A Tour Through Lisbon´s Oldest Cafés
I first thought about writing this article after paying yet another 4€ for a tiny cup of tea in my neighbourhood´s newest hipster café. In the last few years they´ve been flourishing like mushrooms after the rain. And while I obviously can´t deny that I do love a cozy café with an industrial look, that´s not where you´ll find Lisbon´s authenticity. Portugal has some excellent coffees (read espresso) and their price rarely goes above 1€. Now those are the coffees you need to try.
On my first day of work in Lisbon I very enthusiastically entered a typical pastry shop, and just like every other Portuguese in the shop, took my espresso at the counter (you often pay less for having it at the counter) while reading a (digital) newspaper article and mentally preparing for the day.
These are the cafés I grew to love in Portugal. They don´t serve brunch and you most likely won´t find flat whites in their menus. They´re Lisbon´s oldest cafes. Enclaved in stories of king slayers and forbidden romances. Here are the oldest I could find in the city.
1. Martinho da Arcada (1782)
This place was the first building to open its doors after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. It was the year 1778 and at first it was used as liquor and ice shop. The official opening happened in 1782 and since then it went through the hands of lots of owners and different names - “Café do Comércio”, “Café dos Jacobinos”, “Café da Neve”, “Café da Arcada do Terreiro do Paço”. Since 1829 it holds the name of Martinho da Arcada (there was a second Martinho café in Largo de Camões). At the end of the 18th century it became the first Italian gelateria in Portugal.
Just like many other cafés on our list, this one was also frequented by pretty much anyone that was someone. Fernando Pessoa had his last coffee here on November 27th of 1935, before dying three days later. Pessoa´s table remains untouched and cannot be occupied at the moment.
Martinho da Arcada once reunited a record of 68 ambassadors, the biggest group of public figures to ever gather for a casual occurrence such as lunch. This was also the place where the assassin of one of the last Portuguese kings had his last coffee and aguardente before proceeding to the praça de comércio to shoot the king.
The café´s current owners, the António de Sousa family have owned it since the 90s and are more than happy to tell you all about this place´s amazing history if you only ask them and perhaps buy them a coffee.
2. Café Nicola (1787?)
It´s a bit difficult to figure out when exactly Café Nicola opened its doors. We know it was in the 18th century (from my research i would bet on 1787). The waiter I heard Nicola´s story from claims it was before the 1755 earthquake, making it even older than Café Martinho da Arcada, but this doesn´t quite add up since the original construction was built in the Pombal style (aka post 1755). What we know for sure is that Nicola´s owner, an Italian named nothing less but Nicola, first opened it as a tavern. It quickly gained popularity and has been from the very beginning visited by Lisbon´s intellectuals like poet Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage. Bocage even has a statue and several paintings in the café. In one painting he is held at gun point by a police officer. Legend says the police officer asked him who he was, where he was coming from and where he was going. The poet replied: “Eu sou Bocage. Venho do Nicola. Vou p’ro outro mundo se disparas a pistola”. (I am Bocage. I come from Nicola and will go to the other world should you shoot your pistol.)
The café as it is today dates back from 1935 when it went through a redesign and gained more modern, geometric and deco style elements such as its lamps or chairs. Everything but the façade, paintings and sculptures changed. Waiters still wear black and white and while the place did have some tacky Christmas decorations when I went there for this article, it has an elegance that is timeless.
3. Confeiteria Nacional (1829)
Founded in 1829 by Balthazar Roiz Castanheiro, the Confeiteria Nacional is my favourite café from this list. Full of delicious pastries, sweet and salty (they seriously have the best croquetes de carne I have ever eaten), it´s the perfect place to have a coffee or a tea on a cold winter day. On my last visit there I enjoyed my coffee in the upstairs salon while a sweet old man was quietly singing and enjoying his at the table behind me.
The biggest contribution of Confeiteria Nacional was probably Portugal´s first bolo-rei (king cake). The bolo de rei has become a Christmas tradition in Portugal for longer than Portuguese can remember. What few know is that it was Balthazar Castanheiro Júnior who brought the first one from France to the Confeiteria Nacional. Centuries later, they still use the same old recipe. The rest is history.
4. Pavilhão Chines (1901)
Since its opening in 1901, the Pavilhão Chinês seems to have been patiently waiting and collecting dolls, masks, maps and everything else you can imagine in its many curiosity cabinets. It now looks like a museum or a circus warehouse. It used to be a store until 1986 when it became a most unusual bar. One with the biggest drinks selection I´ve ever witnessed. The menu is a proper russian novel. While the prices are above average, the ambiance and intimacy of the space make it all worth it.
5. A Brasileira (1905)
Opened in 1905, A Brasileira is the "newest" café on my list even if it has the reputation of one of the oldest and most famous cafés in Lisbon. It originally sold genuine Brazilian coffee from the Minas Gerais state which wasn´t actually that popular amongst Portuguese in that era. In order to incentivise people to buy more of it, the owner, Adriano Telles started offering a free cup of coffee to anyone buying a kilogram of ground coffee for 720 réis.
In 1922 A Brasileira went through a redesign which turned it into much more than a coffee shop. Now alcohol was being sold in this art deco high ceiling establishment. The walls have enormeous mirrors, the bar is of massive oak and the chairs are works of art. Frequented by Lisbon´s biggest intellectuals, like Fernando Pessoa (who would often enjoy absinthe and sweet bicas while reading and writing in the café), Aquilino Ribeiro or Alfredo Pimenta, A Brasileira has many stories to tell. Just order yourself a Martini Rosso like I did, and let your imagination fly wild.
Love and coffee,