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Without the Tourists, the Fate of Portuguese Food Is Unclear

Portugal is reopening, but its food scene is more reliant than most on tourists. So what happens now?

A waiter wearing a face mask stands at the entrance of the a restaurant.
Portugal reopened restaurants on May 18, but dining rooms remain far from packed
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Nowhere in Europe has tourism played as big a role in shaping the overall food scene as Portugal. Over the last several years there’s been a drastic spike in the number of travelers flocking to the Iberian country — tourism pumped 18 million euros into the local economy in 2019 alone (compare that to 9.4 million in 2014) — and a wave of businesses, including restaurants, opened in response. But the effects on the local food scene are bigger than profits.

Before the approving gaze of the outside world fell upon it, traditional Portuguese cooking was, like many great cuisines, by and large considered the stuff of home eating, not serious restaurant fodder. “It’s not that we’ve never been very proud of our cuisine, quite the opposite,” says chef José Avillez, whose 18-restaurant empire includes Lisbon’s much-lauded Belcanto. “The fact is that many of us had few points of comparison, and it’s more valuable to hear these things from foreigners. It was pride without validation.”

Before COVID-19 shut off the tap of international tourists, Portugal was well on its way to becoming one of the world’s top culinary destinations: The New York Times included Portuguese cities on its 52 Places to Go list in 2017 and 2019, and the World Travel Awards named it the best European destination for the last three consecutive years. Eater dedicated a full guide to eating in Lisbon in 2017, and in 2020 appointed Porto, the country’s second largest city, among the world’s 19 most dynamic food cities in the world.

A baker fills a line up of tiny egg tarts.
Among Portugal’s most iconic dishes: egg tarts, or pastéis de nata
Joana Freitas

After decades of obsessing over French and Italian cooking, young Portuguese chefs were finally catching onto the global trend of gastronomic self-reflection: valuing the indigenous ingredients, techniques, and recipes of one’s own country with the same reverence given to Escoffier for most of the previous century. By virtue of a growing international appreciation in recent years, a movement to rescue traditional flavors and techniques took hold nationwide.

“We have always been more closed in general, and our food has always reflected that,” says Carlos Alfonso, who opened O Frade with his cousin Sergio in 2019. It — along with other restaurants such as Taberna Sal Grosso, Semea, Prado, and Taberna do Calhau — opened at least partially in response to the new wave of tourists who preferred to spend their dollars at restaurants serving Portuguese food than French or Italian fine dining. And so dishes like pato de escabeche (escabeche duck), arroz de robalo (sea bass rice), and rabanadas (the Portuguese answer to French toast) began topping local menus. Curious tourists relished the change.

The wave was still cresting at the start of 2020, with new big openings like Fogo and Plano and focusing on more outright modernist versions on Portuguese cooking. “I think we were in the best moment of our gastronomy,” says Alfonso. “In Lisbon, we had new restaurants opening almost every day.”

“But then,” he adds, “the coronavirus came.” Full stop. As is the case for every other country facing the pandemic, projections for the local economy (especially those so dependent on tourism) in the wake of COVID-19 are not good — and the sting is particularly sharp for the hospitality industry, which may never fully recover. For Portugal, the most lasting damage might be to the cuisine itself. With so much of the status of Portuguese food hinging on foreign interest, local chefs and restaurateurs are concerned that the sharp downfall in tourism could be a huge blow to the food identity of Portugal — and the entire food chain so recently created to support it.

Phase two of Portugal’s reopening has been in full effect since May 18 — restaurants and cafes are allowed to operate with new social distancing restrictions — but the local industry is expected to be slow to heal. After enduring months of stunted business and government implemented restrictions, a recent survey by local restaurant association PRO.VAR reveals nearly 30 percent of the country’s restaurants may now be closed for good.

Since March, the early days of the epidemic in Portugal, hotel bookings were down by nearly 50 percent compared to the same month last year, and 24,000 fewer flights were registered at Portuguese airports. The European Union will continue to suspend all flights to and from countries outside the common space until at least June 15 (with some exceptions), and the estimate is that the tourist flow will be dramatically affected for many months, if not years.

“Our creative cuisine depends on gastronomic tourism,” says Paulina Mata, professor and coordinator of the first master’s degree in Gastronomic Sciences in Portugal at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. More innovative takes on traditional cuisine often end up relying on the foreign patrons; without their financial support, many of the more experimental Portuguese restaurants’ days are numbered.

Mata also asserts that integrating the work of Portuguese chefs with current trends worldwide is essential for the positive evolution of the country’s gastronomy — and that’s awfully hard to do without worldwide travel. “If it is not dynamic, it can stagnate,” she says. “Without visitors, our gastronomy is at serious risk. Each chef has his own vision, his way of interpreting local flavors and ingredients, and makes our food scene richer and more diverse. Each one that gets lost along the way [with the closing of restaurants] makes our situation much more feeble.”

An overhead shot of a dish of tiny clams.
A dish of local clams from O Frade in Lisbon
O Frade

And it’s not just the chefs and restaurateurs. The Portuguese restaurant boom had a positive trickle-down effect on purveyors, farmers, and an entire ecosystem of ingredients — a relationship that works both ways. With fewer restaurants to sell to, farmers — many of whom specialized in growing specialty ingredients key to Portuguese cooking in particular — may have to scale back their production or stop entirely. The same goes for fishermen, bakers, and other small suppliers, all of whom bet their livelihoods on the continued rise of the Portuguese food scene.

Chef António Galapito of Lisbon’s acclaimed Prado fears that the crisis could force cooks and restaurant owners to seek out cheaper alternatives for their menus, sourcing lower quality ingredients from purveyors outside Portugal. “Many are starting to use cheaper Vietnamese clams, for example, to prepare dishes such as carne de porco à alentejana,” he says, referring to the Portuguese pork-and-clam favorite.

“That would be bad for Portuguese cuisine itself, creating a negative domino effect. We have some of the best seafood in the world,” he points out. “I hope that at least chefs from more gastronomic restaurants do not undervalue our local produce and understand their role for our gastronomic development.”

Three years ago, driven by a growing sense of pride in Portuguese cuisine, chef João Rodrigues, from the award-winning Lisbon restaurant Feitoria, launched Projecto Matéria, a program to establish relationships with and support small, regional producers throughout the country. “We are facing a crisis that can be very serious for the entire chain since our country depends essentially on tourism,” says Rodrigues. “Businesses are threatened and, even worse, we may have to go back many miles to recover the path.”

Many will not be able to wait out the tourists. In the meantime, the government has stepped in to help some local businesses, including restaurants, with financial incentives — mainly payroll assistance and rent deferment during the worst months of the pandemic. But now local restaurant associations are asking for an extension of these measures through June 2021, a request which has yet to be approved. A recent survey showed more than 70 percent of Portuguese restaurants won’t be able to continue operations without additional government support.

If history is any proof, however, Portugal may be among the first European countries to see international tourists return in significant numbers. Paulo Amado, food writer and publisher of Inter Magazine, Portugal’s only food-focused publication, recalls that after the 2008 financial crisis, Portugal emerged as Europe’s best-kept secret, favored by tourists for its relative affordability compared to other countries in the continent.

“It took us some time to be recognized,” Amado says. “When the investments came, people realized that the country had good producers and ingredients, good chefs, and great restaurants. It helped the world to understand what Portugal really was.” So while many experts believe Europe will be among the last geographic regions to regain its status as a travel destination, Portugal’s lower barrier to entry might once again help it rebound sooner than the rest of its neighbors. “We are also a very small country, which is an advantage for getting up faster,” says chef Vasco Coelho Santos of Porto restaurant Euskalduna Studios. Portugal has also managed better than most European countries to limit the overall rate of infection caused by the novel coronavirus, which could in theory prove reassuring to international tourists.

In the meantime, though, Santos thinks Portuguese restaurants will need to reconsider the way they operate to attract more local diners. This will mean making some adjustments, like in staffing, prices, and — unfortunately — dishes. He admits he’s been forced to eliminate some of the more expensive ingredients on his menu, including local Mediterranean lobster.

“But perhaps it is a way to give a second wind to the gastronomy in Portugal,” Santos says, “allowing also Portuguese people to recognize its uniqueness, something we know that tourists already value.” Local journalist Paulo Amado agrees, adding, “We will have to rely only on domestic guests and, with some luck, on our Spanish neighbors for some time.”

Gastronomic consultant Teresa Vivas, who works to promote Portuguese cuisine worldwide, also sees one glimmer of hope amid the current crisis. “From the identity perspective, Portuguese cuisine will likely become even more authentic and traditional. After focusing so much on massive tourism, it can be an opportunity for us to look even further inward,” she says. “I am very hopeful that our gastronomy will end up renovated and more genuine than ever.”

Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer living between Brazil and Portugal.

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