Stepping inside Sol e Pesca, a bar in Lisbon’s Cais do Sodré neighborhood, is a feast for the eyes. The walls are covered with an array of fishing tackle: rods, lines, hooks, bait, floats and dozens of other interesting items only identifiable to experienced fishermen.
And that’s not all: There are hundreds of tins of fish, in numerous colors and designs, many of them mini works of art.
This is a bar like no other.
The space served as a fishing tackle shop until the mid-1990s, with the same name, until Henrique Vaz Pato opened it as a bar in 2010. Despite this shift in gears, Vaz Pato decided to use the shop’s leftover stock of canned fish as decoration.
It’s a theme bar with a soul, with a menu that embraces all those tins of fish stacked in cabinets around the walls.
My father wanted to commemorate the fish industry in Portugal because it's the oldest industry in the country.
Nobody knows it better than Antonio, Henrique’s son, who works at the bar and has been by his father’s side since it opened.
“My father wanted to commemorate the fish industry in Portugal because it’s the oldest industry in the country,” he says. “He saw an opportunity to open a kind of fish-themed bar, with all the equipment there. It was the perfect moment because the area was starting to get some investment. My father made some adjustments — he’s an architect — and put a bar inside.”
In some countries, canned fish has a bad reputation — but the quality of Portuguese fish preserved in this way is superb, and the cans are often extremely beautiful. Sol e Pesca serves a variety of delicious plates made with them, Antonio says.
“Sardines are the most popular,” he says. “They’re a real icon of Portugal. Tuna is also popular, and cod, too. We make a lot of dishes with them, but one of the most delicious is sardines on cornbread with a bit of tomato and bell pepper — that’s amazing — and there’s another with anchovy fillets on apple, which is also a great success. Whatever people want, though, they can try; all the tins are available.”
The Cais do Sodré neighborhood used to be very run-down, Antonio says, and Sol e Pesca was the first bar to open on the charming Rua Nova do Carvalho. Now it’s much more fashionable, with new restaurants and bars opening all the time. It’s a microcosm of Lisbon, which is shedding some of its faded charm as it transforms into one of Europe’s most fashionable cities.
“Lisbon is still an untouched capital,” says Antonio. “It’s getting more popular; it’s losing some of the magic of the past — but it’s still a special place to open bars and restaurants because we have a really strong culture around food, around music, around our traditions. I think that a place like Sol e Pesca is really useful for foreign people to understand the essence of our country.”
Lisbon is still an untouched capital. It's still a special place to open bars and restaurants because we have a really strong culture around food, around music, around our traditions.
One of the great characteristics of Lisbon is its laid-back nature: Customers at Sol e Pesca, for example, spill out onto tables on the street late into the night. Even that is evolving, though, as more and more people move into the neighborhood around the bar. The bar used to close at 4 a.m., but now it’s 3 a.m. on weekends and 2 a.m. during the week.
Still, that’s plenty of time to enjoy the food and simple drinks list: There are 9 or 10 wines, including plenty of Vinho Verde, the young, gently fizzy “green” wine of Portugal, and one of the classic local beer brands, Super Bock. “It’s the perfect companion for our food,” says Antonio.
Such has been Sol e Pesca’s success that a number of other bars in the city now serve tinned fish, too. “Sol e Pesca was a pioneer!” laughs Antonio.
The future looks bright for Lisbon, even if some of its local color is being rubbed out due to its growing international popularity. If you want a taste of the real city, though, Sol e Pesca is where to find it. “Here, people create the atmosphere,” says Antonio. “We are friendly and outgoing. It’s a special bar.”