Whilst many of Lisbon’s Historic Shops have celebrated their centennial, only about 10 of them can lay claim to the rare title of a bi-centennial institution. This one goes back two centuries and three decades, to the year 1784. That makes Tavares, also known as “Tavares Rico”, Portugal’s oldest still operating restaurant. Of course, more than two centuries of history in the heart of the Chiado district cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs. That said, a few essential moments are important, such as an introduction to the founders, the Tavares brothers. In “Serões” (1909), João Pinto de Carvalho (AKA Tinop) describes them as eccentrics “of the finest quality” who wore ourelo fabric jackets and shoes and attended to their customers speaking in rhyme. Such a pity that sales approach did not catch on!
However, other innovations in terms of service did survive: the Restaurante Tavares was one of the first restaurants to serve à la carte meals. It also led the way in importing foreign delicacies (foie gras, for example). An ironic fact: at one time in its history it introduced foreign tastes to the Portuguese palette and today it chiefly plates up the best in Portuguese tastes to guests from abroad.
The restaurant hasn’t always had the reputation, or stood out for the refinement, one associates with it today. Back in its early days as a tavern, called “Talão”, it was a place of conviviality but described as somewhat “sad”, illuminated in the evenings by fish oil lamps. This was a period when the coffeehouse salon was yet to emerge in Lisbon. It was in the 19th century, with the restaurant now in the hands of the Caldeira family, that profound changes were made to the space, giving rise to the luxurious surroundings it is now known for: the chandeliers, the carved wood, the gold leaf, the ample mirrors. Each of the tables in the main dining room is an homage to a famous diner, someone who once ate at that very table. Amongst the honourees are: Camilo Castelo Branco, Calouste Gulbenkian, Mariza, King Abdullah II, Jean Paul Gaultier, Hemingway and Madonna, to name just a few. These tables can be reserved on the restaurant’s website.
There is another, less well-known, dining room on the first floor, which, in its entirety, is an homage to Eça de Queirós. The writer’s life story crosses that of the restaurant above all because of the “Vencidos da Vida” [Life’s Losers] group, a group of intellectuals that met at the restaurant between 1887 and 1894. Eça de Queirós’ description of the group says a lot about the importance of the restaurant for them: he referred to them as a “dining group”.
Today, Tavares is an internationally recognised, and recognisedly exclusive, restaurant. However, that notion is still open to challenge. Whilst it is true that not many Portuguese can allow themselves the luxury of dining here regularly, it may also be the perfect restaurant for enjoying a special night, a unique moment. As the saying goes, “Maybe just this once”. To which we would reply, “Once is all you need”.