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How the Olympics Transformed Rio’s Iconic Beachside Food Stands

Beach culture is shifting in wildly different directions

A Skol beach stand in Rio Photo: lazyllama/Shutterstock

Unlike Brazil’s other large city São Paulo, where social life happens at sleek lounges and nightclubs, the focus of Rio de Janeiro’s social scene is the beach — and much of that happens at the iconic beach stands that line Rio’s coastline from Leme to Recreio. The breezy, open-air kiosks, called quiosques or barracas, are placed at even intervals along the beach and are traditionally composed of wood beams and yellow panels making a square, just big enough to house a cook and a server or two. Green coconuts delivered by the truckload in the morning are piled against the huts, ready to be hacked with a machete and handed across the counter to the day’s thirsty customers. Around each kiosk, Cariocas in bikinis and shorts bask in the sun at inexpensive plastic tables branded with the names of one of a few national beers, like Skol or Antarctica; they sip on their refreshing beverages before moving on down the boardwalk.

But Rio’s beach kiosks find themselves at a curious crossroads as the 2016 Olympics begin. With the coming of the Olympics, the city spent years making renovations to athletic stadiums and transportation routes. Included in those infrastructure upgrades are the beach stands, and as a result, the world’s most famous, laid-back beach culture is changing in two different directions: in one by the government seeking a more polished beach, and in the other by transplants bringing higher-end cocktails and artisanal design to the sand.

Kiosks on the Copacabana
New kiosks on the Copacabana.
Photo: Flavio Veloso/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images

The stands lining Rio’s famous beaches are a form of municipal infrastructure, owned by the city but administered since 1999 by a company called Orla Rio, or "Rio Shore," which pays for their improvement and maintenance in exchange for charging rent to kiosk operators. The civic purpose of the more than 300 stands is to serve Rio de Janeiro’s beach-goers with all they need for long, marvelous outdoor days, from cold coconuts to lime-saturated caipirinhas to overflowing plates of fried fish, squid, and anchovies. Some stands even supply beach chairs, umbrellas, and wifi to customers.

There is a kind of pleasure in the traditional kiosks’ repetition and reliability; each one similar in its look and offerings but slightly differentiated by factors like the type of music playing, the personality of the bartender, the arrangement of palms nearby. Whenever one is thirsty, one can always find a soda, a beer, or even cigarettes (some companies contract with Orla Rio to guarantee their products are sold on kiosk shelves). On a recent visit, I took a particular liking to a kiosk called "Snob," which — while quite proletariat in its offerings of canned beer and pastéis served on paper plates from a worn wooden counter — seemed to take an irreverent joy in plastering the hand-painted "Snob" brand on its menus and signage.

But the Olympic preparation has brought a marked change in the stands' casual rhythm. In place of the typical yellow hut, a new type of kiosk is appearing up and down the beach, gradually replacing the old ones in a $300 million Real (or $90 million USD), privately-funded project deemed the Nova Orla (or "New Shore"). Nova Orla aims to transform the entire coast, from the east's Leme beach to Recreio beach on the west. Designed by architecture firm Indio da Costa, which won a redesign competition sponsored by the City of Rio, the new kiosks are larger and sleeker, curved with chrome metal, matte white, and wood, and featuring stainless steel counters that can be enclosed by sliding glass rather than remain open to the air.

"In place of the old structure, the new kiosks are transparent and have a rounded shape, allowing full visibility of both its operation and the ocean," says Orla Rio press representative Carol Cotinho. Indeed, the new kiosks have all the marks of design innovation: bathrooms, bigger kitchens, and even showers. But the vibe of the new kiosks is undeniably different — more like a corporate restaurant than the serendipitous, easygoing beach stand.

It’s not just the physical structures that have changed. Whereas formerly the kiosks were one-person or mom-and-pop operations, operators of the new stands are now required to "leave informality behind" and "form micro-companies and hire all their employees in a formal way," according to Coutinho. The rents have gone up as well, moving from a top rate of $2,000R a month to as much as $25,000R. And where kiosks have long accepted umbrellas and chairs from national beer brands as a form of advertising, the New Shore enables major brands to directly operate "concept kiosks," in which every aspect of the kiosk represents the brand and its products.

A new "stylized" kiosk in front of the Copacabana Palace hotel. Photo: Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images

In Copacabana, where several Olympic events are taking place, the New Shore project is complete, and there, the city’s vision of the kiosks as fully fledged, corporate branded restaurants is on display. One can’t help but feel that the pleasing repetition of yellow lawn furniture and worn wooden counters is disrupted, replaced by a much more corporate vision. As one local newspaper put it, writing about the Skol beer brand’s flagship kiosk Praia Skol 360º — whose high-end renovation includes sleek modern circular seating nooks, stools molded in the shape of beer mugs, and full table service — "it is a curious matter as to whether it could still be considered a kiosk or not."

At one concept kiosk sponsored by Kibon, a Brazilian ice cream manufacturer, tables are set into the boardwalk on ice cream cone-shaped bases; at another, waist-high molded plastic coconuts decorate the entrance in place of the old haphazard piles of real coconuts. One new kiosk in Copacabana doesn’t serve food at all; it is instead sponsored by the national television network Globo and "serves culture," as one local hotel concierge explained, saying that the kiosk periodically puts on yoga and other types of classes.

"The city of Rio wanted the kiosks to have more structure and make more money."

"The city of Rio wanted the kiosks to have more structure and make more money," says Pilar Garat, who manages a new bar housed in one of the old, shack-like kiosks. It is only at the very end of Copacabana beach, approaching the old fort and the bohemian surf shops of Ipanema, that I spot a newly renovated kiosk that feels nearly as organic and casual as the old huts. Posto 6 serves seafood fresh from the fishing boats that land on the beach in front of it, and its decor is kept to a refreshingly old-school minimum, with folding wooden chairs and simple tables.

But at the same time that the city of Rio de Janeiro is attempting to "clean up" the kiosks and add structure, Rio’s gastronomic scene is simultaneously doing the same. The recently opened beach bar from the owner of Buenos Aires' Floreria Atlantico, Renato "Tato" Giovannoni, is leading a trend toward a more artisanal beach stand experience, albeit at an actual old-style kiosk. Located on a somewhat secluded curve of beach near Praia do Pepê, his Bar Atlántico serves not just the standards like bolinhas and pastéis, but also a perfectly fresh Corvina crudo that pairs wonderfully with the bar's caipirinha, made of orange and grapefruit as well as the usual muddled lemons and limes. Atlántico's bar, where the bartender composes herb-accented gin and tonics, negronis, and other fresh cocktails, is set up on a vintage metalworked screen in the sand, like some tastefully shipwrecked seaman's salvaged liquor stash.

Photo: Facebook
The Bar Atlántico kiosk near Praia do Pepê

The vibe feels something like a South American, cosmopolitan Montauk, and attracts as many expats from Europe and the U.S. as Brazilians. Because while cocktails are popular in the States, "Brazilians don’t really have cocktails," Garat, Atlántico’s manager, says. "It’s only recently that cocktail culture has come to Rio. Most people just want beer and cachaça." Rather ironically, the contracts with brands that keep Rio’s traditional kiosks stocked in local staples like cachaça and cigarettes mean that Atlántico must keep a mainstream, lower brow version of cachaça on hand, in addition to its artisanal bottles. "We don’t have regular cachaça on the menu, but if someone wants it we can serve it to them to stay within the rules," says Garat. Likewise banished from Bar Atlántico are the plastic cups and paper plates typical to barracas — these have been replaced by vintage-patterned melamine plates and cocktail-appropriate glassware.

But while Atlántico is serving a higher-end conception of Brazilian beach fare, it doesn’t necessarily correspond with the city’s more corporate version of what the new shore should look like. Atlántico’s kitchen occupies an old kiosk that has been painted red, with hand-painted blue anchors adding a nautical look. Just as at the old kiosks, guests sit on small folding chairs on the boardwalk or in the sand.

I ask Garat how long Atlántico will remain in its old, weather-worn kiosk before the New Shore project gets around to renovating the bar. "It’s supposed to happen in a few months, but since it’s being done for the Olympics and the city’s running out of money, maybe it won’t," she says, with a bit of hope. In the meantime, there is still the iconic, as-yet-unrenovated Ipanema beach further up the road, whose lack of Olympic event sites has left its jaunty yellow kiosks intact for now. There, the kiosks are still serving coconuts and lime-laden caipirinhas in plastic cups at plastic tables to sun-reveling Cariocas, just like it ever was.

Read More: Rio 2016: Eater's Guide to Eating and Drinking at the Olympics [E]

Kate Losse writes about culture, design, and technology and is based in California. When she visits Rio de Janeiro, pastel de queijo and Skol is her favorite barraca order.
Editor: Erin DeJesus