You have to respect a place that serves steak sandwiches for dessert. Especially when that place is a seafood restaurant.
Cervejaria Ramiro is packed tonight, full to bursting with locals and travellers, with the young and the elderly, with families yelling at each other across tables and old blokes nursing beers at the bar, with wide-eyed tourists taking photos of the fish tanks and couples trying in vain to have a quiet date. Waiters flow through this chaos with practiced nonchalance, slinging plates and calling orders. The chefs look serious as they bang out dish after dish of the freshest and tastiest seafood in all of Lisbon.
When you order prawns at Ramiro, you get prawns. Just prawns. Two big, juicy crustaceans fresh from the Atlantic, sliced down the middle, grilled with salt and a squeeze of lemon, served side by side on a metal plate. When you order a langostine, you get a langostine. A single perfect specimen, blushing red from a pot of boiling water, served on a metal plate.
Everything at Ramiro is like this. The clams are like this, the crabs are like this, the goose barnacles are like this, and the lobster is like this. Very few flavours are added. There are no vegetables or salads. Everything tastes as close to its natural state as possible.
And that is why you need to finish the meal with something more substantial, to ensure you're sated. At Ramiro that comes in the form of a "prego", a Portuguese steak sandwich, a simple cut of beef with a little mustard, slapped on a dense roll. Dessert is served.
Cervejaria Ramiro is not just everything that's great about seafood – it's everything that's great about Portuguese food, and in particular the cuisine of the nation's capital, Lisbon. Food here is unpretentious and simple. It's almost universally ignored by the rest of the world – when was the last time you went out for Portuguese? – and even in its homeland it's not exactly spoken about in hushed, reverent tones. It is what it is: modest, and yet very, very good. Food in Lisbon is the slabs of bacalhao, or salted cod, that are fried and served with potatoes and olives at Merendinha do Arco, a small eatery with communal tables and cheap wine. It's the deep-fried baby mackerels served whole at the friendly Taberna da Rua das Flores. It's the pasteis de nata, or Portuguese tarts, that people line up around the block for at Pasteis de Belem. It's the tuna, marinated and tinned by a family that has been doing it for generations at Conserveira de Lisboa.
Food is relished in Lisbon, it's eaten with gusto and joy. It tastes incredibly good. It's just not taken too seriously. Even some of the city's best restaurants have a sense of fun to them. There's a bar called "By The Wine" – an odd attempt at an English pun, though it serves some of the best modern-style cuisine in Lisbon. Sea Me has a similar story – dodgy name, amazing food.
And you don't even have to visit a restaurant to get the good stuff here: most of Lisbon's best chefs and restaurants operate out of an old market in the lower reaches of Bairro Alto, a shabby-chic suburb filled with live music venues and crumbling apartment blocks. Walk down the hill, winding through cobbled streets, and you come to Mercado da Ribeira, a fresh food market that first opened in 1892, but for the last three years has been run by the magazine group Time Out.
The company encouraged Lisbon's foodie stars to open a second outlet there, meaning all the city's greatest hits are under one roof. Sea Me has an outlet. So does Conserveira da Lisboa. Garrafeira Nacional, stockist of Portugal's best wines, has a shop, and there's also Manteigara, which makes some of Lisbon's best pasteis de nata.
Ribeira could be tacky. It fact it should be. A food market run by a magazine chain? It doesn't sound great. But, it is. Probably because no one makes too much of a fuss about it. Probably because the chefs just churn out seriously good food, and the diners just concentrate on the challenge of choosing what to eat, and then finding a space on the huge communal tables in the middle of the market on which to eat it.
When they do, they have a feast on their hands. And in their hands, in the case of the Ribeira version of that famous dessert from Cervejaria Ramiro, the prego roll. Here they're made by star chef Henrique Sa Pessoa, seared steaks topped with a slab of foie gras and a drizzle of truffle oil.
Simple, they ain't. But they're delicious. And you have to respect that.
The writer travelled with the assistance of Emirates and Airbnb
Emirates flies twice daily from Sydney to Lisbon, via Dubai, see emirates.com/au
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