Dining out is by far one of my favorite things to do in my free time, as you can eat and drink quite well in Portugal at a very reasonable price! There are multitudes of local restaurants to choose from, even in the tiniest villages; and it doesn’t even matter which one you pick, as they all virtually meet the same expectations in quality, price, service and selection. This makes it challenging to have a less than stellar dining experience, which is probably why the Portuguese, and I, eat out so often. However, there are certain cultural tendencies in the local restaurant scene that remain unknown to the average tourist; and a simple miscommunication in one of these mores could quickly sour a dining experience. Therefore, I would like give some important tips to all future visitors of Portugal, in hopes that they will experience nothing less than a great meal out! (photo by apw1957)
To Seat Yourself Or To Not Seat Yourself?
As a former waitress in the States, I can attest to my perpetual frustration when watching European tourists seat themselves without saying a word to the host/hostess: especially on busy days when other people were waiting. So when I came to Portugal, I expected that I too would abide by the same unnerving behavior. But to the contrary, Portugal does not abide by the same rules – except in cafes and pastry shops. Although typically lacking a host or a “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign, you will almost always have a server spot you, waiting for you to give the ubiquitous hand gesture as to the number of people in your party. Then, unless it’s hopping, you can choose from any table in the restaurant, including tables that haven’t even been cleaned and reset yet – a behavior I have yet to understand.
“Wow! Is All This Stuff For Free??”
And the answer to that is NO. As soon as you take your seat in a restaurant, a server will immediately set down some entradas. This is the Portuguese way of eating appetizers, brought to you without ever having to ask. In other cultures, if food is brought to the table without request, the assumption is that it’s free. This is not the case in Portugal. Although you will pay less overall when you eat out, you will PAY for everything, which I’m sure has caused some rather dramatic scenes when the check is placed on the table.
The standard entradas consist of a basket of fresh bread (pão), a small plate of marinated olives (azeitonas) and a plate with packaged tuna and sardine patés, butter and maybe cheese. Often, the cost is very minimal, amounting to no more than an extra euro or two on your check. And if you don’t touch any one of these plates, you shouldn’t be charged. In some restaurants, along with the standard fare, you may also receive a plate of presunto, octopus salad (salada de polvo) or peel and eat shrimp (camarões), and will run you around 4-6 euros each. So if you came on a budget, you may want to ask the server to take them away at the beginning, so as to avoid any problems. However, I think the entradas are one of the best parts of the meal! My favorite is the sardine paté, which is delicious to spread over fresh bread with a slice of cheese on top. I’m also quite happy if I get an octopus salad or shrimp! And if your stomach doesn’t want to wait 45 minutes for your soft and mouthwatering octopus to come out of the oven, it’s a great way to ease it into submission.
Main Plates Are All-Inclusive
Generally, local menus will list only fish or meat dishes with very little to no description as to what comes with it. In part, it’s because restaurants assume you know that all dishes are accompanied with potatoes, rice, boiled vegetables or salad, depending on the dish ordered. Fish dishes usually come with boiled potatoes and broccoli or green beans, and meat dishes are served with fries, white rice and a small salad. And when I say small salad, I mean that it can be as little as two pieces of lettuce and a tomato. So if you really want a “salad”, order one on the side. Main plates are typically served family style on silver trays, with the starches and vegetables on one tray and meat or fish on a separate tray; this is especially true if you are larger than a party of two. (photo by pedro prats)
“Plates of the Day” – The Amazing Portuguese Value Meal
During the lunch hour, all local restaurants will post a handwritten note on the front window, or behind the bar, with the pratos do dia or plates of the day. This menu consists of the fresh fish selection they hauled in that morning and a few meat or salt cod (bacalhau) dishes they want to feature for the day. Paired with these delicious main dishes are either your usual suspects or an innovative special. But here’s where the true enticement comes into play. The plate of the day can run as low as 3.95-4.95 (if you are ok with standing at the counter to eat) to about 6.95 euros; which can be 3-5 euros less than ordering from the main menu. So if you didn’t check out the sign on the way in, I highly suggest you ask what their pratos do dia are before ordering, because you can’t find a better value. (Click here to read about the Spanish version of this menu called, El Menu del Dia)
Don’t be Embarrassed to Order the House Wine
Yes, not only is the “vinho da casa” a good, inexpensive wine, it is also the local’s beverage of choice with their meal. The house wine is either red or white, sourced regionally, and fabulous with your fresh fish or meat dish. Wines are rarely served in the bottle. You will encounter them in either large clay or glass jars (jarra) or in half-carafe (meia-jarra) sizes. If you come here in the summer, make sure to try the Portuguese version of sangria.
What you see is what you get. These local jaunts are not keen on making any changes to their dishes; and even if you attempt to ask for a substitution, the server will almost always “forget” what you asked for, leaving you with the exact same dish on the menu. The only acceptable substitute would be asking for a salad instead of potatoes and rice. However if you must substitute something, always use the term “without” ______ (sem), which is what’s used in Portuguese rather than “no” ________ (não), to avoid confusion.
Temperature Applies to More than Just Your Steak
If you order water, which is not provided unless asked, it will be bottled and you will be asked if you prefer it fresca or natural. To be clear, this doesn’t mean sparkling or still, which would be com gas or sem gas; this means cold or room-temperature. I never thought water came any other way but cold, but apparently, the Portuguese (and many Europeans) prefer their water at room-temperature, even on a hot summer’s day. Unless you find this refreshing, make sure to say fresca!
Inside Tip: At cafes and pastelerias, it is completely acceptable to ask for a glass of tap water (copo de agua) rather than paying for an entire bottle you may not finish. But be aware that the water will come at room temperature, unless you ask for ice.
As for your steak, thankfully it’s cooked to a medium, medium-rare temperature; but unfortunately for the lamb chops, they are always overcooked. So if you don’t like dried-out lamb, try to ask for it mal-passado (medium rare).
Hands or No Hands and Olive Pit Etiquette
In general, the Portuguese, like the Spanish, are hands-off when dining, preferring the very civilized knife and fork instead. This behavior includes items such as burgers, and even fries, unless you’re actually dining at McDonalds (the uncivilized “safe zone”). And in reality, Portuguese burgers don’t come with a bun, forcing you to eat with cutlery whether you like it or not.
Some desserts are eaten with both a knife and fork, such as cake and fruit- mainly fresh melon, which is a popular dessert. And to be clear, the Portuguese have a peculiar way of cutting melon. A large wedge is pre-cut and scored, showing a long line of thick chunks. This makes for as very clean and polite way to eat melon, while preventing the rind from ever being touched!
As for olives, the Portuguese conveniently provide a small dish for pits, many times it’s connected to olive dish itself. There are two acceptable ways to eat an olive in Portugal. You can either drop the pit politely from your mouth onto your fork, or you can quickly and silently remove the pit with your thumb and forefinger and transfer it to the dish.
In the end, the Portuguese are not terribly strict on the no-hands rule, just use commonsense to determine the correct recourse.
Like Spain, always avoid places displaying pictures of plates propped against the front door, especially ones featuring pizza and Coca-Cola, as these are generally tourist traps. But even with local restaurants, many will have dessert menus with photos of standard, pre-fabricated desserts on them, which I would never order. If you look closer however, you will always find a small paper at the end of the menu with the restaurant’s traditional, house-made desserts. These are the ones you should savor! (photo by nocas)
Cafe Rules: Have Cash!
Tipping generally run the same way as in Spain. And normally you can also pay by cash or credit card at a restaurant, but at a café or pasteleria, ALWAYS carry cash!
Please keep in mind that my advice is based on observation and personal experience – there are always exceptions to the rule. These tips also apply mainly to local restaurants and not fine dining establishments. If anyone has any other advice that I may have missed, I would love to get your feedback!
Cheers and Happy Dining,
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