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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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