Slow Food = Portuguese food!
The Portuguese take food seriously! The concept of fast food is foreign to the Portuguese, as are chain restaurants and restaurants that serve pre-prepared ‘factory’ food that is simply reheated and served to diners. Unless you go to a food court at one of the few large, North American style shopping malls, and buy food from an international chain, expect that your food will be freshly prepared. And even at the food courts they’ll be baffled if you look for take-out.
Virtually all restaurants, no matter how humble, cook food fresh daily from ingredients obtained locally. It is not unusual for vegetables served in the dining room to be grown out back or by someone’s father, brother or cousin. Nor is it unusual for the meat and fish on the menu to come from local waters or nearby farms.
The only place I have seen take-out coffee on offer is at the Faro Airport and that only started a couple of years ago. If you want a ‘quick’ coffee in this part of the world, you order a bica and drink it standing up at a counter. Otherwise, you take a seat and relax for a while as you sip your beverage.
Café’s are everywhere so it is easy to get a great cup of coffee to start your day. Many of us aren’t aware of the coffee culture tradition there is in Portugal. You are virtually guaranteed to get robust, flavourful coffee, no matter where you go, what time of day it is or what form of java you request.
A sweet or savoury pastry often seems to serve as breakfast for locals, although in most places you can order a ‘tosta’, plain, with cheese or with cheese and ham. Tostas are rather like grilled cheese sandwiches and are delicious partly because of the quality of bread used, but also because of the great local cheeses they use.
One sign that you are in an establishment that caters to tourists is that an “English Style Breakfast” is offered.
Lunch is usually served between 1 and 3 p.m. although restaurants are opened around noon. Since food is cooked fresh each day, don’t be surprised that if you arrive a bit early you have to wait until it finishes cooking before you are served your meal.
Dinner tends to be served later than many North Americans are accustomed to. Most restaurants don’t open until 7 p.m. It is not unusual for restaurants to gladly accept reservations up until 9:30 or 10:00 p.m.
Many restaurants offer a Prato do Dio or Plate of the Day where simple, straightforward food is offered at a very reasonable price. You won’t get anything glamorous or fancy in a Prato do Dio offering, but if you are on a budget, you’ll certainly eat well for a very modest price. Think grilled fish, stews or grilled chicken frequently served with a side of fries or boiled potatoes and a small salad.
The Portuguese aren’t big on fancy sauces. Traditionally most plates come with grilled meat, fish or chicken, boiled or French Fried potatoes and a small salad. This custom is changing however. It may be adviseable to ask what comes included with a dish advertised on the menu. I have seen staff in some places offer a salad which you are then charged separately for. Almost all places will happily serve you boiled potatoes rather than fries. Be forewarned though. They won’t come with butter. If you want something, you can pour a bit of olive oil onto your spuds.
Cutlery is typically changed depending on the type of food you order. Whenever fish is served, expect that the utensils that were on the table will be changed for a fish fork and knife.
Meals, especially dinner, tend to be leisurely affairs in Portugal. You must ask for the bill when you are ready to depart. Nobody would be so bold as to bring a cheque to your table without it having been requested. And if you don’t ask it can be a very long wait. Nobody seems to mind if you sit for 30 minutes after you are finished eating!
Tipping is acceptable in Portugal, however, 5% is fine. 10% is considered a generous tip. Be aware that when you pay by credit card it is unusual that the machine is set up so that you can add a gratuity. Remember to keep some extra cash so that you can leave an appropriately sized tip when you are paying by credit card.
Portuguese people are warm and hospitable, however are quite conservative socially. Keep hugging and kissing to yourself; a hand-shake will do just fine, especially if interacting with a woman. Even when you get to know restaurant owners and staff quite well, a handshake or French-style peck on the cheek will suffice. A big bear hug won’t be well received! Keep personal stories and details of your personal life to yourself as these kinds of intimate details may not be welcomed and may cause locals to back away from you.
English is widely spoken in the Algarve but staff will absolutely love it if you can say please, thank you, hello and good-bye in Portuguese. Restaurant staff are usually very happy to explain what is in dishes but you’ll have to listen attentively because their way of describing things can be somewhat colourful. If you aren’t a cook yourself, it may be difficult to follow the explanation. For example, one local dish that I love is boiled potatoes cooked in their skins, then slightly flattened and quickly browned in hot, garlicky olive oil. The locals typically refer to them as “smash-ed potates”. It took me a few times to follow their colourful phrasing of this apparently simple term.
Children are much beloved in Portugal and it is not unusual to see families with very young children out dining quite late in the evening. Dogs too seem to be welcomed into most restaurants, even very nice ones. Both children and dogs are remarkably well behaved. European kids don’t seem to whine and cry when out in public like I’m accustomed to experiencing in North America so you aren’t likely to have your meal disrupted by temper tantrums. And Portuguese dogs are generally very placid. While the presence of a dog in a dining area can be disconcerting to our North American sensibilities, it is something you’ll have to adjust to.
Smoking is no longer acceptable in restaurants but is okay on patios. If you have a real issue with cigarette smoke, stay away from covered patios or at least check the direction of the breeze before selecting your table.
Flies If you are dining in late October or November, don’t be surprised if there are a lot of flies around. This doesn’t indicate poor hygiene, rather it is ‘fly season’. All restauranteurs that I have spoken to lament the arrived of these pesky critters but it appears to be part of their natural life cycle and there is little they can do about it. Yes, they probably could spray the dickens out of the place, but frankly I like to know that all kinds of potentially harmful chemical residue isn’t around food. And flies are usually only an issue when you are dining alfresco. Seek out the dining room and your problem will be largely resolved!
After dinner Don’t be surprised if you are offered a complementary drink as you finish your dinner. Frequently it is a glass of port or some other digestive. While not every restaurant does it, I find that it is surprisingly common, especially if you have been a good dinner guest. What a delightful custom and a fine way to finish off a great meal.