At the Academia da Cachaça you’ll nibble on finger foods while learning the ins and outs of Brazil’s national liquor. (Photo: Alamy)
Well-known among locals for its beaches and shopping, Barra da Tijuca (or just Barra, for those in the know) really appeared on travelers’ radars when it gained international attention as the heart of Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
While this affluent, modern neighborhood has not gotten much press as a foodie destination, it should. Unfortunately, Barra’s plethora of American chain restaurants and mall food courts unfairly detracts from an underlying creative and flavorful food scene. If you can put your shopping and sunbathing on hold, a rumbling stomach and sense of adventure will lead you to a surprisingly eclectic mix of gastronomic delights.
Get a glimpse at Barra’s more spirited side with a visit to Academia da Cachaça. There are few better places to go if you want to be schooled in Brazil’s national liquor, cachaça (a spirit distilled from sugar cane) — this lively bar features more than 80 varieties. There is also a stellar assortment of yummy finger foods like inhame crocante (fried yams) or pastel de queijo (cheese turnovers) to help fuel your education.
If you’re looking for romantic ambience, gourmet tasting menus and sedate surroundings, then give this place a pass. This large and loud Brazilian churrascaria (steakhouse) is all about enjoying good food in the company of good friends and family (there’s even a play area for kids). You may not normally think of a buffet restaurant as a not-to-be-missed dining experience, but Brasa’s unique mix of Brazilian, Japanese, Middle Eastern and Jewish foods is sublime. A never-ending array of servers also come around with carts full of roasted meat for you to sample.
The aptly named Laguna is a must for seafood lovers. You’ll take a five-minute boat ride over a lagoon to the tiny island of Ilha da Gigóia, where you’ll walk along a palm tree–lined path toward a charming, open-air, thatched-roof restaurant. Favorites include shrimp pastel (similar to an empanada) and entrees of mixed-seafood platters (with octopus, squid, shrimp and other fish) meant for sharing. Be warned: They will not seat you without a reservation, so book ahead.
You’ll have to work a little to find Don Pascual, but it’s worth it. A 35-minute drive outside of Barra into Vargem Grande leads you to an enchanting inn and its romantic restaurant nestled in the midst of a lush rainforest. Incredibly, the food stands up to the magical ambience; notable dishes include the seafood and coconut stew and mushroom risotto. The attentive service, candle- and lantern-lit interior, and flavorful selection of cocktails make this a top choice for date night among locals, and the restaurant attracts gastronomes and romantics in equal measure.
If you’ve overindulged your love of meat at Barra da Tijuca’s many churrascarias, you can head to Duo Restaurante for fine Italian dining. Here you’ll feast on some of the neighborhood’s best pasta and pizza. The lamb ravioli with Parmesan fondue is a popular dish, or for something lighter, opt for the perfectly seared tuna with white bean puree. This elegant establishment also offers a carefully curated wine list and knowledgeable waitstaff who are happy to suggest a wine pairing for your meal.
There’s a reason this bustling eatery has now spread to three branches across Rio. Offering a range of traditional Brazilian comfort food, this is the place to go when you’re craving a Brahma (Brazil’s iconic beer) and a hearty meal. Cervantes’ signature dish is their massive, piled-high sandwiches, like the heart-stopping Cervantes Special: filet mignon, pate and pineapple. Open until 3 a.m., its late — or should we say early? — hours make it a popular stop for club goers looking for sustenance before they head home.
While it may not look like much, this little beachfront joint is one of the most famous snack bars in the country. Locals gather here to enjoy simple yet tasty sandwiches in between surf and swim sessions. At night it becomes a casual bar where you can enjoy a cold beer and watch the moon rise over the sea. Pepe’s often hosts DJs at night and beach volleyball and soccer tournaments during the day.