Learning a few basic words and phrases of Portuguese shouldn’t be beyond most people, and is only common courtesy. And unless you’re really off the beaten track, you’ll usually find the owner, or at least one of the waiting staff, will speak more than enough English (and often other languages such as German or French) to help you get by.
If not, muddle through with a few well-chosen mimes, a spot of guesswork, or just cast a glance at what looks good on the other tables.
Many restaurants do translate their menus into other languages. But it’s worth taking a look at the Portuguese pages, as the descriptions are often more accurate or enlightening than the translated version. And lots of restaurants will have more dishes listed in Portuguese - especially in the house specialities or dishes of the day section - than they will in the translated version, often thinking that some dishes are too rustic or unusual for non-Portuguese tastes.
Most restaurants offer this as a pre-starter starter. In some places, it’s nothing more than bread, sardine paté and a few olives, in others it’s much more inventive, and substantial. There’s almost always a charge, so check it out on the menu if you really are watching the pennies. But it can often be a reasonable alternative to ordering a first course.
Often listed as pratos do dia or dishes of the day, and always worth considering. It can be the chef’s favourite (and therefore usually best) dishes, something seasonal or unique to one particular area, or just simply a really good value offering. Don’t be afraid to ask for explanations.
Portugal produces (on the whole) some pretty good wines, so even just ordering the house wine means more often than not you’ll get something eminently drinkable. Most Portuguese restaurants only stock Portuguese wines (why would you want to drink French or Australian, you can do that anytime) so it’s worth trying to learn a little about the numerous wine-growing regions, although the countless number of grape varieties, many of them unique to Portugal, will confuse all but the most committed of wine buffs. Again, ask for recommendations for something that matches your taste buds and budget. And don’t ignore Algarve wines – their reputation is improving steadily.
FISH & SEAFOOD
A speciality of the Algarve, coming in many shapes and forms, some of which won’t be familiar. Fresh fish is usually sold by weight, so ask for it to be weighed and priced before you order – you could end up with a meal that costs you a lot more than you bargained for. Some restaurants are keen to persuade you to order clams for starters, or lobster for your main course – and these can be pricy. For the best (and best value) fish and seafood, head east, towards Olhão and Tavira, or west towards Sagres.
In a word, huge. And the more remote, rustic or worker-friendly the restaurant, the bigger the portions. One will quite often be enough for two people. Split a dish, or if there’s a large group of you, order a selection of dishes and share them around. But if you can, try to leave room for…
The Portuguese are notoriously sweet-toothed, as you’ll gather from the fact that there seems to be a pastelaria, or cake shop, on every street corner. The same principle applies in restaurants: desserts tend to be sticky, sugary and very tempting. Avoid the manufactured and gimmicky branded desserts on the printed menus you’ll be given and turn to the back page, where you’ll usually find a selection of home-made sweets and puddings. Our benchmark of whether the chef really knows what he’s doing on the dessert front: see how good his chocolate mousse is.
Can be variable. Most restaurants, at least outside of the main tourist areas, are closed at least one day a week, even in high season, so check in advance. And many restaurants in the busier tourist areas close for several weeks in January or February to give staff and owners the chance of a well-earned holiday.
GETTING IN TOUCH
Pick up the phone, or drop by beforehand if you happen to be passing, not just to book tables but to check if they are going to be open when you want to visit. Don’t rely on emails, as most restaurants don’t answer them, and the general standard of restaurant websites, in term of information and menus, is pretty poor. They’re in the business of providing good food, not information.
THE NEXT STEP...
For first-hand recommendations of some of the best restaurants in the Algarve, visit the Inspirations EAT section.