When first-time visitors ask what dish to try in Porto, the answer will invariably be the city's meat-heavy fabled Francesinha. However, if you ask an in-the-know gourmand, you’ll be showered with world-class restaurant recommendations instead.

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This is in no small part due to Porto and the North bragging upwards of 40 restaurant listings – including ten stars – in the most recent MICHELIN Guide. In fact, there is such a growing cachet of top-notch tips these days that for 2024, the gastronomic gurus have announced they will publish the first MICHELIN guide solely dedicated to Portugal, raising the country’s chefs out of Spain’s shadow.

But what – other than the plates themselves, of course – is leading this ever-evolving epicurean scene in the north? We went to discover some of the dishes and dining rooms making waves in Porto and the Douro Valley, discussing the region’s recipe for success with leading local chefs en route.

Seafood and sustainability

“Portuguese fish”, Chef Rui Paula replies resolutely when we ask why the country’s in the culinary spotlight. “It is the best in the world”, he reiterates – and, with two stars under his belt, it’s an opinion which carries much weight.

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It’s also a sentiment enthusiastically shared by Chef Vasco Coelho Santos. At just 36 years of age, the sustainability-driven chef now operates three restaurants (including the one-star Euskalduna Studio), a bakery, and even a forward-thinking fishmonger, Peixaria, in the city’s well-heeled Foz do Douro district.

“We have so much ocean,” Coelho remarks, having just plated up a 12-course tasting menu using only seafood from the north. “If we cook different ingredients and different fish… that’s a good thing for environmental and seasonality”, he continues, acknowledging that there is an abundance of more regional options, such as Ovar’s eel and Matosinhos' hake, beyond Portugal’s beloved (but not locally caught) bacalhau.

For Chef Pedro Lemos – best known for his one-star self-named restaurant – it’s also important to remember that sustainability extends beyond what we eat. When he recently opened his new dining room, Bomfim 1986, in the Douro Valley, this was top of his mind; rather than plant their own garden or bake daily, he opted to use nearby padarias and farmers. It might buck the movement of doing everything in-house, but as Lemos and many of his counterparts expand as restaurateurs, it’s an act that helps spread their success to other local businesses.

Second restaurants and second stars

The trend for opening second – and sometimes, even third restaurants – has taken hold with many of the region’s culinarians. With two stars under his belt at Casa de Chá da Boa Nova – a gorgeous restaurant housed in a heritage building which practically touches the ocean – Paula also operates and created the menus for DOP in Porto and DOC, which practically floats on the Douro River.

Often, these spaces – more accessible, both in terms of price and wait lists – are a great way to gain an introduction to the region’s best-known chefs without compromising on quality. Coelho revealed that when his dishes are retired from Euskalduna Studio, some find their way onto the menu at his river-facing restaurant Semea.

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Likewise, Chef Ricardo Costa launched a second restaurant in late April, just moments from his eulogised two-star Gastronomic Experience inside The Yeatman Hotel. Part of Gaia’s hulking World of Wine cultural complex, his new endeavour, Mira Mira by Ricardo Costa, delivers views and dishes that are equally edible. While the tasting menu is unsurprisingly more affordable than the ‘big sister’ upstairs, the flavours and presentation of the dishes – many with nods to Costa’s home city of Aveiro – are arguably on par.

Vines and views

It wouldn’t be doing the region justice, however, not to acknowledge the breathtaking views and critically acclaimed wines that complement the menus of Portugal’s north – and for this, you must follow the Douro upriver, whether by boat or scenic train.

One of the valley’s most striking combinations of gastronomy, interior design, vineyard vistas, and wine list can be found at the recently opened Bomfim 1986 in Pinhão. A collaboration between Lemos and the long-respected Port-producing Symington Family who own the estate, the airy barn-like space with wooden beams and burgundy finishes offers an incredible panorama over the Douro River and the region’s famed UNESCO-listed vineyards.

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Not content with just opening the one outpost in the winery, though, Lemos also operates a second restaurant on the estate, Casa dos Ecos, and produces premium picnic baskets for visitors to eat among the vines.

“Two levels, two atmospheres, and two completely different menus”, Johnny Symington, the fourth-generation chairman of the estate, explains about hosting multiple concepts. For him and his family, it’s important to offer different experiences that suit the visitor's mood or budget – aiming to achieve premium quality rather than haughty stuffiness.

Laid-back service with a Portuguese flair

And this is, perhaps, the most essential and self-explanatory ingredient that’s brought the region its success: the unfussy yet professional personality that delivers the dishes. Portugal’s laid-back and friendly service has long been an adored part of the country’s culture by visitors, and even in the nation’s most esteemed dining rooms, character and conversation are delivered effortlessly by sommeliers, servers and even the chefs themselves.

Whether it’s sitting at a table inside the kitchen at Costa’s Gastronomic Experience – something every guest is invited to do for one course – while discussing his role on MasterChef, or having Paula personally add foam to your plate while he describes how memories influence his culinary creations, the captains of these restaurants are creating a MICHELIN scene fit for a new, less formal, tomorrow.

“In Porto, you eat a lot in cervejarias, and you eat a lot at counters”, Coelho explains, reflecting on why he wanted the communal chef’s table to be the main seating area at Euskalduna Studio. “For me, it was nice to mix that Porto side with a Japanese vibe, but much more informal, and in touch with the customer.’

With no more Portuguese place to be than around the table, it’s a delight to see that personality remains at the centre of Porto’s dining experience, no matter how many stars the city is awarded – something we can all raise a glass of Port to celebrate.

By Daniel James Clarke of Guide2Portugal

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