants generally serve from 7 pm to 10 pm. Monday is a common day for restaurants to close, although this does vary and is noted in the restaurant listings.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Major credit cards are accepted in better restaurants and those geared to tourists, particularly on the Algarve. Humbler establishments generally only accept cash. Always check first, or you may end the evening washing dishes.
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it's a good idea to make a reservation if you can. In some places (Lisbon, for example), it's expected. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there's no other way you'll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted.
For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Portuguese wines are inexpensive and, in general, good. Even the vinho da casa (house wine) is perfectly drinkable in most restaurants. Among the most popular are the reds from the Dão and Douro regions, Bairrada from the Coimbra/Aveiro region, and Ribatejo and Liziria from the Ribatejo region. The light, sparkling vinhos verdes ("green wines," named not for their color but for the fact that they're drunk early and don't improve with age) are also popular.
The Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (Douro and Port Wine Institute), the Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes (Vinho Verde Region Viticulture Commission), and Vinhos de Portugal (Wines of Portugal) have fascinating websites—with information in several languages, including English—that will help you learn more about Portuguese wines.
The leading brands of Portuguese beer—including Super Bock, Cristal, Sagres, and Imperial—are available on tap and in bottles or cans. They're made with fewer chemicals than the average American beers, and are on the strong side with a good, clean flavor. Local brandy—namely Macieira and Constantino—is cheap, as is domestic gin, although it's marginally weaker than its international counterparts.
You have to be 16 or older to drink and buy beer and wine and 18 or older to drink and buy spirits at shops, supermarkets, bars, and restaurants. Note that having brandy with your morning coffee will mark you as a local.
Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes. www.vinhoverde.pt.
Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto. www.ivdp.pt.
Vinhos de Portugal (Wines of Portugal). www.winesofportugal.info.