At the entrance, Laureta’s gratin cheese melts in your mouth. Then, a Bacalhau à Brás (a traditional Portuguese dish made with codfish, eggs, potatoes, onions, and olives) like no other, or the oven-roasted goat (a popular dish in Portuguese cuisine) that enchanted the President of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, or even the extravagant grilled lobster rice (popular and flavorful Portuguese seafood dish that combines grilled lobster with rice cooked in a rich and savory broth). All delicious, but once again at Via Graça, another old recipe will make your mouth water: the light and the view of Lisbon.
Not just any view.
“Before, all this was a viewpoint,” announces João Bandeira, the owner of the restaurant and the privileged view, which, in a 180-degree panoramic view, encompasses the Graça Monastery, São Jorge Castle, the Tagus River, the Cristo Rei, the 25 de Abril Bridge, and practically the entire Baixa pombalina (the downtown it is named after the Marquis of Pombal, who played a significant role in the reconstruction of Lisbon after the devastating earthquake of 1755.) at its feet.
João Bandeira, a former butcher, brother of butchers, and son of a butcher who, one day, entered Via Graça to take orders for the butcher shop and left the next morning as the owner of the restaurant. “It was one of those complicated nights, and the owner, João Machado Dias, very nervous, looked at me and said: now, you’re in charge.”
Before leaving, the former owner took the tie off of the head waiter and put it around the butcher’s neck, as if passing a presidential sash to his successor. He even had time to summon the kitchen staff and the waiters and repeat his decision out loud: “Pay attention, from today on, João is the owner of Via Graça!”
From butcher to restaurant owner in one day
The unbelievable turn of events requires some context: for years, the butcher, whenever he went to Via Graça to take orders for the butcher shop, would comment to the former owner, “one day, this will be mine, one day, this will be mine.” However, neither João himself nor the most famous motivational coaches could have expected that the mantra recited several times would eventually bear fruit.
“Imagine this: one day, you’re a 27-year-old guy working at the butcher shop, and the next day, there’s a restaurant to run,” João recalls. The night is so memorable that he keeps the day and date of his transition from butcher to boss fresh in his memory: a Friday, December 13, 2002. “I don’t know how I stayed on my feet, my legs were trembling.”
With his legs shaking but his wrists steady, the newly promoted butcher-turned-chef successfully completed his first night at the helm of Via Graça. The next day, he returned to the restaurant to hand over the envelope with the earnings from the previous day to the former owner. Until then, João thought it was just “a fit of anger” from the former owner that he would eventually retract.
But the other João, Machado Dias, refused the envelope and emphasized, “I don’t think you heard me right: all of this is yours from now on!”
That’s when it finally sank in for João.
João recounts that ever since he returned from the army at the age of twenty, he had it in his mind: “One day, you’ll have a restaurant, João.” However, lacking the money to invest, the dream remained a dream until the mid-2000s when his friend João Machado Dias, the owner of Via Graça and other establishments in Lisbon, announced that he wanted to pass on the establishment.
The problem remained the same: a lack of money to invest. The owner of Via Graça even inquired if there was someone who believed in him enough to become a partner in the business, while the butcher João Bandeira, humble and patient, jokingly and suggestively pointed to the other João: “Yes, there is, Mr. João Machado…”
Two years later, during a “fit of anger,” João Machado Dias of Via Graça took the tie off the head waiter and decided to trust João Bandeira, the butcher. And that’s how the butcher, overnight, fulfilled his dream in grand style. “I always knew I would have a restaurant, but I never imagined I would start at the top.”
Literally, at the top.
From a viewpoint of a modern restaurant
The view from the “top” of Lisbon is thanks to the former owner, João Machado Dias. In 1988, when he decided to open a restaurant in Graça, he managed to convince the mayor of Lisbon at the time to give up the Miradouro Café dos Pretos (an venue that offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the city.), so that Via Graça could be built there – initially with only one floor at the same level as the viewpoint, not the two it has now.
A viewpoint overlooking five of Lisbon’s seven hills, where all the tables at Via Graça are positioned. It’s a privilege for the 40 customers the restaurant can accommodate, all protected from rain on hostile days by a massive glass mirror, windows that can be opened on pleasant afternoons and evenings, inviting the city to the table as well.
The glass windows are the result of the extensive renovation that Via Graça underwent in 2020, with an investment of one million euros, which practically remodeled the entire establishment. “From the previous restaurant, only the view remained, which is not a small thing,” says João Bandeira, who had to wait two decades for his dream to finally take shape.
Today’s Via Graça surprises with its modern and elegant decoration, reflecting the same attention to detail as the dishes served at the table. To not compete with the light of Lisbon, there is a tone of sobriety in the colors of the furniture and walls, punctuated by the vibrant strokes of the eleven paintings by the artist Diogo Navarro that adorn the rooms.
Although today João can afford major investments, the early years were quite different, with little money and plenty of work. “It was sixteen hours a day, at least,” João remembers the few hours of sleep taken in his car while parked in front of supermarkets, to be one of the first to access the best products.
During that time, a significant portion of the earnings was dedicated to honoring the purchase of Via Graça from the former owner. “João Machado had a huge heart and set up a father-to-son sale operation, dividing the remaining balance to be paid over eight years,” explains João. It was a time when the former butcher also devoted himself to learning the new trade.
The important lessons learned by João
In addition to practically “inheriting” Via Graça, João also received a couple of “gifts” from the former owner and friend: two experienced employees of the establishment, the head waiter Álvaro and the cook Ricardina Santos, who helped him learn the ins and outs of the new trade in crucial areas of the restaurant: the dining room and the kitchen.
The experienced head waiter also helped him understand the craft of being a head waiter, who, unlike a server who only takes orders, can guess exactly what to suggest from the menu and wine list based on the first exchange of words with the customers.
Dona Ricardina revealed to the butcher the secrets of the kitchen.
“Dona Ricardina was a master of cooking. She cooked divinely. It took some time for them to gradually trust me, and then one day, she started saying, ‘Sit here and learn how it’s done,'” he recalls.
João accepted the invitation, sat next to the experienced cook, and learned how it’s done. For ten years, he was immersed in the kitchen of Via Graça, in front of the oven and pots. “Even today, if necessary, I can go back there. I know how to prepare all the dishes on the menu,” assures the owner, eternally grateful to Dona Ricardina, who is now retired.
The kitchen is now in the hands of chefs Miguel and Vasco, who are not only brothers but also twins, ensuring consistent quality results.
Having confidence in the duo’s work allowed João to dedicate himself to the “diplomacy” of a restaurateur, spending afternoons and evenings among the guests, listening to some stories, telling others, memories of a (literally) delicious day in Lisbon, captured in a selfie alongside the restaurant owner, with the marvelous city view as a backdrop.
A photo that also captures the smile of the former butcher who fought for a dream, achieved it, and now welcomes the world with open arms, with Lisbon at his feet.
Jornalista e escritor brasileiro, 50 anos, há sete em Lisboa. Foi repórter, colunista e editor no Jornal do Commercio, correspondente da Folha de S. Paulo, comentador desportivo no SporTV e na rádio CBN, além de escrever para O Corvo e o Diário de Notícias. Cobriu Mundiais, Olimpíadas, eleições, protestos – num projeto de “mobile journalism” chamado Repórtatil – e, agora, chegou a vez de cobrir e, principalmente, descobrir Lisboa.
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