THREE SNEAKY SENSATIONAL RESTAURANTS
First of all, Porto is a sneaky great food city. All the ingredients of a culinary scene are there: a splash of coastline, a pinch of river valley, an overflowing cup of wine country and two millennia of traditions. Sure, Porto has Michelin starred restaurants and a bounty of classic, unchanging neighborhood tascas. But, where Porto really excels is in the high-middle strata. For families, there are a bevy of restaurants that may not scream kid-friendly, yet offer great service, wonderful value and menus to satisfy kids and adults alike.
Café Restaurante O Afonso
As legend goes, Daniel David de Silva went to France, returned home to Porto in 1953 and tried to recreate the croque-monsieur. Depending on who you ask, he either made do with what ingredients he had on hand or purposely constructed the dish with Portuguese tastes in mind. The result was the “Francesinha,” which translates to “little French lady.” It’s an interesting name for a dish that is anything but little. This delectable brick comprises toasted bread, layers of cured ham, local linguiça sausage, steak, shingled with cheese before being broiled. Lastly, it is smothered with a thick, tangy, spiced tomato & beer sauce. Served alongside fries and a beer, you may swear off food for the next 48 hours – a worthy self-sacrifice.
The Francesinha can be found all over Porto and has migrated to the rest of Portugal. O Afonso has garnered countless accolades including a blessing from the patron saint of food travel, Anthony Bourdain, whose show “Parts Unknown,” filmed a segment here in 2017. Nonetheless, the restaurant remains humble and old school. To wit, they don’t have a website. Our server declared the Francesinha to be, “too spicy for children,” which may be true for the Portuguese pallet. If anything we found the Francesinha so umami-laden, that it takes on a kinda savory heat. Our kids heeded the warning and opted for other meats on bread options. That same server also warned me not to leave right away after paying. Glad we listened, for he delivered Kinder Surprise Chocolate Eggs to the kids and glasses of port for mom and dad.
There’s so much going on at Maus Hábitos that the menu is a fold-out newspaper, in the style of those city weeklies that used to tell people where to go for art, food, theater, cinema, night clubs exhibitions and espetáculos (my favorite word that never quite translates into English). Turns out, Maus Hábitos has all of those things under one roof, or to be more precise, on top of one roof. Maus Hábitos inhabits the entire top floor of an art deco building that dates back to 1939. Once up top, you will see a labyrinth of outdoor terraces and hallways leading to various event spaces. You want the door leading to the dining room and its sneaky good views of Porto below.
As evidenced by all the Portuguese being spoken around us and many diners eating the same thing, locals come for the prato do dia lunch which includes wine or beer, soup, one of six mains, coffee and ice cream for €12. Their a la carte specialties include pizza, pastas (including several lasagnas), salads and calzones. This may sound heavy, but it was actually a nice change of pace from some of the rib sticking meals we had elsewhere in Porto. The pizzas were cracker thin, a style that our children gobbled up. Even though we were mere footsteps away from the pedestrian-only shopping zone of Rua de Santa Catarina, Maus Hábitus exposed us to an alternative scene that I can’t even say is off the beaten path – it’s technically just above it.
From my vantage point at the table I could see the host stand. I can’t read lips and I barely speak Portuguese. But, I can read body language and I witnessed that poor hostess let down dozens of people who had pegged hopes and dreams to the idea of dining at Brasão Aliados. We had booked our table about a week before, and based on time slots availability, it was apparent that reservations were tight. The point of all of this is to illustrate that Brasão Aliados is a hot spot – even at 6:45 pm. This location, just off the very central Praça do Município is the mothership of six Brasãos bringing the gastropub aesthetic to classic Portuguese food.
Here’s the twist. Despite the popularity, dim lighting, bustling staff and adults on big nights out, our family was made to feel perfectly welcome. We weren’t alone. There were other families peppered around the restaurant. The basement dining room, in fact, had six tables and each one had a high chair. This is smart, proactive reservation charting by management. No tables are going to look side-eyed at you if they’ve got babies and toddlers too. The food was outstanding. After the couverts of rice chips, bread and pickled things we shared a delicately plated octopus salad alongside a fried onion – a study in contrast. The so-called “mini chef” menu had one plate on offer for the kids: steak, eggs and fries. And, that’s all they needed. The adults split an entree and it (almost) felt like a date night.