I have vague childhood memories of television adverts for a board game whose goal was to go bankrupt as quickly as possible. A successful move meant a player would give away more and more of his stash of monies until achieving blissful, triumphant pennilessness. As peculiar a concept as voluntary insolvency was for a 1980s family entertainment, it’s even odder to go out for dinner in Lisbon and discover it appears to be the basis for an entire service economy. “Starting from the position of earning up to 20 percent on the bill, how quickly can you convince diners to leave you absolutely nothing?” At Páteo, one of several restaurants under one roof by Portuguese celeb-chef José Avillez as part of his Bairro do Avillez complex, we encounter the huffing, eye-rolling, undisputed champion of the pursuit.
What Páteo has is waiting staff from a Simpsons episode: klutzy, surly, with a general air of resenting you, the diner, for daring impose on them by, you know, wanting to eat here
First, the venue. This seafood specialist is a big, bright, airy space, with an open kitchen along one whole wall, attractive plantings, and a mezzanine level that leads to other Avillez establishments under the same roof: as we wait to be seated, a secret door behind a shelved wall of tchotchkes opens and out stream a series of miked-up fado singers, Joey Arias-a-likes, who trot upstairs to the “cabaret gourmet” venue Beco. There are families, middle-aged groups, dates and double-dates going on at Páteo; I overhear conversation in French and English, British and American accents. It’s lively and buzzy but, because of its open double height, not at all overwhelmingly noisy. Like the purpose-regenerated LX Factory downtown, which I’d visited earlier in the day, this is the sort of space it’s quite hard to imagine locals going to; it’s the tourist-ville cousin of Bill Granger’s outposts in Tokyo, or any number of sanitised former industrial spots in Cape Town: brisk, smart-casual, nice but no-frills, faintly vanilla when sometimes vanilla is what you quite fancy. What those other places have in common is a ruthlessly streamlined approach to service that gets you sat, fed, wined, paid up and out so efficiently that it never feels like a hassle. What Páteo has is waiting staff from a Simpsons episode: klutzy, surly, with a general air of resenting you, the diner, for daring impose on them by, you know, wanting to eat here. It’s a sad day when I conclude that I would do a better waiting job than any of a restaurant’s current staff.
It starts with two hostesses wrangling over where we should wait while our table is made ready. Back and forth they try to buffet us, forbidding us from random waiting spots for random reasons (“I have to move this table, so sit over there”, followed by no table-moving whatsoever) — and it continues thus throughout the meal: service that borders on the contemptuous.
I don’t think it’s just us, though: in the 45 minutes it takes between our being seated and any food hitting the table, we note Chef’s increasingly irate expression at having to repeatedly hit the bell for pickup, the constant clatter-smash of dropped dishes, cutlery, glassware. There may be “gourmet cabaret” going on upstairs at one of Avillez’s other restaurants, but down here’s the real dinner theatre. When I go to the toilet, I happen upon a waitress spraying copious amounts of stain remover upon the man whose chinos she has spilled food all down.
This general air of carelessness is odder because there are some nice touches here. The food, most importantly, is perfectly cooked and well-presented, and the menu offers a wide but not overpowering range of dishes, mostly seafood and fish but with some steaks and cold meats. I perhaps order unambitiously, or maybe that’s an accurate reflection of what’s on offer, but I can’t fault anything I try, from a gloriously scarlet-shelled crayfish to a simple dish of warm prawns, to grilled squid with a loose black-ink risotto into which chunks of chorizo have been smuggled. Blink and you’ve overcooked squid, but this is just right, just opaquer than translucent, the edges of the tender rings charred deliciously black. All this is grand stuff. If it were just down to the food, I’d recommend a visit unreservedly. And there’s a nice touch in being offered a taste of my wine choice from an already open bottle, a welcome “try before you buy” when navigating an unfamiliar list. The problem is that this considerate innovation is undone by the fact that we have to request our own bottle well after main courses have landed – “You want it now?” snaps the waiter – and it subsequently becomes clear we’ll be topping up our own glasses (PYOB) as he has better things to do. Like smoking.
You picture the staff giving each other dares behind the scenes
Now. Different cultures, different rules – and Lisbon’s a city that has a confused attitude to a smoking ban, allowing smoking areas in allegedly smoke-free bars – but it seems to me a universal constant that if a member of restaurant staff slips out for a cigarette mid-service, and they shouldn’t, then there should be no way whatsoever the clientele should know this. Febreze yourself head to toe (one of your colleagues probably has a spray-bottle for food-spillage incidents), chew a fistful of Wrigleys, whatever, but to my mind coming to the table reeking of nicotine should be a disciplinary offence. In a parody of etiquette, our waiter comes to take our dessert orders with one arm cinched up into the small of his back which – try it – makes it almost impossible for him to collect two A4-sized menus onehanded. You picture the staff giving each other dares behind the scenes.
The first page of that menu, incidentally, pimps Avillez’s other restaurants (c’mon, José, let me buy myself dinner first) and its text has the chummy condescension of something like a Harvester: vapid descriptors like “generous”, “the perfect quantity”, “irresistible” (more than once), “an amazing flavour” and “must-try” litter the menu, as if to make up minimum wordcounts; the description of one dessert exhorts me to “Dip the whole spoon in and enjoy all [its] layers in a single bite”. These aren’t helpful suggestions, they’re a lairy acquaintance draping an unwelcome arm around you and blaring unsolicited advice into your ear, “’ere, mate, you know what you wanna do…” What you shouldn’t do, if I can proffer my own advice, is believe the menu’s hype that “you have never tasted anything like” Avillez’s take on Portugal’s famous custard tart, the nata, reimagined as a millefeuille. I had tasted something like it: a Marks & Spencer’s custard slice. Fortunately, I really like Marks & Spencer’s custard slices.
It’s midnight when we leave (departure delayed by, of course, errors on the bill). As we wait for our taxi, a vast party of twitteringly satisfied American tourists is being led up the hill to their coaches. “Thank you so much!” a lady in a voluminous red blouse trills to us as she totters past. “We had such a great time!” “You’re very welcome,” I reply, surprised, before realising that in white shirts and black trousers, loitering outside the restaurant doors with a general air of shiftlessness, we really do resemble a pair of Páteo’s waiters. Only smiling, and not reeking of fags. C
Pateo, Bairro do Avillez, Rua Nova da Trindade 18, 1200-466, Lisbon
+35 1 215 830 290; joseavillez.pt