I don’t expect to fall in love with Lisbon but I fall as hard as a swooning Regency heroine. This compact, decoratively crumbling city has the lot: swooping views down to the sea, evocative architecture and, most importantly for me, a thriving bar and restaurant scene.
Our hotel is the Tivoli Lisboa on the stately Avenida da Liberdade. At first its blocky exterior isn’t rocking my world, but it grows on us in a big way. The hotel’s Sixties look is rather groovy, baby; the sprawling lobby bar makes you feel like you’re in an episode of The Avengers. And amenities are 100% 21st century.
Terraço, the hotel restaurant, is a serious destination in its own right – the eponymous terrace is a magnet for the city’s beautiful people. Chef Adelaide Fonseca fuses traditional Portuguese recipes with contemporary flair: our meal is stunning, from delicately fried fish – reminding us it was the Portuguese who introduced tempura to Japan – to cataplana, the famous fish stew popular on the Algarve, dotted with coriander and fish-stuffed ravioli, to a reinvention of sericaia, a fluffy, meringue-y hybrid of soufflé and sweet omelette.
Lisboetas have an unashamedly sweet tooth – just think of the famous custard tarts. There are a couple of justifiably renowned cafés in the centre of town but they’re on every tourist’s radar. We’re headed to the business district of Saldanha and Café Versailles (Av. da Republica 15, 00351 21 354 6340). Excuse me while I catch my breath; this is the most beautiful Art Nouveau café I’ve ever seen – Paris, eat your heart out. Vast, wood-panelled, mirrored and many-chandeliered, with formally attired waiters and acres of twinkling cabinets groaning with every cake you’ve ever imagined; it’s jaw-droppingly lovely. We have been warned that the Lisbon waiter default mode is grouchy, but they couldn’t be more heavenly. Nor could the thick hot chocolate, muffiny queques, and pastéis de nata either.
Célia Pedroso and Lucy Pepper, authors of the newly published Eat Portugal, take us to Ramiro, a seafood lover’s fetish parlour, every surface piled with sea creatures and a basement rammed with tanks where crabs blow leisurely bubbles until it’s time to meet their fate. I’m a huge fan of Portuguese wine anyway but it truly comes into its own when served with mountains of langoustines, oysters, salt cod croquettes, clams, sizzling, garlicky prawns, an oddly mean steak sandwich, and ripe, silky Portuguese cured ham.
Considerably more upscale is Tavares. This is Belle Epoque at its most gilded, making Café Versailles look positively minimalist. It’s like eating inside a jewellery box. The Michelin-starred chef clearly decided his cooking should match the sensory overload of the surroundings: if there’s a ludicrous spin on a traditional dish, he’s there – dehydration, spherification and miniaturisation a go-go. He’s now moved on; I do hope the latest incumbent lets the surroundings and quality of the ingredients tell their own story.
Like they do at Restaurante Solar dos Nunes. When we arrive for dinner, one exclusively male table is just finishing lunch and taking receipt of what appear to be minihamburger petit fours. Oh, yes please. There’s nothing foofy, just vast amounts of rustic, Alentejo-accented food: ham and whole, oozing sheep’s milk cheeses while you look at the menu; a steaming cast-iron cauldron of pap açorda – like a collision between bread sauce, Tuscan panzanella and Mediterranean fish stew; game birds and hunks of beef.
I think it’s against the law – and if not it should be – to leave Lisbon without a visit to Pastéis de Belém, near the Jerónimos monastery. Here in this cool, traditionally tiled interior, the pastel de nata reaches its apotheosis. Pretentious? Maybe. But I’m prepared to bet it’s the best custard tart anyone has ever tasted.