Rows of chunky, pristine pine tables flanked by high stools stretch as far as the eye can see beneath a hangar-sized, glass and corrugated iron roof festooned with factory-chic lighting. A constant tide of tray-carrying diners ebbs and flows from the tables to food kiosks that line the outer walls, each displaying trendy black and white boards that entice with menus including traditional Portuguese percebes and clams; gourmet burgers; Asian rice and noodles; pizzas; steaks; and sushi and sashimi. A liberal sprinkling of home made cakes and artisan ice cream provides simpler, sweet desserts if you don’t want to go gourmet with the chefs whose kiosks line the top wall of the market.
An island of bars in the centre of the hall provides wines, vodkas, smoothies and beers to complete the gastronomic picture, with coffee to follow, and the traditional cherry brandy liqueur of Ginjinha for a digestive-settling finale.
Welcome to Time Out’s Mercado Da Ribeira and Lisbon’s burgeoning gourmet fast food scene.
After a full tour of all 35 kiosks and the usual protracted decision making, we place our orders. I choose prosciutto on truffle potato purée with a slow cooked egg and asparagus from gourmet chef Henrique Sá Passoa while Jack opts for the classic Francesinha from gourmet Portuguese specialist Miguel Castro E Silva. Armed with a small, black disc about the size of a paper weight, that I’m assured will ‘go off’ when my meal is ready, I nab a couple of stools and indulge in some people watching. Jack gets no such hi-tec gadgetry and has to keep an eye on his kiosk for the nod to collect his order.
The Mercado Da Ribeira (on Avenida 24 de Julho by the rail station at Cais do Sodré) has been Lisbon’s main food market since 1892. In May 2014, Time Out Lisboa transformed one of the enormous halls into its current foodie’s paradise for hipsters and bohemians, family treats, healthy eats and gastronomes on a budget. This is Saturday night and the place is buzzing.
My Star Trek device goes into neon flashing and buzzing overdrive and I collect my meal and glass of local red wine. Unfortunately, Jack is still waiting for his Francesinha so I have to dine alone. Apart from the fact that my meal is not really hot enough for my taste, the standard is excellent. The prosciutto is rich in flavour, the asparagus is tender, the egg is cooked to perfection and the truffle-infused potato purée has me scraping every last morsel from the plate before I reluctantly relinquish it to the smiley chap who’s doing a sterling job of keeping the tables clean and clear in between diners.
Jack finally gets the nod and appears back with his tray on which a perfect Francesinha sits, coated in cheese sauce, sitting in a moat of gravy and accompanied by a bowl of fat, crispy chips. Suddenly my gourmet dinner feels inadequate and with plenty of room left for further indulgence, I return to Henrique Sá Passoa and order the sticky toffee pudding with banana and caramel ice cream which, like a hungry hawk spotting a lizard at a hundred feet, I’d spotted as soon as we arrived. Needless to say, it was superb.
So what makes Mercado Da Ribeira different?
Mainly it’s the quality that separates this food venture from every other fast food outlet in shopping malls across the globe. Here, the kiosks are all backed by shiny, contemporary cooking areas stocked to their stylish rafters in state of the art kitchen equipment and manned by chefs in crisp whites. All the kiosk names and menus are uniformly white on black boards and all use the same font; displays are well lit, clean and alluring and food is fresh and appealing.
Then there’s the food. There are no golden arches or neon pictures showing plastic meals, instead there are up and coming chefs, some of whom have restaurants in the city, offering top drawer dining at affordable prices. My prosciutto and egg with truffle purée was just €7. Some kiosks are offshoots of restaurants already well established in the city, like Sea Me with its modern fish and seafood menus, and Honorato gourmet burger chain which has outlets all over the city. But for an up and coming chef, this must be a great opportunity to get a foot on Lisbon’s culinary ladder at relatively little set-up cost.
For diners, Mercado Da Ribeira provides an opportunity to try some of Lisbon’s finest fresh ingredients and best known dishes in a lively and fun atmosphere. Don’t expect to spend an entire evening here as the whole experience is that of a fast food service and although there is seating for 500 people inside and a further 250 outside, such is its popularity, particularly at weekend, that places are at a premium and lingering over wine too long is not a guilt-free option. On the down side, you might experience delayed dining, as Jack and I did, which hardly makes for a romantic option and certainly not a great first date choice unless you both order from the same menu.
Mercado Da Ribeira isn’t Portugal’s only gourmet food hall, the equally tasty and hip Mercado de Campo de Ourique is a buzzing gourmet and nightlife scene with live music at weekends.
If I have one worry about this new kid on the block dining concept, it’s that it represents the thin end of a wedge that could sound the death knoll for some of the city’s small, traditional restaurants as younger diners in particular opt for a more contemporary scene. Like the food equivalent of out of town shopping, it could ultimately lead to an irrevocable change in the city’s restaurant riches. But hopefully, and judging by the number of people filling dining tables all over the city while we were there, Lisbon’s food scene is strong enough to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Mercado Da Ribeira is open every day from 10am to midnight and to 2am on Thursday, Friday & Saturday, nearest Metro stop is Cais do Sodré; Mercado de Campo de Ourique is open every day from 10am to 11pm and to 1am on Thursday, Friday & Saturday, nearest Metro stop is Rato.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+