I've been spending the last few weeks having a very enjoyable time in Portugal and Galicia, both beautiful places with fascinating sights that seem shockingly cheap -- and the eating and drinking has been grand. The top 3 meals of our trip spanned the gamut from the Michelin-starred As Garzas in Galicia on the sea, the richly down-to-earth Historico in Guimaraes, Portugal, and the absurdly cheap and lovable Bom Jardim in the center of Lisbon, which dishes up mounds of delicious roast chicken and fries, with a good house wine.
Most delightful of all were the robust assortment of tapas and pintxos bars and the pulperias in the historic centers of Ourense, Lugo and Pontevedra. For sheer fun and tastiness, our tapas crawls surpassed the sit-down meals we had at full-blown old-fashioned seafood restaurants in A Coruna (Coral), Muros (Don Bodegon), Tiro do Cordel (Finisterre) and the parador in Pontevedra. That said, the full-blown restaurants each managed to deliver some marvelously fresh tastes, from baby scallops to local crab and no end of clams in a variety of ways. We were in bivalve bliss.
The only place this trip we found ourselves at perpetual risk of getting inferior food was Porto, where tourist traps abound. We tried to avoid them (although we did spring for a delicious melon cocktail at Cafe Majestic and some salads), but we missed what we had enjoyed in Lisbon -- a seeming abundance of simple, cheap eateries serving surprisingly good grilled octopus and grilled sardines or mackerel, and soups. In Lisbon, we so much liked our introduction to Mozambique flavors (Ibo), we went back twice (although Ibo is not cheap by Lisbon standards). In Porto, we finally retreated to an Italian restaurant with a very good wine list (La Ricotta) because we'd had one too many greasy plate of badly cooked sad-something that was overpriced.
We developed no craving for the ubiquitous pasteles da nata of Portugal, and every heladeria we encountered proudly claimed to be truly Italian. The surprise was so much bad coffee (As Garzas delivered the only good espress, and it was Lavazza) although we were able to buy good beans in an antique coffee vendor's shop somehow surviving on the Rue Garrett amid all the international designer label stores.
We read several recommendations to eat at the museum cafe in the modern art museums while visiting the neighboring Gulbenkian. We didn't like it. We ate lunch on the blissfully serene, mimosa-shaded patio at the York House when we visited the Museu Arte Antiga and the bacalhau à braz there was just delicious, and everything else was worth the uptick in price.
The covered market in Lisbon was closed while I was there, much to my disappointment. I stayed in the Chiado district and when I return to Lisbon, I will pick a different location, probably near the Praca das Flores or Rossio. Although I very much enjoyed being close to the Tagus, Chiado is just too much of a tourist quarter.
We crossed the Tagus river one day to eat, and had a nice time but weren't entirely persauded we'd recommend the jaunt to someone else. But our cocktails on the terrace of the Yeatman Hotel across the Douro from Porto were worth all the sweat it took to get there (there is a tram, we later discovered, that would have saved us the steep walk uphill).
We also went to Coimbra and at A Taberna. I especially enjoyed the special service of vegetables, and a very nice wine was recommended to us by the doting staff.
Hope this helps somebody else. The biggest lessons I am taking from my trip when it comes to gastronomy are the joys of the local wines, the pure fun of Spanish finger foods and tapas bars, and the pleasures of eating in Lisbon, in all price categories. And of course these are beautiful places, overflowing with historic and natural treasures. Amazing to me everybody crowds into other places that have less texture apart from a touristy texture and cost at least 3 times as much. (And did I mention how sunny it is there in September? Not a drop of rain has fallen on us for weeks.)