Nothing is so universally loved among Lisboetas — from all income, class, and social strata — as the tasca, the inexpensive, tiny restaurants where locals eat daily, especially at lunch. These unadorned neighborhood fixtures serve classic, rustic Portuguese dishes like stews, steaks, and fried or grilled fish. Often, they have done so for decades.
These eateries can be found everywhere, on almost every street. All neighborhoods have their favorites, but the most well-known (and some of the best) are concentrated in and around Baixa, Lisbon’s downtown area filled with offices and commerce.
How to spot a good tasca? Some have “pratos do dia” (today’s specials) handwritten in Portuguese on a paper tablecloth fixed to the window. The menu won’t include non-traditional foods like grilled salmon, burgers, international dishes, nor will it feature ingredients — like sardines — when they’re out of season. And more than two-thirds of the diners will be locals. Avoid a tasca if it has the menu outside in several languages — it’s definitely a tourist trap.
Lisbon’s tascas originated in the carvoarias (coal shops) established by immigrants from the Spanish region of Galicia in the first decades of the 20th century. To supplement their main business, carvoaria owners started to sell wine and some petiscos (Portuguese snacks) to go with the booze. Later, with the spread of electricity and canister gas, the coal industry declined and owners shifted their focus to food and beverage.
Migrants from various regions in Portugal also followed the tasca model, and some still specialize in (or have a handful of special dishes from) regional cuisines across the country. Most of Lisbon’s tascas have served the same neighborhood for several generations, but many are currently endangered as a result of the city’s recent real estate boom.
What to eat
Tascas offer petiscos to start, and they are more or less the same across the board: cheeses, olives, pastéis de bacalhau (salt cod cakes), pataniscas (cod fritters), hake fillets, croquetes (pan-fried minced meat enclosed in breadcrumbs), and rissóis (pastry filled with seafood béchamel). Then there are main dishes, large and small: soup (usually potato-based with vegetables), bitoque (fried steak alongside rice, a fried egg, and fries), prego or bifana (beef or pork sandwiches), and iscas com elas (sliced pork or beef liver with boiled potatoes).
Most regulars skip the starters and go directly to the main course, normally whatever the daily special is — tascas usually have one for every day of the week. Each eatery offers its own specials, but the most common are bacalhau (salted cod), cozido à portuguesa (meat stew), bean stew feijoada, and sardinhas grelhadas (grilled sardines).
What to drink
Industrial, cheap, bag-in-a-box fruity red wines rule these places now, replacing the once-popular rustic house reds and mellow whites of the past. Beer is an option, as well as bottled or tap water. But don’t worry, no one gets murdered for ordering a Coke.
When to go
The best tascas are crowded from 1:15 - 2:15 in the afternoon, and most don’t take reservations, so plan accordingly. Some tascas are open at night and on Saturdays, but most aren’t. Lunch is the move.
Crucial tasca tips
- The palito (toothpick) is so emblematic of the tasca that the author of As 50 Melhores Tascas de Lisboa (Lisbon’s 50 Best Tascas) guide, Tiago Pais, endorsed the seven best eateries with the Palito d’Ouro (golden toothpick) award.
- Although many places will accept credit cards, some are still cash-only operations.
- Sometimes you will find the word taberna instead of tasca in the restaurant name. Taberna once signified a place focused on wine and spirits (like aguardente or bagaço) with some petiscos served at the counter, while a tasca was a legitimate eatery. Today, however, they are pretty much used interchangeably.
- Next-generation, bohemian tascas and tabernas started popping up all over town less than a decade ago, putting contemporary and gourmet spins on the traditional tasca meal. They tend to have more modern décor and younger owners.
- Don’t be too demanding with dish explanations, intolerances, or allergies. Tasca staffers are friendlier than their counterparts at Parisian bistros, but don’t push too much. Tips are welcome but not required (10 percent is common).
Five favorite tascas around town
- Zé dos Cornos: The star dish here is the entrecosto grelhado with arroz de feijão (charcoal pork ribs with beans and rice). While it’s the Thursday special, the ribs can be found with other sides on other days of the week. Beco Surradores 5, 1100 Lisboa | +351 21 886 9641
- Zé da Mouraria: This typical, friendly tasca in the popular Mouraria neighborhood is known for serving almost all of its dishes to share in big frying pans. On Fridays, the bacalhau com grão (salted cod with chickpeas) is a must-try. Only open for lunch. Rua João do Outeiro 24, 1100-246 Lisboa | +351 21 886 5436
- Das Flores: There’s not much variety in this tiny Chiado tasca, but everything will be tasty, whether it’s stewed, pan-fried, or deep-fried. Go for the pastéis de bacalhau com arroz de tomate (cod cakes with tomato rice), if available. Open only for lunch. (Note: Don’t confuse this with the modern Taberna da Rua das Flores located on the same street.) Rua das Flores 76/78, 1200 Lisboa | +351 21 342 8828
- Maçã Verde: Located near the main Lisbon train station of Santa Apolónia, Maçã Verde is a popular and busy lunchtime eatery. They stay open late, too, making it popular with chefs. Some of the house specialties include fried cuttlefish, cozido à portuguesa, and a stew of pork with clams. Rua dos Caminhos de Ferro n84/86, 1100-108 Lisboa | +351 965 512 266
- Toscana Casa de Pasto: This restored eatery in the Alcântara neighborhood is kind of an upgraded tasca. Grilled fish and the caldeirada de bacalhau (salt cod stew) are some of the specialties, but the owner, known as O Bigodes or “the mustache man,” will be pleased to help you choose. Rua do Sacramento a Alcântara 70-98, 1350 Lisboa | +351 21 396 8633
Miguel Pires is a Portuguese journalist and restaurant reviewer for publications in Portugal, Brazil, and Italy, and is the co-author of Mesa Marcada. He’s also an amateur cook and Instagram activist, and recently published a guide to Lisbon’s restaurants and shops, Eat in Lisbon.
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