In keeping with a city of its size, sophistication, and diversity, Rio has an impressive restaurant scene featuring the best of so-called alta and baixa culinária (“high” and “low” cuisine). In terms of the former, Rio has really taken off in the last decade. In particular, the neighborhoods of Ipanema and Leblon, Jardim Botânico, and Centro have seen a rise in stylish eateries owned and operated by some of the most vanguard chefs in the country. While some focus on international cuisine, others innovatively marry traditional European cooking techniques with distinctive Brazilian ingredients, creating a nouvelle cuisine tropicale.
Simultaneously, many traditional neighborhood churrascarias and botequins offer up tasty comida caseira (home-cooking) ranging from hearty caldos (soups), robust sandwiches, barbecued chicken and beef to the classic Saturday feijoada, in which the famed Brazilian stew of beans, pork, and sausages is garnished with sautéed couve (kale), farofa (crunchy manioc flour), and orange slices. The obligatory libation is, of course, the caipirinha, made with cachaça, sugar, crushed ice, and lime.
Although carnivores fare well in Rio, fish and seafood lovers will be equally spoiled. In keeping with Cariocas’ fame as a body-conscious bunch, there are also numerous vegetarian, organic, and all-round healthy eateries—many of them self-service per-kilo buffets where diners can control their weight down to the last gram—particularly in the Zona Sul. Propitiously located between the beaches and seemingly endless number of gyms are juice bars serving up dozens of varieties of fresh fruit juices, vitamin drinks, and healthy sanduíches naturais.
Aside from restaurants, bars and botequins are also great places to eat. Menus invariably feature a satisfying array of petiscos (appetizers) that, depending on your willpower, will either tide you over between meals or leave you contentedly stuffed. In recent times, a new crop of charming cafés has sprung up, many of them located in the city’s cultural centers, cinemas, and livrarias (bookstores). Aside from serving gourmet coffee and delicious bistro-style meals, they tend to have quite fabulous desserts. As you’ll witness everywhere from the street barracas in Lapa to the padarias (bakeries) in Copa, Cariocas have a pronounced sweet tooth, and satisfying sugar cravings is absurdly easy.
Although Rio’s top restaurants are not at all cheap, the prices are quite decent when compared to the equivalents in major North American and European cities. As such, it’s definitely worth your while to splurge once or twice. You can then atone for your sins by seeking out more reasonably priced culinary experiences at the city’s beach barracas, bars, bakeries, and bookstores.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition