A reminder that the soul of a place
is found through its food—and its people
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICE VECCHIONE
Strolling up the wide boulevard of Lisbon’s Rua Augusta from the coastline into the heart of the city, feeling increasingly hungry and verging on cranky, my husband Michael and I could have easily been led by loud barkers into one of the tourist restaurants conveniently situated along the way.
We pressed on, hoping for something authentic. The crowd at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant off of Rua da Madalena on a mere slip of a street told us that this was the place. Still, we had no idea that one of the finest afternoons ever was about to be ours.
It wasn’t until later that I learned Zé dos Cornos is considered one of Lisbon’s best-kept secrets. And it wasn’t just the food, although delicious, that made the afternoon last summer so memorable. It was the ties we formed there, and the reminder of the ultimate connector that food can be—that sharing a meal can make friends out of strangers and locals out of us all, no matter where we’re from or where we find ourselves.
The tiny restaurant serves family style at a few communal tables. We were seated beside three jovial men who talked nonstop. To my ear, Portuguese has the most beautiful sound of any language I’ve heard, but I don’t speak or read it. When Michael and I looked up at the chalkboard menu behind the open-facing kitchen, we were stumped.
So I leaned over to the stranger beside me and asked, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” He smiled one of those smiles that make a person wholly happy, shrugged and said, “A little.”
“What do you recommend?” I asked.
“They serve fish and they serve meat,” he said. “The meat is better.” That’s where it started.
The three friends filled our glasses with delicious Portuguese vinho verde, a light, crisp, slightly effervescent wine. When the waiter arrived, Michael pointed to our neighbors’ plates and said, “We’ll have the same, please.”
We dined on full-flavored, just garlicky-enough, traditional grilled pork ribs served with rice and beans and a green salad. Once we’d begun chatting with our new dining companions, there seemed to be no language barrier at all—the conversation never stopped.
Employees of Portugal’s version of our TSA, Rui, António and João get together for lunch whenever they have a mutual day off. They shared their dessert with us—a creamy custard called doce de bolacha. I wanted more, but out of politeness, restrained myself.
João asked, “What are you doing next?”
“No plans,” replied Michael.
“Then you’re coming with us!” Rui said.
“You’ve got to try ginja,” António said.
They wound us through narrow streets and across wide ones until we arrived at a tiny storefront bar.
All together our hosts said, “Your money is no good here!”
The bartender lined up five small glasses of a deep red liquid. Ginja is a cherry liqueur; at the bottom of each glass was a single liquordrenched cherry.
Food and drink and convivial strangers—is there really such a thing? Sharing a meal made intimates out of the men sitting next to us, and they introduced us to the local fare of Lisbon. We dined as if we belonged there, because suddenly we did.
I’m sticking close to home this summer. But when I dine out in Carmel, Seaside or Santa Cruz, I’ll keep my eye out for Rui, António and João—or for Pauline, Jane and Elizabeth, knowing there’s no need to go to the ends of the earth to make new friends over lunch! Maybe this year I’ll get to introduce travelers to the pleasure of our local fare.