Dining in Portugal can be a great experience – excellent seafood, outdoor seating and (outside the touristy areas) great service. However there are a few things that are quite different about the experience than in the US. I have heard of a lot of complaints from visitors who did not prepare and thus it is good to do a little research and know what to expect when visiting.
In touristy areas, cafes and restaurants are likely to be open all day, serving food nonstop. However, areas that cater mostly to locals will adhere to traditional meal times and the restaurants will be closed outside of those times. The restaurants in my neighborhood are usually open 12:00-3:00pm for lunch and 7:30-10:30pm for dinner. Dinner is usually eaten later than in the US because the work day is later due to the long lunch breaks that people enjoy. Most local stores and business close for lunch between 1:00-3:00pm and the work day ends at 6:00 or 7:00pm and hence, people have dinner later. Breakfast is usually small, such as a coffee and a pastry. Big American-style breakfasts are usually only served in hotels and can be quite pricey.
Family Style Serving
As is the case in many countries of the world, there is more communal dining in Portugal than in the US. When dining in a group, it is common to share appetizers and entrees with the table, especially seafood dishes. I think this is a good system because you can try all of the dishes, food is less likely to go to waste and if you do not like a dish, there is plenty more to eat.
This should come as no surprise – meal portions in Portugal, like in the rest of the world, are much smaller than in the United States. Restaurants in the US serve larger portions so that they can charge more but thankfully this tactic has not caught on in Portugal.
As is well known, most places in Europe do not have a culture of tipping like we do in the US, including in Portugal. This is for good reason – servers are paid a living wage with full benefits including healthcare, so they do not rely on tips as a part of their income. Having said that, in places that are used to a lot of American visitors, they often do receive tips from Americans and may even expect it. However, I do not think that leaving more than a nominal tip is a good idea. It is not part of the local custom and creates expectations that drive up the cost for everyone. In a casual restaurant, you can leave your change or a few Euros if you liked the service. In a nice restaurant, you can leave up to 10 percent of the bill. Few restaurants will allow you to add tip when paying by credit card; it is better to carry cash for a tip.
Like most things sold in Portugal (and the rest of Europe), the price of food and drinks listed on menus includes tax. This makes it much easier to predict what the amount of the bill will be.
Upon seating in many American restaurants, diners are offered food such as bread or chips. This is also the case in Portugal, only there is one major difference, these snacks are not free, but are a “couvert” with a small fee, usually €2-3, more at nicer restaurants. You can politely refuse the couvert if you do not want it; if it the food is already on the table, you can simply place it to the side and let them know. I have heard many people that were indignant at being charged for what they assumed was free. I do not agree with this – the food is already so inexpensive in Portugal that I think it is reasonable to expect to pay for everything you consume. The price of the couvert is usually listed somewhere on the menu.
Smoking is still permitted (inside!) many restaurants and even more often where there is outdoor seating. Furthermore, there is not usually a separate smoking section. If you have sensitivity or aversion to smoking, it is best to ask whether smoking is permitted before seating and choose another restaurant if so, or otherwise to ask the best place to sit to avoid any smoke.
Beware the Tourist Trap
I love to read the online reviews for the high traffic, pretend-fine-dining tourist restaurants in Lisbon. There are so, so many complaints about bad service, cover charges for performances, additional charges for couvert, and mediocre food offered for a high price. But this is all very predictable and avoidable. You should use extreme caution when selecting a restaurant that has any of the following:
- Is listed in a guidebook – often a good restaurant is listed in a guidebook or travel website, it starts to attract larger crowds, the prices increase and the food quality declines.
- Advertises its ratings on TripAdvisor or any tourist website or book – is sure to be touristy and best avoided for the reasons stated above.
- Prominently displays its (low) prices – this is meant to attract quick business and the focus is on the price, not the quality of the food.
- Advertises wifi – is meant to appeal to tourists who do not have cell service.
If a restaurant has good food, service and atmosphere, it will stand on those qualities alone and not attempt to drive business with egregious displays promising low prices or free wifi (even if it does offer those things).
Also, if the restaurant has any sort of entertainment, such as Fado performances, it will very likely have a per person cover charge added to the bill, even if it is not advertised. Since these charges can be substantial, up to €25 per person, you should inquire if there is a charge.
Casual diners should also avoid the restaurants described above. Even the price conscious are better served going to restaurants off the beaten path, where they will likely get better food at lower prices than the restaurants that appeal so obviously to tourists.
Of course if you need to eat and have serious considerations such as a busy schedule or are in a rush, you should feel free to eat at any kiosk, cafe or otherwise that will meet your needs. However, you should have not have high expectations for the quality of the food or the service and correspondingly, the cost should be low.
Seafood is often priced by the kilogram in a restaurant, but a serving is usually around 200 grams, so the cost is a fraction of the listed price. The first time I saw a menu I almost had a heart attack because I thought a lobster at lunch was €100. But given that it is priced by the kilo, a serving was (only) €20.
Check the Bill,
Given that dishes are served in rounds or as they are prepared, sometimes you will not receive something you ordered. This is especially likely in busy touristy areas. Be sure to look your bill over to ensure it is accurate. A few times we were charged for small plates or drinks we did not receive. Although these were minor mistakes, it is better to pay only for what you receive.
Never be afraid to ask questions if you are unsure of the price of a dish, couvert or if there is a cover charge.
Dining in Portugal can be a great experience if you aware of the differences. There are many great restaurants in Portugal and I hope you find the food as enjoyable as I do.