Café São Bento – where opulence and tradition meet the original Portuguese sirloin steak
Mention Café São Bento in Lisbon to anyone local and they immediately know what you’re referring to.
The traditional tiled façade with the characteristic bright red awnings of Café São Bento – actually a complete misnomer since it isn’t a café at all — lends a Parisian twist and conjures up a Belle Époque elegance of another time.
That feeling of a sedate, civilised Edwardian world when gentleman dressed in dark dapper suits and top hats and ladies carried parasols for a fashionable late summer stroll before Europe hurled itself unsuspecting into the horrors of the First World War.
Yet despite the dark walnut panelling, the inlaid tables and plush red upholstery this establishment, which arguably serves up the best sirloin steaks in town — juicy, succulent and drenched in a rich buttery garlic cream sauce topped off by a sunny fried egg — only dates to the beginning of the 1980s in a Lisbon more accustomed at that time to hearing Cindy Lauper or Portuguese girl band Doce than syncopated 1920s jazz tunes or the melancholic melody of ‘Stardust’ in the 1930s.
And steaks cooked to perfection is pretty much the staple on the menu here, but when you taste them (people do not come here to worry about waistlines), in all their buttery tenderness that simply melts in the mouth, I defy anyone to say they are anything but simply divine.
Last year the iconic ‘beeferie’ celebrated is 40th anniversary, surprising really because when you ask Lisboners they swear it is at least 100 years old!
Founded in 1982, this steak house with its pre-dinner cocktail bar owned over by experienced restauranteur and hotelier Miguel Garcia (pictured), has been a popular haunt for Portuguese parliamentarians since then with illustrious political heavyweights such as the late former president of Portugal Mário Soares and current incumbent at the Palácio de Belém, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. In fact the establishment, which has been given a recent tasteful makeover which retains its plush elegance, is right opposite the Portuguese parliament building.
Attentive service is the order of the day at this restaurant where it is inevitably advisable to book in advance. The staff here is as much a feature of the Café São Bento as the décor itself. Most of them have been here for aeons. Chef Manuel Fernandes has ruled the kitchen for 37 years while head waiter Fernando Teles beats him by just one year – 38. Manuel Lobo has served the tables for 17 years, Agostinho 27 and Davide Pinto 20. That brings the sum total of years of service to an impressive 112 years which on subtracting that number from 2023 brings you to 1911 which is when you imagine Café São Bento dates from.
I arrive with English punctuality at 12 sharp outside the front door of the restaurant where I am encouraged to ‘ring the bell’ by a sign as if I was visiting a private home. The door opens and I am invited through red velvet curtains to the small and cosy interior whose comfy chairs and wall sofas are reminiscent of a late night supper club and front room lounge all rolled into one.
The proprietor Miguel Garcia and a smattering of other journalists have yet to arrive, so I head to the bar, ensconce myself on a stool and begin chatting to the barista Bruno who is considerably younger than the rest of the team but is adept at serving up a perfect dry martini.
But cocktails don’t go with steaks and the aperitif is not really the point of the exercise. Red wine does and to celebrate the restaurant’s 40th anniversary a special limited edition of Café São Bento wine has been produced in partnership with winery Monte da Ravasqueira (3,600 bottles) using selected grape varieties Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Franca. It goes perfectly with the beef and is light enough to contrast with the rich and luxurious beef sauce whose exact recipe, I am told by Miguel, is a secret.
Miguel admits that is was a big responsibility taking on the Café São Bento brand in 2019, but he is certainly the man to do it with an enviable track record in managing hotels such as the iconic Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro as well as being a former director of operations for the Tivoli hotel group, including managing hotel restaurants on his resumé.
“Instead of throwing a party, we decided to do something different which involved the menus. We challenged the wine producer to a produce this red wine that would be a perfect fit for pairing with our star dish the classic Café São Bento Sirloin Steak. The wine is from 2020 but is developing well in the bottle and will get better with each passing year.”
The proprietor explains how the steak became the signature dish at Café São Bento and indeed the entire concept. “The original founders wanted to resurrect the spirit of the Marrare eateries by António Marrare and became popular among the upper and bourgeois classes in Lisbon in the second half of the 19th century.
Antonio Marrare was an Italian man from Naples who migrated to Lisbon at the end of the 18th century with some compatriots. He started an eatery in downtown Lisbon, Marrare das Sete Portas, which used to be located in the street corner between Rua de Santa Justa and Rua dos Sapateiros. This is where the steak locally known as Bife à Marrare was popularised. It consisted of a round steak, simply seasoned with salt, and cooked in butter. The characteristic sauce that would make a Bife à Marrare was a gravy prepared with meat stock and cream.
The trend for steak houses serving Bife à Marrare took root and reached its zenith in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries with brands like Portugália, and while these are still popular, these offer a very different beer hall experience in large cavernous stone spaces which echo and amplify both chatter and the clattering of cutlery and clinking of glasses — a world away from the intimate fine dining offered by Café São Bento.
With the recent influx of overseas relocators and the boom in tourism, the Café São Bento brand expanded to the famous Time Out Market where it has a small outlet that does a brisk trade and plans are afoot to open a second restaurant in the same district of Lisbon, although its exact location remains, like Café São Bento’s recipe, a closely guarded secret for now. There are also discussions underway to open one in Porto. The current owner has, however, expanded the restaurant on the current premises to the second floor, decked out in the same rich red carpet and upholstery which is accessed by a staircase lined with photographs, and which is a who’s who of past and present staff.
“We wanted to replicate the environment but also add in some references and the mood of the 1920s and 1930s Paris brasseries, so we waned to keep those links with the past,” reflects Miguel who points out that all the government ministers come in to eat on a regular basis.
In terms of cover, Café São Bento does about 30 but this figure soars to 130 when the restaurant does most of its trade with revenues up 30% on 2019.
Despite its popularity with overseas visitors because the neighbourhood is not seen as “touristy”, Miguel stresses that its Portuguese clientele is extremely important to the establishment who appreciate the quality of the meat.
“We have the most exclusive supplier with the 2 tonnes of meat required by the eatery originating from three main countries: Germany, Belgium and Argentina. We have a lot of fridges and the beef comes in three times a week,” he informs.
Obviously, a vegetarian isn’t likely to choose a steak house as a dining option, but if one happens to be a group of meat lovers then Café São Bento can offer a single alternative in a Vegetables Wellington while fish is also on the menu with a Codfish Au Gratin.
But at Café São Bento it really is all about the beef with the traditional signature dish, Café São Bento steak, the Portuguese Steak, the Grilled Steak, served with or without the fried egg, creamed spinach, green salad and the most wonderful home-made hand-cut French fries.
And while quality and the fine dining experience costs, this is not a super pricey restaurant with the average bill per person with wine and starters coming to about €60 per head. “Bom aproveito!” as we say in Portugal.
Text: Chris Graeme; Photos: Supplied