Words by David J Whyte
Compared to mainland Portugal, Madeiran food can be rather plain. Popular dishes take the form of espetada (meat on the skewer), Bolo do caco, (hot rounds of bread served with lashings of garlic butter), lapas (limpets), Espada (black scabbard fish) and of course, chips.
Oh, and salads! How can I forget salads? I blame the Brits for Madeira’s lacklustre approach to the green side of things. At some point, in the dim and distant past, we foisted our savourless salad style on these poor islands and unfortunately, it stuck. Salads in Madeira generally consist of a couple of lettuce leaves, thin scrapings of carrot and a few circles of raw onion, and a drizzle of olive oil and vinegar. Don’t get too excited!
But neither should you despair, as in spite of insipid salads, the rest of the culinary scene on the islands of Madeira is flourishing. All you need to know is where to go.
And where better to start than close to home? My girlfriend and I live in an apartment overlooking Praia Formosa on the west side of Funchal and there are several choice eating spots within easy walking distance of our elevator door.
Furna or By The Sea, referred to as ‘next door’ by us locals, is where we pop in for a Poncha or glass of vinho on a fairly regularly basis. It also happens to be one of the best fish restaurants on the island as affirmed by legions of locals who favour it. Alberto, the cook, does a splendid job of turning the freshest fish into simple, satisfying platters.
A 10-minute stroll from us is Beira Calhau and Praia Formosa, beachfront restaurants that are perfect for people-watching whether for lunch or a sunset dinner. Praia Formosa Restaurant offers a slightly more sophisticated menu, but both are recommended and reasonably priced.
In the opposite direction is Doca do Cavacas, another traditional fish restaurant perched above natural sea pools. My girlfriend is the local fixer for TV productions and photoshoots here in Madeira and Doca do Cavacas is a favourite for fashion shoots. The restaurant is not too shabby either, once again specialising in fresh seafood dishes that are as tasteful as the setting.
Located down a narrow lane off Estrada Monumental, another place worth seeking out is Atlantic Restaurante, a recent find for us. It’s part of Clube de Turismo da Madeira, a members’ club with its restaurant open to the public. You step into an elegant, 50s-fashioned facility with a standard of service and quality of dishes you’d expect from a fancy private club. Founded 60 years ago, Clube de Turismo da Madeira has around 800 members who have access to the sea and pool area, but I’d say their restaurant is the best deal. During the summer months, you need to book in advance to get a table outside and I think we’ll be doing that quite regularly.
West is best
Funchal’s tourism facilities developed to the west of the city following Scotsman, William Reid’s lead when he established ‘Reid’s Palace’. Now, top hotels such as Pestana Carlton, Savoy Palace and Royal Savoy all occupy this attractive area.
Popular pubs such as Hole in One, No 2, Prince Albert and Moynahan’s are also nearby with live entertainment offered most evenings. Directly underneath Moynahan’s is an excellent Moroccan restaurant called Mezze Grill with the Istanbul Turkish restaurant next door, so you’re certainly not stuck for variety.
The prodigious Savoy Palace Hotel has recently opened its Pau de Lume restaurant, a more casual operation than the hotel’s top-floor offerings for brunch, lunch and dinner. It’s an interesting addition and it has quickly gained popularity. When a new restaurant opens here on Madeira, the locals come to check it out and if it’s not up to scratch, they don’t come back again. That will not be a problem here! You can dine inside or al fresco overlooking the hotel’s spacious pool area.
I must not forget Terreiro restaurant which is also owned by the Savoy Group and found just down the street. It’s a bit of a concept bar and I’m not quite sure what that concept is yet. They call themselves a gastro-bar, but the food and service come over as rather classy. We’ve enjoyed a couple of nice lunches there. During good weather, it’s worth sitting outside in the garden where they host DJ evenings and show sports on the large screen.
Another new kid on this busy block, Hole in the Wall opened only a few months ago and, once again, it’s frequented by Madeirans taking lunch, a sure sign of both quality and quantity. Owner, Mr Costa has long experience in Madeira’s restaurant businesses and he and his team have put their efforts firmly behind Hole in the Wall, which I know will be a success. In the evening, it’s all about location with Savoy Palace on one side and princely Pestana Carlton on the other, so, for dinner, you need to book early to get a table.
Across the street, The Taverna Grill is part of the Pestana Carlton Hotel. We decided to try a Saturday night candle-lit dinner there recently and were pleasantly surprised. I’m not a fan of hotel-based restaurants with the thought that they’re not solely dedicated to one thing. But this is a wee bit different and worth a look, a Scottish castle-style dining room complete with medieval arches and torches. The food was courtly too, not quite a baronial banquet but tasty, well-presented dishes at a very reasonable price. The house wine was passable too so we both had a surprisingly pleasant evening.
Madeira restauranteur, Cristiano Abreu was brought up within earshot of the Abbey Road Recording Studios in St John’s Wood, London. Cris’s relatives were restaurateurs in the city and on return to Madeira at the ripe old age of 19, Cris carried on the tradition. Currently, he has two superb spots, Cris’s Place and Cris’s Promenade along with the recently opened Cris’s Lounge Bar which, by the way, offers fresh oysters flown in from the Portuguese mainland every Wednesday and Friday.
Lunches at the two main restaurants are, without doubt, the best deals in town. We go at least once a week to either, depending on the Prato do Dia or ‘dish of the day’ which includes an excellent main course and dessert, at least one generous glass of excellent house wine and coffee, all for the princely sum of €12.50. The service is top-notch too. Dinners return to normal prices but the excellent standards carry on throughout, so you’ll never be disappointed!
Heading into the heart of town, close to the top of the Funchal food chain is ‘Kampo’. Chef Julio Pereira made a lot of noise about his little corner restaurant when it opened, and quite rightly so! I took my daughter (she’s moved to Madeira too – smart girl). We started with tasty tuna tartar cones followed by ‘the balls of Berlin’ or Bola de Berlin, a salty and sweet combination typical throughout Portugal, kind of like a salty doughnut. The main dish was a ribeye steak of Texas proportions. We shared one! By the way, if you get offered a seat at the counter overlooking the bustling kitchen area, take it! I made the mistake of asking for a quieter table, but quickly realised we were missing out on all the culinary action. Kampo is as much about visual entertainment as great food.
Old town favourites
The Street of the Painted Doors in Funchal’s Old Town is where the majority of restaurants are located, a colourful little lane lined with dozens of culinary enterprises. They’re good for lunch but at night, the atmosphere truly comes alive. Restaurants such as Mozart’s, Marisqueira Tropicana, Xarambinha, The Fort and Bananas are just a few notables.
My long-time favourite here in the Old Town has to be Taberna Ruel, run by Ricardo, the uncle of the afore-mentioned Cris. Great hospitality clearly runs in the family and Taberna Ruel is no exception offering incredibly fresh seafood along with high-quality meat accompanied with a top wine list.
Most of the staff have been here for decades which I believe is a testament to the overall quality of the operation. It’s not easy post-Covid to hire good waiting staff but Ricardo has retained the best in town who take great pride in serving some superb dishes. If he’s in the mood, Ricardo will even whip out his sword to take the neck off a bottle of Champers to get your evening underway.
Some like it hot
I almost hate to say this, but my long-time favourite has been gazumped!
A friend of mine had been going on about Lá ao Fundo for ages, so we finally decided to give it a try. I simply don’t know how I missed this one for so long, the flavours are out of this world. The restaurant is run by Mario and his father, Jaime who is from Goa. Mario’s mother is from Cape Verde Islands so what’s going on in the kitchen is a fusion of flavours from all of these different parts of the world. And they do it so well.
I said to Mario at our first lunch here, “I don’t do spices”. “You’ve come to the wrong restaurant then,” he candidly replied. What I meant was I don’t do hot spices. Lá ao Fundo is all about spices that are extraordinarily delicious but not necessarily hot. And if you do like hot food, that can easily be arranged!
My final port of call at this end of town is a little cafe and it’s a great place to sit in the sun and enjoy the ambience. The three owners of Barreirinha Bar Café, otherwise known as BBC, are renowned for putting on great entertainment events. Or just go for a coffee and enjoy the great view – Madeira’s all about relaxing.
Lap of luxury
Before we depart town, I’d like to mention a couple of upmarket establishments that you might want to consider for special occasions. Rather than point you in the direction of the Michelin-star front-runners, these are a couple of quieter places that deliver excellent culinary experiences in very special environments – with a level of service that is exemplary.
Quinta Jardins do Lago and Quinta Casa Branca are both very classy hotels mainly favoured by an older English crowd. Dinners are quite pricey but for instance, the chef’s tasting menu at Quinta Casa Branca paired with their choice of wines is so worth it if you’re looking for a very special evening. I’ve only had lunch at Quinta do Lago but again, it was excellent.
Let’s go out and about and see what else is going on within these lovely islands. If you’re going to go adventuring, and I highly recommend you do, there are a few culinary pit stops along the way.
Casa dos Salgados near Camacha is not the easiest place to find and when you do reach the car park, you still have to negotiate part of a ‘Royal Road’ but only for a hundred metres or so. Just don’t wear your high-heeled stilettos!
This little rustic restaurant was once a family cowshed but now it’s highly regarded around Madeira. Chef Inácio decides on the menu for the day, typical Portuguese dishes such as Alentejo black pork or bacalhau (codfish). Unless you’ve got specific requirements or food sensitivities, let him lead the way as the dishes are always delicious and most generous. The charming Inácio only has a few tables, so the format is to book well in advance, even as much as a fortnight before your intended visit. It’s also very reasonably priced although his excellent selection of wines can push the bill up considerably, but again, it’s all so worth it.
My next country hit, along with dozens of Madeiran families is Abrigo do Pastor or the ‘Shepherd’s Shelter’. On the road to Pico do Arieiro, Madeira’s third highest peak, this was originally a shack occupied by shepherds and hunters. Gradually it became a rustic bar and then, finally this spacious, warm, welcoming restaurant.
On a Sunday, the car park fills with Madeiran families coming to enjoy this unique restaurant which serves up lots of gamey Portuguese dishes such as Black Pork, Wild Boar and traditional goat or rabbit stew served in a big pot. This is as authentic cooking as you will find with equally hearty portions. Prepare to do as the Madeirans do and make an afternoon of it. If you have any energy left, drive up to Pico do Arieiro to take in the amazing view.
Back to the west
To the west of Funchal, there are a lot of territories that should be explored all the way to Ponta do Pargo, Madeira’s most westerly point.
En route, you could stop in at the Pukiki Bar, near Calheta. An Englishman and his lovely Madeiran wife have created a unique space that celebrates the historical link between Madeira and the islands of Hawaii. Not only do they have one of the original ukeleles made by Madeiran Manuel Nunes in 1879, but they also specialise in dozens of delicious, rum-based cocktails.
Pleasures of the palate
The word prazeres means ‘pleasures’ in English and Casa Bettencourt Restaurante certainly offers the pleasures of the palate. Run by two brothers who are carrying on their parents’ legacy of serving delicious local food with a medley of influences from the Portuguese mainland such as the Algarve, Alentejo and even South Africa, Casa Bettencourt is hugely popular with locals looking for a well-priced, well-portioned lunch. It’s popular throughout the week and especially at the weekend so be prepared to arrive early to get a seat. I’m afraid you can’t book but the wait, we’ve found, is always worth it.
Dropping back to the seaside, Maktub is in the village of Paul do Mar and this must be the coolest place on this island. All the chilled kids come here just to hang out and enjoy the relaxed beach life or the occasional music event such as the annual Reggae Festival.
The rest of us come to eat at Maktub’s marvellous restaurant. Owner Fabio decides on the menu of the day, and you simply comply with his choices which always work out very well. Fabio knows what’s coming in that day in terms of ‘the catch’ so you’re guaranteed the freshest fish. We had tuna tartar to prepare at our table followed by tuna steaks. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted such fresh, finely presented fish.
I’d tried black scabbard fish served with banana in Funchal and to be truthful, I didn’t like it. My girlfriend convinced me to try again at a restaurant in Jardim do Mar called Tarmar, this time with passion fruit instead of banana. It was good, in fact, it was delicious, so the motto is don’t dismiss a dish until you’ve tried it, even with different flavourings.
Going all the way west, Ponta do Pargo is the furthest flung village and Restaurante Farolim or ‘The Lighthouse’ specialises in black pig pork. It’s a simple operation run by a group of local lads who all lived around London for years and have now returned home to run a nice, simple operation that specialises in good, unfussy food.
Not to be overlooked, the neighbouring island of Porto Santo has its own attractions and offerings and is well worth popping over for a day or a few. The island is particularly popular through the summer months with Madeirans and mainland Portuguese who come to lie about on the marvellous sandy beach – one of the best in the world!
It even has its own foodie trail, or at least I’m inventing one! There are an inordinate amount of good restaurants on this little island. I count at least 13 – lucky for some! Let me point out some of the best –
In the little community of Camacha at the back of the island, one of my favourites is Restaurante Torres Portuguese Grill. It’s been a family-run business for 40 years and their speciality is barbequed chicken done over local wood in the ‘grill hut’. Delicious and they even do a decent salad!
Teodorico is a hidden gem that you simply must find. There were no signposts last time I looked but the GPS will get you there, again just out of town. Jorge and his Brazilian partner have turned this little country retreat into an artistic sanctum with delicious food and wine that match the unique decor. Plan to spend a bit of time just sitting and soaking up the wonderful country location, they’ve put out some nice settees to accommodate.
Another great choice just outside the main village is Panorama which is noted not only for its fine food, but also the great view overlooking the town and island.
Finally, one that you might miss is the clubhouse restaurant at Porto Santo Golf Club. Chef Daniel, otherwise known as ‘Gato’ which means ‘cat’ due to his unusually pale blue eyes, is from Uruguay and has a real passion for cooking. This has to be one of the best restaurants on the island.
Where to stay
While touring the main island of Madeira and the island of Porto Santo, David stayed in the properties of Madeira Rural, an association of Quintas and country cottages that helps promote rural tourism and activities. For more information visit madeirarural.com