(Rubbish) restaurateurs of the Algarve Wake up or perish!

An article in this newspaper a few weeks ago expressed the concerns of a Swiss tourism professional who works in the Algarve about the challenges the region will face this summer due to the expected boom in tourism and, amongst other things, overbooking issues at hotels and resorts. The professional in question also expressed concerns about quality standards and how tourism professionals must work hard to leave a good impression on the new influx of tourists arriving from countries such as France, Switzerland and Scandinavia.

This was an important wake-up call but probably went right over the heads of the many restaurateurs in the region who continue to serve what can only be described as rubbish to tourists.

When British food critic Giles Coren decided to label Portuguese food “the worst on earth” last summer in The Times newspaper, there was uproar. The Portuguese, after all, are rightly proud of their gastronomic heritage.

But if his experience was limited to randomly selected restaurants in tourist areas, where most of the food is sub-standard, he was right on the mark. However, the same could be said about “tourist” restaurants in many resort destinations around Europe.

Now, one thing is serving poor quality food to the Brits. It’s a well known fact that in general the Brits hate to complain, preferring to suffer in silence. I blame the profusion of terrible restaurants in the Algarve not on the restaurateurs themselves but on the generally undemanding British clientele who have provided them with a livelihood over the last few decades. Restaurants serving food to tourists have been allowed to be lazy and prosper.

The Portuguese have a saying, “para inglês ver” (for the eyes of the English), which is used in a derogatory sense to describe a service or product that is of inferior quality and, whilst not good enough for locals, is fine for the undemanding (English) tourists. Need I say more?

But the restaurants that still survive today, maintaining this accepted norm of poor quality, have their days numbered. The masses of British tourists are starting to become more demanding, thanks to the likes of Jamie Oliver and his ilk on foodie TV, and we now have a whole new reality of tourists from other countries who have a somewhat different perception of quality.

I decided to write this article after a meal at an Algarve restaurant last week, which turned out to be the worst meal I have been served in a restaurant for a very long time. I generally know where to get a good meal in the Algarve, but I was off my usual patch, meeting friends who were staying in this particular town and who had entrusted me to find us a good place to eat.

The restaurant in question bills itself as Italian and as far as location is concerned, all I will divulge is that it is located in a seaside town somewhere between Portimão and Sagres, which is very popular with British tourists.

We ended up choosing the restaurant only because the place we had intended to eat was fully booked and I had in the past heard some good reports. Perhaps the management had changed, but it was apparent from the arrival of the first dish that we had made a very poor choice of restaurant.

A so-called carpaccio of salmon was not a carpaccio at all, but slices of cheap smoked salmon straight from the packet. The beef carpaccio was even worse, consisting of thin slices of very tired-looking and probably processed meat.
Neither of these dishes was in any way dressed and no attempt had been made to enhance the taste or presentation of the miserable ingredients on the plate.

Next came two supposedly fresh pasta dishes. These were certainly not homemade fresh pasta (thankfully in this case) but bland and tasteless plates of tagliatelle (again out of a packet) which were at least edible.

The other main courses were breaded pork fillets, which arrived soggy and greasy and, for me, an equally sad excuse for a tornedó steak with gorgonzola sauce. I could not distinguish the cut of beef, which I had ordered rare but turned up cooked medium and swimming in blood, the obvious result of having been rapidly or only partially defrosted before cooking. It was chewy and altogether unpleasant, served with a gloopy cornstarch thickened sauce of quite threatening appearance. Both meat dishes were sent back to the kitchen and, playing it safe, we opted for pizzas. These were, as I told the waiter, “reasonable”.

How can it be possible to eat so badly in a restaurant these days? Even in the UK, this restaurant could not survive on any high street but here, serving rubbish to an unsuspecting and transient clientele of tourists, they manage to flourish.

Things are, however, changing for the better. All along the Algarve we have seen numerous new restaurants open over the last few years, most of which are welcome additions. And some of the old places are finally starting to up their game too.

There are, of course, many places in the Algarve where it is easy to find good Portuguese food, namely the towns and cities that do not exist purely for tourists or where most tourists are Portuguese. Armação de Pêra comes to mind as a town where the hideous tower blocks hide many a good Portuguese restaurant, as does Quarteira and, of course, we have the likes of Portimão, Faro or Olhão.

And then we have the exception of the many excellent restaurants in resort areas along the coast that use good quality fresh ingredients, be they humble sardines, simply grilled and served with a decent well-dressed salad, or prime ingredients cooked by accomplished chefs at gourmet restaurants.

If you know where to go, it is very easy to eat well in the Algarve, at any level. The problem is that the uninformed tourist has a far higher chance of eating badly.

Most of the rot, for want of a better word, is in those resort towns that have grown over the years on the back of British mass tourism and this is where we need to see change.

As tourism continues to grow and the Algarve diversifies its markets, those lazy restaurateurs need to wake up and respond to the demands of a more food savvy clientele, or they will deservedly perish.

By PATRICK STUART [email protected]