As the number of tourists coming to Portugal increases, I have been able to observe certain tendencies. Lisbon, like a good representation of Portugal as a whole, is a city known for its immense number of cafés and pastelarias (literally, pastry shops). Coffee breaks and sweet bites are a part of the Portuguese lifestyle, and I am happy to see visitors embracing these little local traditions.
But I am also a little sad to see how, in most cases, foreigners will end up entering contemporary coffee shops that often announce their products with English ads by their windows. These are, in many cases, chain establishments that, yes, do have a vision and know how to attract foreign customers, but aren’t representative of everything a Portuguese pastelaria has to offer – not to mention they are often pricier too!
While other pastelarias don’t step up their game and make their signs in English too, I hope this information will come in handy. I would love to see more people walk into the good old Portuguese pastelarias, which are everywhere, but can be a little intimidating if you don’t know the local language.
What is a Pastelaria?
Even though pastelaria literally translates into “pastry shop”, the truth is that these establishments go way beyond serving coffee and cakes. These are certainly their main items but most pastelarias also double as simple restaurants, and serve main meals at least during lunch time.
The Prato do Dia (that is, the daily special) is normally advertised by the window of the pastelaria, either printed on an A4 paper or also commonly hand written with a marker on a paper table cloth. Usually, the specials offer at least one soup of the day, along with a few fish dishes (peixe) and meat specialties (carne). Vegetarian options aren’t normally contemplated. Pastelarias offer a down-to-earth affordable way to sample some of the most typical Portuguese dishes. A no frills experience, but definitely a very local one!
Typical pastelarias are pretty standard, even when it comes to their looks. They usually include a long counter where people enjoy sipping coffee and that is also used to display a variety of pastries and ready-made savories. Tables and chairs don’t tend to vary much either, and neither do the name boards outside, as they are often sponsored by coffee or soft drink brands. Funny enough, even pastelarias in Portuguese communities abroad look the same!
Lunch time aside, these types of cafes are great spots for people watching, while eating yummy pastries and downing coffee like a true local. Portugal’s coffee culture is so strong, that you’ll always see people getting their caffeine fix at any time of the day or night: for breakfast, mid morning, after lunch, mid afternoon, after dinner… whenever you please!
Most standard Portuguese pastelarias, do not have a printed menu. By law, all establishments have a poster on their wall, indicating the basic products they sell and their corresponding prices. But this poster is normally placed in a random corner and no one really looks at it to order. The truth is that Portuguese people need no menu in pastry shops.
Items sold by cafes in Portugal tend to be pretty standard. As such, most waiters will take your order without showing you the available options. The exceptions to this are the daily specials, as you’d normally have to choose those from a list that does change every day and, most likely, is not even available during dinner time, weekends and holidays.
So, how to order at a Portuguese cafe or Pastelaria?
Here are a few basics, including the standard drinks and food items most coffee and pastry shops will have throughout the day.
Coffee & Hot Drinks:
Café – Literally coffee, and in Portugal it always stands for espresso. There usually isn’t filter coffee in Portuguese pastelarias.
Carioca de Café – Weak espresso
Café Pingado – Espresso with a few drops of milk. Think of an Italian macchiato, minus the foam.
Meia de Leite – Half espresso, half milk. Normally served in a cup.
Galão – Latte, milkier than meia de leite. Normally served in a glass.
Copo de Leite – Glass of milk
Garoto – Short espresso, topped with milk.
Abatanado – Espresso with added hot water. If you like Americano, this one may work for you.
Café com Cheirinho – “coffee with a little scent” stands for espresso with a few drops of alcohol (brandy or aguardente). In the islands of Madeira and Azores, this may also be referred to as café com música, that is, “coffee with music”.
Café com Gelo – Espresso with ice. You’d normally be served an espresso in its regular cup, and a glass with ice on the side. You are supposed to pour the espresso over the ice yourself, and have it your way.
Chá – Tea. The most common flavor of tea is chá preto, that is, black tea. Infusions and herbal teas are also simply considered “chá” and some of the most readily available ones in pastelarias are camomila (chamomile), chá verde (green tea), tilia (linden) and frutos vermelhos (red fruits).
Anything with the word descafeinado in it, stands for decaf.
Água – Water
Água com Gás – Sparkling Water
Leite Achocolatado – Chocolate Milk (by default, served cold)
Néctar – Bottled Juice
Sumo Natural – Freshly Squeezed Juice. The most common flavor is laranja, that is, orange.
Refrigerante – Soft Drink
Cerveja – Beer. If you’d like to have tap beer, ask for Fino in the North, and Imperial in Lisbon and the South.
Vinho – Wine. Vinho Tinto is red wine, while Vinho Branco stands for white. You may order it por copo (by the glass), um jarro (a jug / carafe) or uma garrafa (a bottle).
Sandwiches & Savories:
Torrada – Buttered Toast
Pão com Manteiga / Queijo / Fiambre – Bread with butter / cheese / ham
Sandes Mista – ham and cheese sandwich
Tosta Mista – pressed /grilled ham and cheese sandwich
Prego – Steak sandwich
Bifana – Pork steak in a bun
Cachorro – Hot Dog
Salgados – Savory snacks, most commonly deep fried, but can also include puff pastries (folhados) and savory turnovers (empadas). Refer to the PDF card below to get acquainted with the most common Salgados in Portugal.
Pastries & Sweets:
In Portugal, a cake or pastry is broadly referred to as a bolo.
Not knowing the names of the cakes and pastries is really not a problem when in Portugal. They are always on display, so you can point and ask for the one that simply looks good to you.
If you’d like to know the names and what they are essentially made of check this PDF, for examples of the most common pastelaria items in Portugal.
If you plan to travel to Portugal, check this free PDF with the standard Portuguese Pastelaria menu, translated to English. It includes even more items and their respective photos to guide you around. With this information in hand, there should be nothing detracting you from entering Portuguese pastelarias. They are worth it, not only from a food and beverage point of view, but also from a Portuguese cultural perspective.
If you’d like to know more about Portuguese food and the other items you’ll normally find in Portuguese Pastelarias, get our ebook Lisbon in 100 Bites – The Ultimate Lisbon Food Guide! This ebook features more than 100 foods, including typical Portuguese dishes you’ll find in pastelarias during meal times, as well as small bites you can snack on at any other time of the day.