In Lisbon, Portugal: (Sort of) Dining out with American TV travel host and guidebook author Rick Steves

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Rick Steves gives a friendly greeting to a fellow traveler at the TimeOut Market in Lisbon. He’s accompanied by his producer, Simon Griffith. Steves and his team are on their annual spring-summer tour of Europe, filming new TV shows and gathering information to update guidebooks.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

It’s a little after 7 in the evening on a pleasant spring Thursday in May in Portugal’s capital. I’m sitting on a low-backed high stool, made of a light-colored wood, at a lengthy table shared by several dozen people I don’t know in a place called TimeOut Market Lisboa, which modestly calls itself “the best of Lisbon under one roof.”

It’s in the southern part of the city, across the street from a ship terminal and metro stop on the River Tejo. The concept of the venue, opened in 2014, is the brainchild of the local office of the same TimeOut folks who publish city and country guidebooks and magazines. The Lisbon staff have “tasted and tested” all the vendors in the “curated” market.

The tables run up and down the center of the facility. Forming the perimeter of the covered venue are mini-restaurant kiosks — some with limited seating — offering a variety of cuisines from which to order: seafood to pizza to Asian to Mexican to tapas to traditional Portuguese dishes, to famous custard tarts, eclairs, gelato and more.

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Restaurant kiosks ring the center space, where diners gather at long communal tables. The informal setup contributes to conversation among total strangers.

If you can’t find something among the 24 food kiosks and eight bars to eat and drink, you’re not trying.

The diners are a local and international mix, running the age gamut: families with rambunctious young kids (some in strollers) sitting at the tables lower to the floor, well-dressed couples having cocktails and a light meal, 20-somethings out for a night of drinking and sharing appetizers — and not spending a fortune in the process.

Think food court on a more sophisticated scale, with custom-made dishes from each mini-restaurant. You study the overhead menu, place your order, pay your tab and are handed a squarish pager that buzzes loudly and lights up madly when your food is ready for pickup. (The pizza on offer is one of the few dishes we see that appears precooked.)

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Behind these diners you can see the day’s choices and prices at two kiosks: Confraria, specializing in sushi, and Honorato, which offers thick hamburgers.

My friend Sylvia has gone off to order her meal from the counter at chef Marlene Vieira’s place, praised in the TimeOut brochure as having “brought to the market the best of Portuguese recipes, in the shape of both snacks and main dishes.”

The people-watching is superb.

I’m minding our belongings and Sylvia’s IPA from Beer Experience Super Bock (so the busboys don’t prematurely clear the table). Suddenly, walking right past where I’m sitting in almost the center of the market, I see someone I know. Well, not quite know, but recognize.

A casually dressed bespectacled man with a short haircut is moving from my left to my right. He’s with a curly headed man I also recognize, and a younger raven-haired woman I don’t. (I later deduce that this is probably a local guide.)

No question I’ve spotted Rick Steves. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of his shows about his travels in Europe — including the program he’s done on Lisbon — and while I’m surprised to see him, I’m not completely surprised to see him. I know he spends up to four months each spring and summer filming his TV series that’s shown on PBS and researching his guidebooks. (He’s been blogging about this trip since late April.)

I call out: “Hi Rick,” and give a little wave.

His head whips to the right to locate where this voice has come from — maybe he’s wondering who has identified him in this busy, bustling place — and I add: “We have your book.”

“Thanks,” he says, and keeps walking.

I watch where he’s gone because when Sylvia returns, I want to get a photo and I suspect she’ll want to get her Portugal guidebook autographed.

He’s taller than I expected, so I have no trouble tracking him as he migrates to the far end of the market.

Sylvia comes back to the table, and I tell her I’ve seen Rick Steves. (He has one of those two-syllable names that people always utter in full, like John Glenn or Tom Hanks.)

She grabs her guidebook, I hand her a black ballpoint pen, and she heads in the direction I’ve indicated. She spots him by chef Miguel Castro E Silva’s stand. (“The Porto native offers some of his famous rice dishes, as well as snacks traditionally popular in the north, such as the inevitable francesinha — the multilayered sandwich [covered in melted cheese] invented in Porto,” the brochure says.

Mission accomplished — the name Rick Steves is scrawled fairly illegibly on the inside front cover — and Sylvia recounts their conversation to me.

“ ‘Do you mind signing my book?’ ” Sylvia says she asked him.

“He said, ‘Oh, no, of course not.’ ”

“ ‘I was going to email you,’ ” she says to him. “ ‘You need to update two things in your book.’ ” (I’m sure she has said this in a friendly, information-imparting tone, not in a finger-wagging one.)

“ ‘I need to update a lot,’ he says, laughingly,” Sylvia tells me. “ ‘ What are they?’ ”

“And then I told him about the taxi ride. It’s now double into the city.” Sylvia is citing that the 2014 version of the guidebook estimates a taxi from the airport to city-center hotels to cost only 10 euros. In reality, it is 19 euros, Sylvia says.

“And the Gulbenkian [Museum] is 10 euros now.” (Perhaps the top museum in Lisbon, it houses the wide-ranging private collection of Armenian-born Calouste Gulbenkian, a many-times-over millionaire who amassed his fortune via oil, negotiating the transfer between companies and taking a commission each time.)

In all fairness, even when guidebooks are regularly updated, some information is almost immediately obsolete. Adding in production schedule lag time of six months to a year means that even the most recently published edition will have out-of-date material.

It’s unavoidable: Museums raise their entry fees, tour operators’ prices increase, hotels and restaurants become more expensive, and so on.

I really don’t want to seem like an annoying tourist, but I know this blog post will be enhanced if I have a photo to go along with the text.

So off I go. Steves hasn’t moved very far from where Sylvia chatted with him.

I am polite. I ask if he minds if I take his picture. It probably doesn’t hurt that I say: “I watch your show all the time.” I hope it doesn’t sound fawning.

So while Steves is giving me a little wave and his producer Simon Griffith is gazing toward the ceiling (probably looking at a kiosk menu), I snap a couple of frames. And then I thank them for posing.

I could exaggerate a bit here and say we have dinner with Steves and his friends, because they are sitting at the other end of our communal table. Several times while Sylvia and I are tucking into our food, I look to my right and have no trouble picking out where Steves is sitting.

But in that we aren’t having a conversation with him, we’re not really eating with him either.

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From chef Miguel Laffan’s kiosk, grilled chicken with Thai sauce, consisting of coconut milk, coriander, green curry and ginger.

As for our food, I order grilled chicken with Thai sauce from chef Miguel Laffan’s kiosk. The chicken is perfectly cooked, juicy, and despite a sauce made of coconut milk, coriander, green curry and ginger, not overly spicy. I also have a side salad of lettuce, red onions, tomatoes and corn. I spend about $10. (Several other sauces are available, including spicy piri-piri and barbecue.)

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This is chef Marlene Vieira’s version of a traditional Portuguese dish called bacalhau: salted cod with potatoes, onions, black olives and a hard-cooked egg. I think the rectangular dessert on the left is like the famous circular custard tarts we see everywhere in Portugal.

Sylvia is less happy with her meal. She tries the traditional bacalhau, salted cod with potatoes, onions, black olives and a hard-cooked egg. The cod is dried and reconstituted, and she reports it isn’t too salty or too fishy. I try a small bite of the fish and find it … chewy.

Two days later, after the completion of our sightseeing in the Belem area, we’re not far by trolley from TimeOut Market, so we decide to eat there again. After all, there are so many choices.

I order Pad Thai with chicken from the Asian Lab. Sylvia selects a steak-and-shrimp sandwich from Café de São Bento (an offshoot of a much-lauded restaurant and bar).

Unfortunately, the amount of steak on her sandwich is meager, and the overall portion isn’t very large. After another prowl, she and comes back with tempura veggies, including green beans. Once again, I’m happier with my meal than she is with hers.

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This is the entry to Mercado da Ribeira, the market across from the river Tejo. 

During our five-day Lisbon stay, we also stop at city-center Santini for gelato, and Honorato, across from our hotel, for fist-filling double-decker hamburgers. Both have kiosks at TimeOut Market, so in reality we have sampled a total seven of the possible places to eat or drink.

Which qualifies me to say that although the food experience may be uneven, the overall destination is well worth investigating.

Quick reference: Guidebooks list the food hall as Mercado da Ribeira (mercado means market). Some of the non-restaurant vendors sell seafood, fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers. Avenida 24 de Julho; across from the Cais do Sodré metro stop. 10 a.m. to midnight Sundays-Wednesdays; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. http://www.timeoutmarket.com

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