Cais do Sodre is one of those scabby-chic areas on the brink of gentrification. It is not best viewed first thing in the morning, with sprawling homelessness and graffiti-stricken lanes. Google’s overenthusiastic recommendations, like a child high on Sprite, had flagged up a hundred top-rated ‘Places to eat in Lisbon’.
The Time Out Market loomed large in its internet presence and larger still in reality – so-named as it is toted by Time Out as ‘the best of the city under one roof’. Formerly the main market, it has the air of a cathedral gutted of its ornament. The food is doled out by no less than thirty-five clinically similar stalls, each only really offering one dish. If you were to note down all of these signatures, you’d be looking at a schizophrenic plea to Michelin: 64-degree egg, Tuna Tataki, Roast Pork Sandwich and of course Pasteis de Nata. Communal tables and trays with plastic cutlery replace atmosphere. It’s a sort of tourist’s mess hall. Portugal’s school cantine.
Perhaps I should loosen my cravat a moment, and set aside my white table-cloths, my bib and tucker, since there is little doubt that this new style of eating nods to changing attitudes. ‘Gourmet’ fast food holds a novel appeal for those exhausted by the fustiness of haute cuisine. And while it is an undeniably social experience – your vegan friends can have their quinoa next your rugby team’s weekly curry night – it is fundamentally unengaging.
But there are many gourmet experiences in Lisbon which surpass Time Out’s ‘under one roof’ attitude, but which are being neglected. A litmus test for me was the Mercado 31 de Janeiro, one of the city’s functioning fresh produce markets. The building is brutalist and ugly, there are fish-guts on the floor as well. But while you tear through a plate of the freshest grilled fish or fried bacalao, you can listen to the babble of Portuguese, catching up or negotiating the price of fish. Despite the ugliness of the language and the soft whumping of the fish monger’s cleaver – this is the soundtrack to a meal which Time Out will simply never capture.
Chilled White Port and Tonic alongside lip-puckeringly salty sardines, arranged in olive oil and lemon juice. Eaten while I leant on a barrel in cobbled backstreet, Sol e Pesca serve the city’s canned seafood specialties with the grace of any white table-cloth establishment. And they don’t make you use trays or plastic cutlery.
A sweaty Taverna with spiced bread soup we would never have thought to order, had the egregiously fat man at the table next to us not recommended it. Between mouthfuls he lamented that Anthony Bourdain ruined his favorite restaurant by filming there, while we looked on, agape at the piles seafood which he systematically washed down with kegs of beer.
You can’t smell the sea in the Market, and you can’t watch the sun-set into the Atlantic at the end of the continent. But perhaps the saddest thing is that you might miss the human encounters that come with eating somewhere strange.
Rather depressingly, Time Out hopes to proliferate. Opening in Miami, New York, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, Prague and London – with Waterloo expected to open in 2021. So as the campaign of condensed culture continues, I can only hope that visitors to cities like London will give it the same chance I gave Lisbon. Since it is an outrageous claim of such a restless place as a capital city that it could be contained ‘under one roof’.