Eating well for less in Portugal

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We get asked so often about the dos and don’ts of eating in Portuguese restaurants that we decided to compile a few tips. Here they are.

When you seat at a table, the waiter brings a basket of bread, butter and olives. These items are called the “couvert.” Simple couverts usually cost a couple of euros. Some restaurants bring more elaborate (and more expensive) couverts,  including items such as cheese, prosciutto, and codfish cakes. If you try one of these items, you’ll often pay for the whole couvert. You can always send the couvert back if you don’t want to pay for it.

The markup on wine in Portuguese restaurants is generally lower than in the U.S. or France. So, it is often affordable to choose a great wine to complement the meal. If you describe the style of wine you enjoy, the waiters can generally make good suggestions. House wines are typically inexpensive, ranging from drinkable to surprisingly good. You can ask to sample the house wine before ordering it.

It is a great idea to share main courses. Portions in traditional restaurants are generally large. Some restaurants prepare half portions, but even these halfs can be sizable. We prefer a multicolored meal to a single monochromatic dish, so we often choose a few main courses to share and ask the waiter to bring them out sequentially. It makes for a much more interesting meal.

Portuguese restaurants don’t serve tap water, only bottled spring water. The good news is that spring-water quality is high and prices are low. You can choose room temperature or cold but ice cubes are not normally used with water.

Fish is served on the bone with the head included. If the fish is large, you might be able to ask the waiter to fillet it for you. If you don’t see the price of a fish dish on the menu, it means that the fish is sold by weight. You can choose a fish that suits your preferences and ask the waiter to weigh it so you know its cost before ordering it.

The Portuguese use different forks and knifes for fish and meat. It is an elegant custom and fish does taste better when eaten with the proper utensils.

If you’re a strict vegetarian, always ask whether the food was prepared with meat products. Vegetable soups are seldom good vegetarian choices because they are often made with chicken stock, sausage or lard. The best bets are salads and vegetable sides.

Espresso is good and cheap. The Portuguese are addicted to high-quality espresso, so  restaurants with lousy coffee are ostracized.

Restaurant waiters earn a fixed salary, so Portuguese leave very modest tips: two or three euros for a normal meal, five euros for exceptional service or for a meal in a fancy restaurant.

If you don’t know what to choose, it is a good idea to ask waiters for advice. If you ask for  the best dishes on the menu, you’re likely to hear that everything on the menu is good. A better way to gather information is to ask what are the waiter’s favorite dishes or which menu offerings are most popular.

That’s it, just bring an appetite, the willingness to try something new, and a great time is guaranteed for all.

15 thoughts on “Eating well for less in Portugal

  1. Excellent post! May I just add two things?
    When ordering fish it is worth remembering that some fish is actually sold by the weight. If the price of the dish is not on the menu, then the fish is sold by the weight. To avoid unpleasant surprises when the bill arrives, always ask the waiter to weigh your fish and tell you the cost before ordering. This is the norm and they will do it without any quibbles. You do eat great quality fish in Portugal, but don’t assume it is always cheap.
    As for wine, very often the house wine (sold in litre, half litre and quarter litre jars) is perfectly acceptable and very good value.
    I totally agree with Andrew: if you want a good restaurant ask a local. It does not always work, but I have found some fantastic places in Portugal and other countries by simply asking cab drivers, waiters in hotels, older ladies in the street…

  2. You are very welcome. If the restaurant has a fish display, as they often do, it is very hard not to be tempted by a particularly fresh Dover sole, turbot or red mullet, but it is worth remembering that fish is getting more and more expensive, in Portugal and everywhere in Europe. However, there are other varieties of fish which are a lot cheaper, like sardines and ‘carapau’. What you said about sharing is absolutely spot-on, especially in the north of Portugal where the portions are quite substantial!

  3. The Portuguese use different forks and knifes for fish and meat. It is an elegant custom and fish does taste better when eaten with the proper utensils. I have never seen this and I eat a lot of fish.

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