Breathless, sweaty and most definitely ready for food, I pushed open the glass door and stumbled inside.
“Are you still serving?” I asked, the words more direct than I’d have liked.
A man walked towards me, in black against the bright white walls, clear-varnished wood and chic-hipster vibe I’d pretended to ignore in case we didn’t fit in.
“But of course,” he replied, before catching sight of the pushchair and paraphernalia behind me.
“Oh…” he took a breath and paused. “Perhaps you’d prefer to sit by the box of toys. She can use our trike if you’d like. It used to belong to my daughter.
“And perhaps you would like some green wine? Some tosta de queijo mel e nozes? It is bread with cheese, honey and nuts.”
This wasn’t how it was meant to be, of course.
Relishing a few days in the foodie city of Lisbon, I’d scribbled suggestions, pinned pictures on Pinterest, flitted hearts across instagram and whatever else we’re supposed to do in this social media age before taking our taste buds anywhere.
I had the additional perk of knowing not one, not two but three food writers familiar with the city and, quite literally, ran into a woman who wrote the book on travel and eating out in Portugal only a few weeks before.
So where did I go wrong?
Opening times, that’s where.
Or perhaps the blame lay in abandoning my more natural happy-go-lucky spontaneous traveller vibe (we’ll call that the optimistic description) in favour of something more organised.
Still. I had a hungry toddler on my hands and a list of recommendations that ended in closed doors.
Until now, at Banca de Pau, a tapas-oriented restaurant specialising in food from Tras os Montes in the north near the Douro valley.
Recommended reading: 27 Ways Food and Travel Go Together (Not just for “Foodies”)
There comes a level of exhaustion and hunger that can make anything taste good. And thankfully, I wasn’t yet there.
But good the food did taste, all brimming with top ingredients, minimally messed with.
We ordered bread, olives. Tomato salad with vinaigrette and toast with pistachio.
And it turns out there really is such a thing as green wine (vinho verde from the Minho province in the Portugal’s far north.)
Faith and full belly restored, I was ready to try again.
The foodie spot on everyone’s tastebuds right now is the intriguingly named Time Out Market down, also called the Mercado da Ribeira, picked up by Lonely Planet as one of the reasons Portugal is on its 2018 Best in Travel List.
It has an ear for a zingy slogan: if it’s good it goes in the magazine (yes it’s that Time Out) if it’s great, it goes in the market.
The idea is cool, showcasing the city’s different flavours, and the execution is clearly cooler. Stalls use matching fonts on monochrome fabric and diners throng together on shared tables in the centre of the hall.
Ironically, this made it trickier for travel with baby, but a playground outside eased the congestion of that.
Another staple on the foodie scene is the home of the first pastel de nata, the Pasteis de Belem.
Uninspiringly described as egg custard tarts, these Portuguese sweet treats don’t look much better either.
But don’t let appearances fool.
Even for non-pastry lovers like myself (I’m more of a “meh” girl when it comes to croissants,) they won me over.
The pastry is light yet tough, the filling delicately flavoured.
You’ll find them everywhere, more or less, and having tasted some so incredible at an underground chain kiosk, I don’t really think you can go wrong.
But Pasteis de Belem is the famous one and rumoured to be the best, so if you have an appetite for queues and a hunger for pasteis then fire up your Google Maps and go.
The other staples of Lisbon dining are ovelha curado and presunto. Commonly brought out with while you choose your main dish, they taste amazing but come with an irritating trait: they’re presented as though they’re a gift from the chef but actually there’s a hefty fee.
On the rebound from pregnancy-related soft cheese bans, I relished every chance I could get.
The best came at the seafood restaurant café at the five star Tivoli Avenida Liberdade. The ham melted softly, the cheese bore the salty-smooth twang that most certainly is not to everyone’s taste but that had run off and eloped with mine.
For a city clustered over centuries around seven steep hills, Lisbon’s a place that excels in vistas and rooftop bars. And though the Tivoli’s Cervejaria Liberdade lives at street level, its Sky Bar and executive breakfast lounge offer views across the city that make you forget about the food.
The Sky Bar is open to all, serving cocktails like the Snowberry with port, lime juice, egg white and cinnamon. The sea glittered to order on the horizon and the leaves of Lisbon’s “Champs Elysees,” Avenida Liberdade, fluttered with self-conscious glamour below.
It’s a bright white, cool cat kind of a place, but for “rooftop views” with a casual feel, head deep into Alfama or take a tram or steep stride uphill to Jardín de São Pedro de Alcântara.
The former is the oldest part of the city, where streets are even narrower, even steeper, even more cobblier than the rest.
Vegetarian Graca 77 captures this through its watercolours but wears the 21st century in its reinterpretation of Portugal’s trademark azulejo tiles.
São Pedro de Alcântara, however, rustles up standard tourist fare with a happy tourist vibe. The scaffolding was up when I met my companions for the Highlights of Portugal G Adventures tour, but with the sunset, the music and the stands that looked like mulled wine, it scarcely mattered.
And then there was the tomato salad at the Banca de Pau.
With its fresh, great flavours and the man who lent his daughter’s trike.
It was like finding friends in the city. An experience so good we went there twice, once bringing our Lisbon-local friend with us.
And the whole thing reminded me of a long-held truth: no matter how hard you plan, sometimes it pays to make travel mistakes.
Café Versailles – yes, it has a French vibe and we’re talking about eating in Lisbon but it’s an atmospheric haunt and beloved by loyal locals. Pastries galore, character in fin de siecle abandon.
A Padaria Portuguesa – Am I recommending a chain on a travel blog specialising in unusual and thoughtful luxury? Yes, indeed I am. A chain it may be but it’s certainly a Portuguese chain that provides plenty of Lisbon restaurants where locals eat. A good stop for breakfast or a mid morning snack.
Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Hotel – for the view. The breakfast buffet is top notch but it’s the view that steals the show.
Prado – lots of fresh vegetables, often a novelty when eating out in Portugal! Recommended by Food and the Fab.
I spent a few days in Lisbon with my family and then travelled north through Portugal on the Highlights of Portugal tour as part of my work with Lonely Planet and G Adventures. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, there’s just no point. For all the pastries in the world.
Some of the other recommendations were hosted, some were not, but all were only included because I like them and would gladly do them again.
How does food work when you travel with G Adventures? On this trip, most meals were not included so that you could test out whatever took your fancy (the group size means that some of the smaller sized places aren’t suitable if you’re all eating together.) Occasional dinners were included and plenty of suggestions were made.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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