It started the very first meal we ate in Lisbon. We awoke from our post-flight nap and headed across the street from the very wonderful Hotel Britania (not cheap, but not crazy expensive either, and very comfortable with free wi-fi) to a tiny neighborhood joint. We tentatively peered in the window, and the proprietor waved us in with a friendly gesture. He took us to the back of the restaurant to a little room with three tables and those ubiquitous pretty blue tiles that are on three-quarters of the walls we saw in Portugal. The Portuguese lead the EU and the world in tiling; they even tile the sidewalks. We sat down, and that's when the parade of seemingly free little plates started coming.
What the ?
In short order the proprietor brought us a small plate of pata negra (the black-footed Iberico ham of Spain), a dish of olives, a few slices of Serra cheese, a plate of cottony rolls, and some fruity olive oil. What a lovely custom, we thought, starting off your meal with some welcoming nibbles.
All of us ordered plates of meat (beef or pork) and fried potatoes or rice, a typical working person's Portuguese meal, based on my guidebook reading. We shared some kind of pudding with some cookies thrown in and asked for the check. Two items on the check floored me: We were charged for the bread and olive oil and the little plates of ham, cheese, and olives.
Overall the price of the lunch was low (this was, after all, a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall restaurant, but shouldn't we have been asked if we wanted those items before they set them down in front of three starving jet-lagged travelers? Wouldn't an explanation before we started to eat them be the kosher thing to do? We didn't want to come across as stupid ugly Americans, so we paid the check without saying anything.
Every dinner we had in Lisbon had the same drill. The next night for dinner we went to a typico neighborhood restaurant. Everyone around us, the restaurant patrons and staff, seemed to be having a great time. We were feeling good. The cheese, olives, and bread came out again, this time augmented by some marinated sardines. This time the lovely welcoming custom cost us double, almost €6 (about $9) a person.
The next evening another restaurant upped the ante yet again, adding thick slices of chorizo to the parade of not-so-feebies. This time, the restaurant's faux largesse cost us $12 a person. And I must say at this point that rest of the food was underwhelming to say the least. Simple fried or grilled fish was best, and the fried potatoes that accompanied most main dishes were greasy, soggy, and not crisp at all. (Apparently, the Portuguese don't twice-cook their fries.) I was starting to feel like all the restaurants in Lisbon were acting like lampreys, sucking our euros up instead of the guts of fish.
Finally, a Good Meal
After leaving for Spain to visit Seville for two nights (now there's a place to eat, more about that in the days to come), we returned to Lisbon to catch our plane home on Saturday. I was more determined than ever to have a good meal in Portugal, one worth its weight in the pretty blue tiles we saw everywhere. We tried to get into Pap'Acorda, one of Lisbon's hottest new restaurants, and were rebuffed even though I dropped the name of a friend of mine who is writing a Portuguese cookbook and is friendly with one of the restaurant's owners.
We ended up at A Travessa, a restaurant recommended by a serious eater on my Portuguese diet post. The restaurant was in a beautifully restored and reimagined convent in an out-of-the-way Lisbon neighborhood. As soon as we sat down, a veritable parade of not-so-freebies started coming to our table at TGV speed: a plate of delicious, powerful stinky cheese, fried cheese cubes with pumpkin jam, stockfish carpaccio, lovely flash-fried pimientos de padron, fried wontons stuffed with morcilla (blood sausage), mushroom-studded eggs scrambled soft, house-baked bread with butter, and the pièce de résistance of the not-free cavalcade, crazy good slices of black pig flank steak.
Almost all of it was absolutely delicious, which was a welcome change, but all I kept thinking as the hits just kept on coming was the ca-ching of the not-so- freebie cash register. Our main courses were solid if not up to the level of the starters: insanely tender steak with roquefort sauce, and slices of veal in a white wine reduction, accompanied by excellent creamed spinach, small, tender roasted potatoes with garlic, and the first crisp and delicious fried potatoes we had in Portugal, in the form of fresh, thick-cut potato chips.
The three of us (my wife, my son, and I) started a pool trying to guess how much the freebies were going to cost us this time. My wife won. This meal the admittedly delicious faux freebies cost us $20 a person.
The Custom, Explained: Don't Touch the Plate
When we got back to our hotel I decided to ask the friendly and enormously helpful person behind the front desk about this strange Portuguese restaurant custom.
"Oh, yes," he said in his perfect English, "you can refuse it or you can just leave it uneaten and they will eventually take it away and not charge you. But if anyone at your table takes one bite of any of these plates you'll all be charged. Don't feel like they are singling you out because you are tourists. We Portuguese complain about this all the time. We just know how to deal with it."
So when in Portugal, do as at least a few of the Portuguese do when they're confronted by the array of not-so-free starters: Just say no.
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