This is one of the great delights of the Algarve. You can still indulge your digestive
juices in convivial company cheaply here. The range of cafés and restaurants is
enormous. The number seemed to reach saturation point years ago, but new places continue
to open all the time: bad for the restaurant owners, good for diners. The competition
keeps standards up and prices down. You can still find some quirky places that serve
soup, a big plate of meat and vegetables plus a litre of wine for £3. It's more realistic, though, to reckon
on at least twice that for a reasonable three-course meal, including service charge but
not wine. Dining at an especially good restaurant will probably mean a bill for £20 or more a head.
Broadly speaking, the type of food on offer falls into three categories: international,
Portuguese and other national cuisines such as French or Chinese. The hotels and top
restaurants concentrate on international cuisine, though they may have one or two
Portuguese dishes on their menus.
The great majority of more modest restaurants serve dishes which are typical of Portugal
as a whole or of the Algarve region in particular. The best thing about these
restaurants is that the food is generally wholesome and freshly cooked making use of the
best fish or meat available and in-season vegetables. It has to be said, however, that
there is a depressing sameness about many of the menus.
Foreigners who have settled in the Algarve have set up restaurants specialising in dishes
characteristic of their homeland. Thus you can find French, Belgian, German, Austrian,
Scandinavian, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Vietnamese-style cooking as well as roast
beef and Yorkshire pud.
Junk food has recently gained a foothold in the Algarve, but it is not in any way a
serious threat to the vast majority of restaurants, including the most modest ones,
which continue to serve proper, healthy meals. Vegetarians have not been well-catered
for in the Algarve in the past, but that is slowly changing. Although the various
vegetables are strictly seasonal, a glut one month, unobtainable the next, there is
always plenty of fresh produce for those who shun meat. But for vegetarians eating out,
the choice is often tediously restricted to salads or omelettes. In recognition of a
significant demand, a growing number of restaurants are now including a few imaginative
vegetarian dishes on their menus.
Confronted by a bewildering array of eating places, visitors can quickly sort out what's
what without much difficulty. To gauge popularity and atmosphere, have a peek through
restaurant windows. Busyness is always a good sign. To see what's on the menu and at
what price, peruse the menu on display outside.
No sooner have you sat down than the waiter will arrive with the couvert.
This may be just a basket of bread or it may run to little plates of olives, fresh
goat's cheese and tins of paté. Don't get the idea that this is free. If you eat it, it
will appear on your bill. If you don't want it, send it back and you won´t be charged.
You may at least want to nibble on freshly-baked bread because meals usually take some
time to prepare.
The choice of starters (entradas) in a Portuguese restaurant is usually
shellfish or soup. Cockles (berbigão) are the least expensive of the shellfish.
Check on the price, however, before you go ordering piles of prawns (gambas).
Prices are quoted per kilo though, of course, you may order less. Soups, whether seafood
(sopa de peixe), vegetable (sopa de legumes) or a special cabbage
broth (caldo verde) are nearly always home-made. No doubt Sopa à
Alentejana is good for you, but be warned that it's a watery mix of bread,
garlic and coriander with an egg floating around on top.
Facing the Atlantic, the Portuguese have always been a race of seafarers and so it is
not surprising that the Algarve is best known for its fresh seafoods - whole lobster and
crawfish, dressed crabs, all sorts of prawns, tuna and swordfish steaks, big sea bream
and sea bass, succulent sole... the list goes on and on but, sadly, apart from sardines,
none of it is cheap any more.
Freshness is all important. Fish must have come out of the sea that same day. You will
be able to tell because the best restaurants will either bring the uncooked fish to your
table on a platter for examination before ordering, or it will be on display behind
glass in a cooler. Look for clear eyes and shiny flesh.
Cataplana is an Algarve seafood speciality. It can be made with various
ingredients, but the most usual are clams or mussels with strips of bacon or pieces of
pork cooked with spiced sausage (chouriço), garlic, onions and olive oil.
Cataplana takes its name from the tightly closing, clam-shaped, copper pan in which the
ingredients are pressure-cooked.
Bacalhau is practically the national food of Portugal. It's dried, salted cod,
which may sound unappetising, but the Portuguese say they have a different
bacalhau recipe for every day of the year. Bacalhau à Brás with
potatoes, eggs, onion and garlic is a firm favourite among the Portuguese and much
appreciated by visitors.
Arroz de Marisco is a helping of mixed seafood served with rice. It is usually
well liked by visitors. Stuffed squid (lulas recheadas) has a more limited
If you like fish but can't be bothered with the bones, there are several choices to
salivate over. Tuna (atum) is a dark-fleshed fish usually served with fried
onions, but usually only available fresh in spring and early summer. Frozen tuna is
always available but freezing dries it and destroys the taste. Swordfish (peixe
espadarte) is a real treat served as a cutlet. Sea Bass (robalo), has
a firm white flesh and, depending on size, comes as a steak or cooked whole. It is
prized by the best hotel restaurants and is also available, caught by local anglers, at
some simple beach bars.
Sardines (sardinhas) have always been an Algarve staple. They are only really
good in summer when they are plump and oily. Charcoal-grilled is the only way to have
them cooked. They usually come with potatoes and salad. To eat them, don't fiddle about
with your knife and fork. Do it the Algarve way: use your fingers. Here's how: place a
sardine on a piece of bread. Pick up the bread and nibble at the flesh from the tail to
the gills. Take care not to eat the innards which taste bitter. Turn over and
Charcoal-grilled chicken (frango no churrasco) is another Algarve favourite and
many like it cooked with hot piri-piri sauce. In other countries, chicken is
often boring and bland. In the Algarve it is always really tasty. It's other great
virtue is that it is always cheap. Inevitably it will come with chips. Sunday lunchtime,
the local connoisseurs of charcoal-grilled chicken head with their families to one of
two places: the road up to Monchique and Fóia, or around Guia.
Pork is the meat most relished by the Algarveans and it is the most consistently good.
It comes as chops (costeletas de porco), as a fillet (lombo), sliced (febras)
or spare ribs (entrecosto). Unless you fancy pigs ears and other unspeakable
parts of the anatomy, avoid the locally popular concoction called Cozido á
Lamb is served as chops or in a Portuguese stew called Caldeirada de Cabrito
which includes potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic and which is often spiced
up with piri-piri sauce. You can always ask for more piri-piri if it
is not spiced up enough.
Beef in Portuguese restaurants may not be quite what you expect. Prior to cooking, the
beef is not hung or prepared as elsewhere and thus it often arrives at the table tough
and disappointing to the taste buds. Steaks are best ordered only in restaurants with a
reputation for good fillets.
For afters, the choice does not usually run beyond chocolate mousse, créme caramel (pudim
flan), rice pudding (arroz doce), almond tart (tarte de
amêndoa), cream cake (tarte de natas) or Olá ice cream.
Of the Portuguese cheeses other than fresh goat's cheese, you might like to try soft
Queijo da Serra, which comes from the Serra da Estrela, Portugal's highest
mountains, and cheddar-like Queijo da Ilha from the Azores.