Portugal’s Chefs Are Reinventing The Restaurant (Again) For Our Strange Covid Times

Covid-19, and all the news around it, is undeniably depressing. But one bright spot has been watching the creativity and resilience that has flourished in the restaurant sector. Yes, it’s a struggle to stay afloat. But in a certain weird way, this year has had some nice surprises for people who love food.

Even this week, in my home of Lisbon, shortly after the newest health measure (a weekend curfew of 1pm) was announced, I was cheered by all the press releases and Instagram notices I received about how restaurants planned to take care of their customers safely.

Smart restaurateurs are rethinking their hours. The newly opened Zunzum is offering a “pequeno grande almoço”—“big breakfast” in Portuguese—that also includes a discount on takeaway food for later in the day. And restaurants like Taberna do Calhau and Geographia are going all in, offering special dinners in the morning.

Another group of chefs putting together a serious breakfast, tomorrow at Fábrica da Musa, is New Kids on the Block. NKOTB (named by their fans, not the members) was born before the pandemic, when Pedro Abril (Chapitô à Mesa) started a WhatApp group with other members of Lisbon’s new generation of rising stars, to discuss ways of doing things, suppliers and human resources. During the first lockdown, he says, “it was really important to get some feedback on new approaches to the problem…and creative ways to fight this long struggle.”

When life returned to Lisbon in the summer and autumn, NKOTB (Abril plus Pedro Monteiro and Octávio Delmonte of Fábrica da Musa, Leonor Godinho of Musa da Bica, Bernardo Agrela of Hub Beato, José Paulo Rocha of O Velho Eurico and Tiago Lima Cruz, formerly of Sal Grosso) started to put together events that combined food with music and some of life’s other pleasures.

“We realized that people need this kind of events that are more than just food,” says Abril. “They need to feel a little bit normal in this abnormal world we’re living in right now.”

Their outdoor, socially distanced lunch (following all the guidelines from the health authority) on November 1 booked up within six days, with 150 people and a waiting list. “It was really heartwarming to see so many people coming on a Sunday just to be with us,” he says. “We’re so thankful.”

They’re planning more safe events for whenever those can happen, as well as a pop-up takeaway and delivery service (not UberEats or the like, which are horrible for restaurants) with a streaming channel to connect them more closely with their customers and friends. And they’re working on a plan to use some of the profits from their events to host a banquet for some of the city’s homeless population at one of its poshest venues.

A commitment to community—both clients and suppliers—was also what led Rita Santos, the owner of the gourmet shop and wine bar Comida Independente, to become one of the first shopkeepers to set up a grocery delivery service for her small-batch, organic cheeses, sausages and natural wines from small Portuguese producers.

“We had a pile of boxes in front of the shop so you could barely enter,” she remembers. “We totally transformed. We started the delivery with our personal cars.” Eventually they made a few upgrades and managed to serve some 350 families in the community, sometimes delivering 60 orders a day.

“This was not any heroic behavior,” she is quick to add. “We happened to be in a spot where we could help.”

This fall, she took it to another level with the creation of Mercado dos Produtores, a market with organic vegetables, fruits, cheeses and breads selling directly to their consumers, down the street in Praça São Paulo. There are wine tastings from organic producers and special food cooked by top chefs based on a product of the week. João Rodrigues of Feitoria kicked it off with pumpkin, and then André Magalhes of Taberna das Rua das Flores continued it with sweet potato. (This week’s ingredient, chestnuts, in honor of the São Martinho holiday, is being cooked by André Lança Cordeiro from Essencial for pre-ordered takeaway only.)

“We need to be a collective movement,” she says. Comida Independente “can be a catalyst. Families need our food. Farmers need to sell…. People just want something positive in their lives.”

Another something positive, if all goes well, is the arrival of a new pop-up in Lisbon from Cavalariça, the much-acclaimed restaurant in Comporta. If people can’t travel to Comporta, then Comporta can come to the people, in the form of bistro food, international influences and an informal mood, during the hours that restaurants can be safely open. 

And for the hours that they can’t, takeaway and delivery options have never been so good. Normally, the year-old Plano serves an inventive dinner tasting menu of dishes cooked over a fire in the outdoor dining room. Three weeks ago, they started a weekend lunch service of Portuguese comfort food, such as roasted goat with oven-baked rice and cozido à transmontana (a typical meat stew from chef Vitor Adão’s native Trás-os-Montes region). With the new restrictions in mind, they’re offering their Plan C—the same menu to enjoy at home.

The SEAME Group (the parent company of the Asian tavern Soão and the modern fishmonger Sea Me) organized several delivery-only brands, such as Olivia for burgers, A BOA T for Asian fare and Amor y Odio for burritos. The idea is to feed people in a safe and responsible way, and it now accounts for almost half of the group’s revenue.

Back in July, the Michelin-starred EPUR opened a window to serve chef Vincent Farges’s take on simpler snacks to appeal to a neighborhood, after-work crowd. Now they’re boxing up all those dishes for people to take home.

And since takeaway is likely to be part of life for a while, Mezze—the Middle Eastern restaurant opened by the Pão a Pão Association to employ refugees and migrants from Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Eretria and other countries—is adding new dishes to its menu this month and planning ahead for small-scale Christmas celebrations. They’ve created a special holiday feast for four or six people only for takeaway.

We still have to eat. We may as well eat well.

Hungry for more? Check out my favorite new-ish restaurants in Lisbon and especially these two hidden gems.

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