It’s easy to bypass O Vinhaca, a tiny restaurant tucked away at No. 53 Rua do Salvador in Lisbon’s Alfama district. Thousands do so each day as they make their way up the cobblestoned streets in Lisbon’s oldest and most historic barrio, paying little attention to the tiny, signless restaurant.
They stroll past what locals call the oldest traffic sign in the world – still legible, in old Portuguese, despite having been erected on a wall in 1686. They wander up the steep, uneven alley to St. George’s castle, and to the nearby vantage point that overlooks the city as it stretches to the river below. They stop for lunch in one of the many open terraced restaurants.
Were they to stop at O Vinhaca – as we did – they would encounter one of Lisbon’s true diamonds; a gastronomic, cultural and personal experience unlike anything we have encountered as we circle the globe. Since hitting the road in earnest five years ago we’ve accumulated more than our share of incredible experiences involving food and people. This ranks among the best.
Meet Paulo Rocha, the handsome, eloquent and erudite host of O Vinhaca, a Mecca for foodies and oenophiles and antique collector’s dream come true, and a haven for regulars who have discovered Paulo’s winning secret of inviting new friends to his table every day.
“I don’t call this my restaurant,” he understates, “I call this my home.”
We stumbled upon O Vinhaca quite by accident. It was past 1 p.m. and mild hunger pangs directed us to Paulo’s door. His was the last open door on the street, so entering seemed the logical choice. Turned out to be the day’s best idea.
There we remained for over three hours, happy travelers aboard the slow foodies’ meandering train, guided by Paulo’s vast knowledge of food, wine and culture. Joined by his 23-year-old daughter, Catarina, Paulo shared elements of his country and its food and wine, along with his personal history and experiences, providing a tantalizing tour that teased our palates and rewarded us again and again.
The best food experiences start with conversation, and Paulo opened by asking about our culinary interests. He leaned across the service counter facing our table, smiled, and began. Fish? Wine? Something different?
Yes, yes and yes.
An American family took a table near ours but soon left when Paulo apparently failed to respond quickly enough with a menu that offered “sandwiches and stuff.” They bid us farewell and gave the stillness of an otherwise empty restaurant back to us, to savor and enjoy.
Paulo started with the wine, a dry white from northeastern Portugal’s “vino verde” region. It’s green because it’s fresh, not because of the color. And it’s delicious.
Pairings in mind, Paulo recommended muchama – dried, cured tuna from the Algarve – biqueirao, a cousin of the sardine cured in vinegar and salt that is a whole-fish Portuguese version of ceviche – and serra queijo (cheese of the mountains) melted in the oven and then peppered with ground oregano and served with pao (bread) and toasts.
We tucked into the opening course while Paulo shared culinary and cultural tales of Portugal. He wound his stories around his personal history – 20+ years in the Algarve, a stint with Sony Corporation, and details of his wife and two daughters. He paused to speak perfect French to a couple who were returning from a visit like ours and had sought him out to say hello. He opened a beer for a regular who popped in and deftly whipped together a cheese sandwich for his wife’s lunch without missing a beat in his chat with us.
“I am in this business because I love food. Yes, to make money, but to me this is like having friends come to my home for a meal.”
And oh, the food.
The tuna was served chilled, drizzled with first-press, fruity olive oil. Salty and mild, the tuna was a like a seafood prosciutto, delightful, delicate and unique. I’m not a fan of sardines, but the biqueirao was delicious. Tender, slightly sour from the vinegar and not at all fishy, again drizzled with olive oil and served with a slice of fresh bread.
We didn’t think we’d finish the bowl of melted cheese, but minutes later both it and the accompanying bread and toasts were history. So, too, were the glasses of vino verde, so Paulo opened a bottle of red from the Douro Valley – Portugal’s richest winemaking region – to accompany the last of our cheese.
We learned about the wines, the food and Paulo’s family. We learned about Portugal’s transition from global power of the 15th and 16th century – during the days of Vasco da Gama – and into the regime of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who served as Portugal’s prime minister from 1932 to 1968 and founded the “new state” as the head of the totalitarian regime.
We sipped and nibbled, asked questions and listened, relaxing in the comfortable embrace of Paulo and Catarina’s affable hospitality. As 2 p.m. came and went, then 3, we finished our glasses of red. Paulo had spoken of his love of Port wine, so a finishing glass of Portugal’s perhaps most famous vintage seemed in order.
Host that he is, Paulo rose to the occasion by serving a dessert of marmelo – a dense, pungent fruit that seems a cross between an apple and a pear, only far less sweet – simmered in sweet white wine, black pepper, star anise, cinnamon, cloves and sugar. It was the perfect accompaniment to the rich glasses of port he delivered to our table.
Like most unique experiences we have encountered along the way, discovering O Vinhaca through happenstance only added to the charm. It was pure luck: the restaurant has no sign, doesn’t promote itself, and would be easy to miss. And at 40 Euros, it was the epitome of high value in dining. Remember, price is what you pay; value is what you get.
Like fine wine, sometimes the best experiences take time to mature, develop and reward. For us, the three and a half hours we spent with Paulo and Catarina will rank highly among the best ever.