Stewed lamb at Restaurante Estoril, Amarante, Portugal

Eating out in Portugal is usually a very enjoyable, relatively straightforward and affordable experience. Even so, knowing what’s standard practice for ordering in Portuguese restaurants, cafés, bakeries and bars will help you order with confidence and avoid leaving with a nasty taste in your mouth.

Find out when to eat, how to tip, how to pay, whether to reserve a table and more in this insider guide to ordering like a local in Portugal.

How to order like a local at a Portuguese restaurant

When should you wait to be seated?

In informal settings like a bakery-cum-café, i.e. pastelaria, you can just find an empty table and sit down, although see below for the ins and outs of ordering in these places.

In a restaurant, it’s polite to wait to be seated by a server, whether you have a reservation or not. They will ask Quantas pessoas? (How many people?). If the server acknowledges you from a distance, you can indicate the number of people using your fingers and they will direct you to a table. This may not have been cleared and reset yet.

The nibbles are not free! 

The first time I went to a restaurant in Portugal, I remember thinking how lovely it was that the waiter kept bringing little dishes of olives, runny cheese, octopus salad and other tasty treats to our table without being asked.

I was with a group of people from work and we all happily tucked into them without thinking. Luckily, our company was footing the bill. It hadn’t occurred to any of us that we would be charged for food we hadn’t ordered but that’s the norm here.

It is against the law to charge for unsolicited food so if this happens you can challenge the bill but it’s less stressful and very easy to avoid confrontation if you know what to expect.

If you’re not having a set menu (see below), consider whether or not you want to pay for the extras. If you like the look of what’s been brought to the table but want to check the cost first, ask Quanto custa? (How much is it?). If you don’t want them, send them back untouched with a simple Não, obrigado (No, thank you) to avoid any unpleasantness when the bill comes.

The olives, bread and sardine paté are usually quite cheap and tasty so it’s usually safe to tuck in but presunto (cured ham), cheeses and octopus salads can soon add up.

Bread, cheese and olives, De Pedra e Sal
Bread, cheese and olives

Look out for meal deals for best value for money

Many restaurants offer a menu turístico / menu do día / diária (set menu) at lunchtime.

This is usually great value in that you get a starter, which is often soup; a main course; a drink which may be a glass or even a jug of wine; and sometimes coffee and a dessert for a set price which can range from €5 to about €15+, depending on the restaurant.

Tip: If you head away from the touristy areas and find out where the locals are having lunch, you’ll get a better deal. It’s best to avoid peak times (see below) unless you’re willing to wait for a table or book ahead.

Dish of the day (prato do día)

This is the daily special, which could be one of the standard dishes from the menu at a reduced price or something off-menu dictated by the fresh produce available on the day.

Many pastelarias serve a limited range of pratos do día at lunch time, often with dishes hastily scrawled on a paper table cloth and crossed off when they run out.

Make sure you check what’s included and what isn’t before ordering. I’ve been caught out by ordering the prato do día (dish of the day), assuming that it was part of a fixed menu and merrily stuffing my face with olives, bread, soup and dessert only to find that each item has been charged á la carte. Instead of the cheap €14-for-two lunch I thought I was having, it cost me nearer €30.

Tip: A handy phrase if you are uncertain as to whether or not to accept the soup/drink/coffee/dessert that the waiter offers is: Está incluido no preço? (Is it included in the price?). 

Portions may be designed for two

Visitors to Portugal often say that the portions are huge but if you look around at Portuguese diners in traditional Portuguese restaurants, you’ll probably notice that they are sharing the main course(s).

You too can order one portion (dose) between two, unless it’s part of a set menu.

If you prefer to keep your food to yourself and don’t want enormous amounts, look out for items that have a 1/2 or meia dose (half-portion) option on the menu.

More modern and fancier restaurants don’t do this – their dishes are for one person. 

In such establishments, there may also be dishes that are designed for 2 people, usually something like cabrito (roasted kid) or arroz de mariscos (seafood rice), and this will be clearly stated on the menu. You can deduce from this, and the relative prices, that the other dishes are intended for one person. If you’re not sure, ask: “Isto é para quantas pessoas?” (How many people is this for?)

Even if you are ordering individual portions, it’s quite common for your food to be presented on a serving dish, often a metal tray in typical no-frills restaurants, from which you serve yourself as required.

Whet your appetite with my favourite Portuguese foods.

Hearty Portuguese food at Zé Manuel dos Ossos restaurant in Coimbra
Hearty Portuguese food at Zé Manuel dos Ossos restaurant in Coimbra

Ordering drinks in a Portuguese restaurant

Standard practice is for the waiter to bring you the olives and bread with the menu. They may or may not bring the wine list at the same time – sometimes you have to ask for it (a carta dos vinhos).

You will not normally be asked what you would like to drink until the food order is dealt with. The house wine is usually very good, as is Portuguese wine in general. Ask for suggestions if you’re not sure what to choose.

Water is served in bottles and Portuguese people seem to have an aversion to chilled water. When you order water, the server will ask if you want it natural ou fresca (room temperature or chilled) and sem gás ou com gás (still or sparkling).

Unless you specifically ask for extra drinks, you probably won’t be offered any, except coffee at the end of the meal.

There are, however, many wonderful Portuguese liqueurs, fortified wines and spirits that you might like to round off your meal with or enjoy with dessert. I love a velvety ruby or aged tawny port, depending on what I have for dessert, and am rather partial to the sweet, herby Licor Beirão as a digestive. For those who can stomach something stronger, try a Macieira brandy.

A glass of 20 year tawny port wine
20 year tawny port wine

Soup as starter and vegetable fix

Soup is a staple part of the Portuguese diet and almost every menu do día will include it as the starter. In some parts of the country, this is also the only place where you’ll see a vegetable other than potatoes, unless you order a side salad or serving of veg. 

Accompaniments / sides

In Portugal, dishes come with standard accompaniments, depending on what you order. This is included in the price and not usually mentioned on the menu (except in more contemporary restaurants).

You should expect that grilled fish comes with boiled potatoes and possibly a bit of greenery. Grilled meat, however comes with the carb overload of chips (fries) AND rice, perhaps with a garnish of lettuce and tomato. 

You can usually substitute these for a salad, which will consist of lettuce, tomato, onion and, if you’re very lucky, some grated carrot. Or order a small salad as an extra side dish if you also want your carbs.

A note on coriander, the devil’s herb

I am one of those people for whom fresh coriander tastes like washing up liquid. Despite the fact that I’ve been living in Portugal for long enough to know better, I still sometimes forget to ask for my dishes to be served without coriander “sem coentros“.

Since it’s most likely to be stirred into a seafood stew, açorda (bread stew) or rice dish, this is often disastrous for me so bear this in mind if you also hate the stuff.

Prawn and bread stew, Portofino restaurant, Sesimbra
Prawn and bread stew, loaded with coriander

How to order fresh fish and seafood

Portugal is famous for its fresh fish and seafood and in many restaurants, you can choose your fish from the catch of the day.

Fun though this is, it can be hard to know how much it’s going to cost since you’ll be charged by the kilo. Avoid nasty surprises by asking the waiter for the estimated price of the fish you select – they will weigh it and tell you before you commit.

Note that grilled fish will usually be presented whole. The waiter may offer to debone and serve it for you so watch and learn if you’re not used to dealing with fish.

Robalo (sea bass) à moda da casa, Restaurante Mariana, Afife, Portugal
Robalo (sea bass) à moda da casa, Restaurante Mariana

How to order steaks and other meat dishes

Steaks and burgers tend to be served on the rare side in Portugal, at least compared to British interpretations. Asking for “medium” will usually result in meat that’s still slightly raw.

If you prefer your meat to be pink but not bloody, ask for it ao ponto, mas quase bem passada, pronounced ow pontoo muzh kwaz beym passahdah (medium well-done) and for no hint of pink, muito bem passada, pronounced mwoytoo beym passahdah (very well done). If you do like it rare, ask for it to be mal passada.

Naco na pedra is steak on a hot stone, which is sometimes seared before it’s brought to the table and sometimes raw. You then leave it on the stone to cook as much or as little as you like.

Some like it hot, but not the Portuguese

One thing I’ve noticed about Portuguese food is the temperature at which it’s served. Unless you’ve ordered something that’s served in terracotta dish straight out of the oven or sizzling on a hot stone, it’s unlikely to be served piping hot.

Soup is often lukewarm. If you can’t bear the idea of eating food that’s not particularly hot, ask for it to be served bem quente, pronounced “beym kent” (very hot) when you order.

How to order like a local in Portuguese cafés

Buying a coffee and a cake should be one of the easiest things to do, especially in Portugal which seems to have a café or pastelaría (cake shop) on every street corner and is obsessed with cakes.

However, when I first moved here I was lured into many a cake shop by the intriguing displays only to walk out again a few minutes later, cakeless, intimidated and still hungry. This was not through any momentous force of weight-watching willpower but because I was unable to fathom the system for ordering and paying for anything and too shy to attempt to ask in my faltering Portuguese.

I’ve since worked out how to get my cake and eat it like everyone else so these tips will help you stride confidently into any pastelaría or café in Portugal and order what you want.

Milk cake, 'Torta de Azeitão' and 'Esses de Azeitão'
Milk cake, ‘Torta de Azeitão’ and ‘Esses de Azeitão’

First, establish the location of the till

Is there a separate till, away from the display counter? If so, sit down and wait for a waiter to come to you. (Don’t worry about not knowing the names of the cakes or savouries; you can get up and point to the items you want if necessary.) 

If you’d like some help with your coffee order, check out this short video courtesy of Portugal Daily View:

When the waiter brings your food and drink, they will leave you with a tab, either on a piece of paper or an electronic swipe card with your running total on it. If you order more, they’ll add it to the tab.

If you decide you’d like to buy something to take away with you, you need to present this tab at the counter and they will add your items to it. When you’re done, take the tab to the cashier and pay.

Simple – when you know how!

If you can’t see a separate till, just decide whether to sit at a table for waiter service or stand at the counter if you just want a quick slug of coffee to see you on your way. Eat and drink first, pay the waiter later.

Typical food available in Portuguese cafés

In most cases, you won’t see a printed menu as the offering tends to be pretty standard beyond what you can see in the display cabinets.

Don’t expect much variety or excitement in the sandwich area – you can usually have ham, cheese or a mista, which is cheese and ham (all the processed variety). There might be tuna or delicias do mar (crabsticks), or a breaded and fried bit of chicken or pork in a bread roll.

If you want something hot, you can have your cheese/ham sandwich toasted, uma tosta mista, for example, or order a bifana (a hot pork sandwich which is very tasty) or perhaps a prego, which is a minute steak sandwich.

As mentioned above, if you go at lunch time, there is a chance of a prato do día.

How to order like a local at Portuguese bars

If you’re used to having to grit your teeth, sharpen your elbows or bat your eyelids for all you’re worth in order to get served at a bar, you should find going out for a drink in Portugal a far more relaxing experience.

With a couple of tips on how the system usually works in bars and clubs, all you have to do is choose what and where to drink.

Cocktail waiter prepares a port cocktail like the one already on the bar
Port cocktails at 360º Terrace Bar, Espaço Porto Cruz,

Ahh, table service, how I love thee

The kind of service you can expect in bars varies according to the location and time of day but in most cases, where there are tables, there’s a waiter. It might take them a while to get to you but if you sit down, they will come, take your order and bring it to you.

With or without a smile. And perhaps with a dish of nuts, popcorn or tremosos (yellow lupin seeds – don’t eat the skin) that are free, unless you ordered them.

Some of the very busy or touristy places will ask you to pay on delivery but it’s quite common to just pay the waiter at the end. Just ask for a conta, por favor (the bill, please).

Ordering drinks at the bar

Paying as you order comes into play in the busier nightspots, although you might still get your drinks brought to your table in some places.

In popular areas like Bairro Alto in Lisbon and Rua da Galeria de Paris in Porto people tend to take their drinks outside, turning the streets into a communal party. 

When I say party, I mean one where people stand around drinking and chatting. If you want dancing, you’ll need to go inside, where many of the bars have DJs and tiny dance floors.

Pick the least crowded-looking bar then jostle your way to the counter, order, pay and take your non-smashable cup of liquid to wherever you plan on drinking it. 

What to watch out for in nightclubs

I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I’m hardly an expert on the clubbing scene in Portugal but one thing that’s baffled me here is the concept of having to pay to get out of nightclubs.

The system in Portugal seems to be that they issue you with a card when you go in and instead of paying for drinks as you order, they mark your card to indicate what you’ve had and you pay off the total at the bar before you leave.

In many places there is a consumo minimo (minimum consumption) so you need to ensure that each person in your party has enough drinks to cover this minimum marked on their own card, no matter who is paying for them. The bouncer won’t let you out unless you’ve done so.

Tip: Keep a mental track of how much you’ve spent so that you have enough money on you to cover the bill.

Whatever you do, don’t lose your card!

Meal times in Portugal

Thankfully, Portuguese people don’t eat as late as the Spanish, although mealtimes may still be later than what you’re used to.

Lunch is typically from 12 to 3 pm, with 1 pm being the peak and some restaurants don’t open until 12:30.

Restaurants open at 7 or 7:30 pm and close around 10 or 11 pm. The busiest time is usually around 8:30 to 9 pm, although this can be a bit later at weekends in the big cities.

Do you need a reservation at a Portuguese restaurant?

If you want to go out for Sunday lunch, I’d say yes, definitely. And for popular restaurants, it’s best to reserve if possible.

TheFork (right-click to translate the page into English) is usually the easiest way to do this, although not all restaurants are listed. Facebook Messenger is another easy option but don’t expect an immediate response. If you’re trying to book last minute, it’s best to call, or ask your hotel to do that for you.

Some restaurants do not accept bookings, in which case, either show up very early or be prepared to wait in line for a table.

Cash or card? How to pay in Portuguese eateries

While upscale restaurants usually take all major cards, this is not a given so always check when you make a reservation. If you’re walking in on spec, there should be a sign on the door indicating which cards are accepted or “Não temos Multibanco (MB)” (We don’t accept cards). 

Make sure you have enough cash on you to cover the likely bill before you sit down and don’t rely on menu prices on the restaurant’s website – these could be years out of date in some cases.

Cash is best in cafés, bars and informal establishments. Some of the swankier nightspots may accept cards but check first.

Tipping etiquette in Portuguese restaurants, cafés and bars

It’s not essential to tip, although waiters will certainly appreciate it. As a guide, 5-10% is fine but it’s also okay to just round up the bill by a few euros in restaurants.

I’ve never come across this but apparently, in some tourist-oriented restaurants, they add a 10% service charge onto the bill. If that’s the case, don’t add extra.

Also try to tip in cash rather than adding it to your card payment so that your money goes to the people it’s destined for and not the proprietors.

In cafés, the bill is likely to be less, so rounding up to the next euro or so is generally enough, although not expected. The same applies in bars. 

Vegetarian and vegan food in Portugal

Vegetarians will find sufficient choice in Lisbon, Porto and the resort towns of the Algarve but will struggle further afield. Vegans will have an even tougher time, although there are a growing number of vegan eateries in the cities.

Most restaurants don’t offer a specific vegetarian option. Resign yourself to eating a lot of soups, which are usually vegetarian, but check they haven’t slipped a slice of chouriço (sausage) in it. Other staples will include salads, omelettes, chick peas and cheese sandwiches.

Make sure you stress that não como carne, pronounced “now comoo karneh” (I don’t eat meat) or sem carne, se faz favor, pronounced “seym karneh, suh fazh, favor” (without meat, please). For more phrases and a directory of veggie-friendly restaurants in Portugal, check out the Happy Cow website.

Understanding the menu in Portugal

If your Portuguese doesn’t extend much further than obrigada/o, this list of food words should help you decipher what’s on offer. (If you want to learn Portuguese, check out these free resources.)

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26 Comments

  1. i’m over a year late finding your blog and this post, and the subject of ordering meals and drinks and starters in Portugal has been well discussed already, but I would like just to add a comment on the topic of starters.
    In my experience many restaurant kitchens in Portugal actually cook, or finish cooking, the meal you have ordered from fresh ingredients. This process takes time. If you don’t eat the olives and cheese and so on then you have to sit and do nothing while you wait for your meal to be ready. Choosing the wine takes up some of the waiting time, which is why you order the food first. Once you have been served your wine, you will need to nibble bread and olives to stop the alcohol from going to your head.
    If you are in a hurry, the prato do dia will probably take less preparation time and you can send back the nibbles. Otherwise just consider that skipping the starters will not make the main dish appear any faster, so take them into account and order less food to follow. Accept that someone is cooking for you, rather than warming up a defrosted freezer meal, relax and enjoy the delicious little Portuguese cheeses, the olives and the hunks of bread,..

    1. I love your comment Clare and completely agree. Warm greetings from Porto.

      1. Author

        Hi Katarina – nice to hear from you again. Loving your new blog look, by the way.

    2. Author

      Hi Clare. I’m glad you found me eventually!

      You’re absolutely right about the meals taking time to prepare and the benefit of having the bread and olives – we always do and are rarely disappointed with either the olives or the bread, especially when it’s broa (cornbread). I also like the little sheep’s cheeses, especially when the rind has gone a little crunchy.

      Another time and tummy-filling option that won’t break the bank is to order soup as a starter.

  2. Thanks for the great info – now i just have to get there! thanks for visiting.

  3. Found it!

    Like with all customs; tipping is something travelers need to be aware of.

  4. A few differences I’ve noticed from the UK relate to drinks.

    In the UK you order drinks first (sometimes barely having time to check the wine list) and then the food. In Portugal first you order food and the decide on the drinks (usually to match your meal).

    Also, while in the UK is acceptable to ask for a glass or jug of tap water, in Portugal a glass of water is usually just asked with the coffee.

    1. Author

      That’s an interesting point, zebradestepe. I’ve often been frustrated by the delay in getting to the drinks order in Portugal because I’m used to the UK system. I think restaurants are likely to sell more drinks if they serve them while the customers are still deciding on their meal. That way, by the time the food arrives, they may well need another drink, or the wine they have chosen more carefully to accompany the meal. I think there are merits to both systems but it’s useful to understand the different ways of doing things so you can have more control over the proceedings.

  5. Hi Julie, living in Porto, I can say the cuisine varies from exceptionaly bad to exceptionaly good. The best advice to anyone is to get away from the touristic areas and try to find a small and cosy place, as they are usually the best. I just want to add, that – at least in Porto / Matosinhos – the portions tend to be HUGE. It depends a lot if you the menu says “Prato..blabla” or not. When it says prato, it will be on plate and it’s recommended as a single portion. When I’m eating out with my boyfriend, we are almost always ordering 1/2 dose for both of us and we’re still stuffed (and we’re no saladarians :))…). Of course, as anywhere, it’s better to know where to go. E.g. in Matosinhos, we have a favourite restaurant to have Arroz de Tamboril (Yum!!), but once we tried to have meaty dinner there and it was not so good (yeah, that’s another point, restaurants seem to be pretty specialized – some places are only for seafood / fish, some are more for meat – even if they have both in the menu…). Regarding the entry – I find it very nice and welcoming and mostly it costs up to 2 eur (bread and butter or olives..) So I’ll be rather chewing a piece of bread with olives and enjoying conversation than let my stomach grate. It’s really easy to say no though, you just need to know that it’s ok and they are used to it.
    So … I hope I didn’t confuse you all too much :))… Closing line from my side should be that 95% of the time, I am more than satisfied with the food I’m getting and I’m more stuffed than necessary!
    PS: Don’t miss the DESSERTS! :))

    1. Author

      Hi Katarina, Thanks for your comment – good tip about the ‘pratos’ being for 1 person.

      I like to have the bread and olives to nibble on and am happy to pay for them, too. And you’re right about the specialisations – I’ve learned to stick to certain dishes in certain restaurants but if I’m ever in Matosinhos, I’ll check out your recommendation.

      1. There are hundreds of restaurants in Matosinhos and it’s being said that it is the right place to get fish. I love Arroz de Tamboril and we usually have it in restaurant called Mar na Brasa… me & my boyfriend share 1/2 dose and it’s perfectly sufficient (from my point of view).

  6. Lovely post Julie . When we lived in Portugal, when eating out we would send back the starters we didn´t want/like, but I also never thought of not paying for something I hadn´t ordered. I think it´s a way for restaurants to make some extra money from little morsels we all like to eat!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Sami. You can’t blame them for trying, I suppose but if you don’t know the system (or even if you do?) it’s easy to feel as though you’re being tricked!

  7. Really useful tips – I heard many people complain about the bread olives and cheese issue, but once you know that’s just the way it works it’s fine and you can decide of you want them or not. Greedy thing that I am, I found it hard to refuse, and for most meals I simply settled in for the long haul, olives and all!

    1. Author

      Me too! I usually have to olives – they’re cheap – and sometimes the other stuff but it’s best to check how much they’ll cost if you’re on a tight budget.

  8. Let me start by telling you that whenever someone brings me something I have not ordered at all for starters and I eat it, I will not pay for it in the end, as I consider it an offer. Yes, I’m quite sure it isn’t an offer and that it might seem rude, but I’m tired of going somewhere to dine and not asking something and yet everything is put on the table, and that is as convenient and pleasant to me as a heart attack. Nope, if I want it, I’ll order it, and I’ll surely pay for it. As for portions… well, the farther away you move from bigger crowded venues, the better you’ll eat, at least when it comes to portions. The rural side is welcoming in every sense, and cuisine isn’t an exception, on the contrary. As a native, I can say that the traditional rip-off/smart ass exists everywhere, especially in bigger cities where they charge 6€ or more for a soup bowl, a slice of veggies/meat pie and a tad of salad on the sides while calling it a complete meal, which is a joke. There are however some very good food temples around the country, and I try to visit at least one while travelling to different cities, and the more rural areas are just great for good food and service. I can name some, like O Touciño, in Almeirim, which is a staple, or the Tromba Rija, in Leiria. It’s a sincere pleasure to read your articles, keep it up.

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for commenting, João. It’s good to know that you’re still enjoying my blog. It’s also interesting to hear your position on the unsolicited food. I’ve never tried arguing it that way – my Portuguese doesn’t stretch to that sort of discussion – but I see your point.

      I’ll make a note of your restaurant recommendations for future reference, thanks.

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