Decadent Dining in One of Lisbon’s Oldest Restaurants

Illustrator Joana Avillez shares a mythic Lisbon restaurant and an unforgettable food trip to Hội An.


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Highly subjective takes on life’s most interesting experiences.

The most beautiful restaurant experience?

I don't know if it is the most beautiful, but it is my favorite. In Lisbon, where my dad grew up, there is a restaurant called Gambrinus, not too far from the Tagus River. It feels like a dark-wood-paneled secret. When you walk in (from the street or from the back entrance) you wonder if you've stumbled into a dream sequence, a postcard reenactment, or a play with no end. You can take a seat at the wood-paneled bar (my preference) and be served by a gentleman who has been laying upside-down place settings perfectly on the counter since Portugal was under a dictatorship. My friend Isa told me that the city of Lisbon had tried to cap evening metro service an hour earlier than when Gambrinus staff got off work. For this reason, the government realized they couldn't change it, as the servers would have no way of getting home.

By the bar is a telephone ledge built into the wood paneling; a hunky black rotary, waiting to ring. My dad’s friends told me they would all call each other on this phone. Businessmen with 1970s haircuts speak in whispers, ordering more booze than most who have to go back to the office. I copy the order of the woman with souffléd coif. There is an air of mystery and hot shrimp. Around the corner is the smoking room, which I can attest, after a certain hour, is fully operational. There is a portrait hanging there, a person whose beady eyes have probably the finest record of the past 80 years of Lisbon, socially and politically. The things this painting has heard!

You can also sit in the main dining room, a vaulted affair with a fireplace and a tapestry that sweeps across one side. Pineapple fruit towers and stained-glass inlays offer spike and gleam. The best, freshest seafood is here, and if they don’t have the barnacle or crustacean you’re after, the waiter will assure you: It’s because the sea was too rough to catch that day.

After dinner, we always get coffee — espresso made before you in an elaborate fluted chemistry lab set replete with Bunsen burner. Growing up in New York, my dad would perform the same siphoned coffee magic trick after dinner parties at our house. And so of course this is why I find Gambrinus beautiful, a place where my own particular memories are acted out before me, over and over again.

The best street food?

I went to Vietnam under the wing of my dear friend Julia Sherman (who does Salad for President) under the guise of a “food trip.” It was such an incredible way to explore a new place. With Julia, who brought us her own immaculately prepared food for the flight, everything, in a sense, is a “food trip.” Normally when traveling, food is a huge part of the experience, but when it’s your mission, it takes on a feverish no-belly-too-full excitement.

On the street in Hội An we ate dumplings that looked as soft and incandescent as a fairy’s pillow, a foggy crescent that swallowed a mini coral moon, dusted with green polka dots. I don’t remember the actual ingredients, just the levitation I felt as I chewed.



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Our Contributors

Joana Avillez Illustrator

Joana Avillez is an illustrator living and working in her native New York. Clients have included Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the United Nations, the New York Times, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, and the Paris Review.

Mike McQuade Illustrator

Mike McQuade is an illustrator and artist living and working in Richmond, Virginia. His clients include the New York Times, the New Yorker, Criterion Collection, Nike, Apple, HarperCollins, Penguin Books, Pentagram, NPR, and the Atlantic. His work focuses largely on finding concepts through collage, and always aims for unexpected outcomes.


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