There’s always been a rivalry between Brazil’s two most important cities. São Paulo is seen as the rich, cosmopolitan, high-voltage and hard-working sister to laid-back, slightly chaotic yet much prettier Rio de Janeiro. Apart from a couple of exceptions, serious dining, up until a few years ago, was only to be found in São Paulo, the financial heart of the country and home to both of Brazil’s internationally famous chefs: Alex Atala of D.O.M. and Helena Rizzo of Maní.
Yet the rise in the last three years of a few Rio-based chefs of exceptional talent has turned the tables. The seaside city now boasts a greater number of high-end authoral restaurants than its richer neighbour and has become a gastronomic capital in its own right. Meanwhile, the friendly whole-in-the-wall eateries and botecos (bars serving draft beer, caipirinhas and delicious bites) that Rio has always been known for continue to thrive and delight locals and visitors alike.
Hence, there’s never been a better time to eat at the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City, as Brazilians like to call it). It offers the best of the high (chef-driven, high-end restaurants) and the low (delicious casual dining).
Here are the addresses where you can find the best of both of Rio’s food worlds.
Photo Eduardo Almeida Estudio Semente
If you’ve never eaten Brazilian dishes this should be the first stop on your trip. The mother-daugher duo Kátia and Bianca Barbosa runs this very lively restaurant-bar serving up, family-style, several traditional dishes such as shrimp “bobó” (a stew with coconut milk, manioc flour and dendê oil) and moqueca (also a stew, heavy on the onions and coriander, available in the plaintain or the seafood versions). The caipirinhas are legendary but there is also a vast selection of microbrewery brews to pair with the generous portions of tropical comfort food.
Be sure to book a table at the original location in the “Centro” (historical downtown) and not the fancier and slightly sanitized Leblon outpost - preferably in the courtyard at the back. The feijoada fritters are a must.
Rua Barão de Iguatemi 254, Rio de Janeiro
Chef Roberta Sudbrack held the throne as Rio’s top chef, serving incredibly ambitious and inventive tasting menus, up until 2017, when she shut down her eponymous fine-dining restaurant and switched over to casual dining. She now owns a gourmet sandwich shop in Leblon (Da Roberta) known for its elaborate and artisanal hot dogs and burgers, Sud, a small and casual eatery in the Jardim Botânico eatery, and a breezy and fun beachside restaurant called Arp.
The latter is housed within the hip and newly reopened Arpoador Hotel at the Northern tip of Ipanema beach and it’s everything that this gastronomic-turned-casual chef has always dreamed of doing. Grilled meats, simple dishes to share, organic ingredients sourced from her longtime suppliers, no tablecloths and a very casual vibe.
Rua Francisco Otaviano 177, Rio de Janeiro
Photo Selmy Yassuda
Google Brazilian cuisine and feijoada and it will pop up immediately: it’s the country’s best known and universally beloved dish. Gathering with friends and family to dig into this hearty black bean stew served with different cuts of pork and offal, crisp julienned kale, white rice and orange slices is a weekend ritual for rich and poor alike, in all parts of Brazil. You can get a taste of the real thing at the enormous steakhouse Rubaiyat Rio, which serves its traditional feijoada buffet every Saturday. Not only are the beans delicious but the views from the terasse overlooking the Jockey Club and the mountains are among the best in town.
Rua Jardim Botânico 971, Rio de Janeiro
Brazilians are obssessed with churrasco (or barbecued meats) and their all-you-can-eat churrascarias, amazing oversized restaurants with loads of waiters serving at record speed a myriad cuts of beef, lamb and pork tableside. Most traditional steakhouses can feel a bit kitschy and over-the-top – which is certainly not the case at Assador Rio’s.
Opened last year in a stunning seaside location by Jair Coser, a famous barbecue master from the Southern pampas who exported the concept to the United States and beyond, Assador Rio’s is an upgraded and revisited version of the older churrascarias. Servers double as grill-masters and bring out the meat cuts on large skewers, sizzling-hot, so that diners can carve the meat themselves, tableside. There are several delicious side dishes served and also stunning views of the Sugarloaf to boot. Touristy? Definitely! But delicious and worth every penny.
Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, Rio de Janeiro
Photo Fernando Frazão
Urca is a small district of Rio that has frozen in time, with two or three-story Art Déco buildings lining its mostly residential streets. Set on a small peninsula surrounded by the sea, it’s blissfully tranquil. Bar Urca is a friendly, family-run bar founded in 1939 and beloved by local people.
Although it has a cozy dining room tucked away in its mezanine most clients prefer to order snacks and drinks at the ground-floor bar counter and carry them over across the street to be enjoyed al fresco, overlooking Guanabara Bay. The pastéis (shrimp or meat-filled fritters) and empadinhas (baked savoury pastries) are legendary as are the classic caipirinhas. The house-made hot sauce, more aromatic than fiery, is unequalled.
Rua Cândido Gaffrée, 205
A favourite among visiting foreign chefs like Carlo Mirarchi (Blanca, New York) and Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana, Modena), this hole-in-the-wall Copacabana restaurant specializing in roast chicken is as close to a roots Rio place as one can get. The narrow and often noisy dining room is filled with tightly-packed tables where diners share large platters of chicken doused in the chef’s secret and tangy house sauce, egg farofa (toasted manioc flour) and grilled chicken hearts. All washed down with stiff lime caipirinhas.
Rua Barata Ribeiro 7, Loja D, Rio de Janeiro
Photo Tomas Rangel
Chef-turned-TV-celebrity, Felipe Bronze still finds time to run the kitchen at his flagship Oro in the well-heeled Leblon neighbourhood. His beautiful Argentinian wife, Cecilia Aldaz, a Master of Wine, adds polish and depth to the wine service. Everything here has an element of fire: ingredients are grilled, baked or smoked over flames and embers, partly in front of the diners in the open kitchen. The ambiance is dimly-lit and chic and the food is flamboyantly presented in a sequence of surprising mini-dishes.
Rua General San Martin 889, Rio de Janeiro
Set on a quiet street in Botafogo district, this homey restaurant is where chef Pedro Artagão puts on display all his creativity and serves up tasting menus where old classics such as picadinho (meat stew) or codfish rice reappear with an updated look. His signature dessert, however, is proudly non-modern: a warm chocolate cake with oozing brigadeiro sauce.
Rua Conde de Irajá 109, Rio de Janeiro
Focused and introverted, chef Rafa Costa e Silva is a whizz with loads of talent and a loyal troop of cooks who execute his wondrous dishes minute detail by minute detail. His restaurant Lasai, airy and elegant with an open-air terasse, made waves when it opened in 2017. Highly admired by his peers ever since working several years alongside Andoni Aduriz at Mugaritz, in Spain, Rafa obssesses over the quality of each ingredient: he knowns every fisherman that he buys fish from and he plants his own vegetables at two different farms. No wonder Lasai quickly rose to become one of Rio’s best tables in record time.
Rua Conde de Irajá 191, Rio de Janeiro
Good artisanal break was nearly inexistent in Rio five years ago and if that has changed it is thanks to baker Rafael Brito and his wife Ludmila Espíndola of Slow Bakery. The pioneers of artisanal breadmaking in Rio just moved this month from their original (and tiny!) location to a much bigger new space in the same part of town (Botafogo). At the new Slow Bakery clients can munch on toasted baguettes or ham and cheeses while sipping delicious coffee and watching the team of bakers at work – there are no walls between the ovens and the dining space.
Rua General Polidoro 25, Rio de Janeiro
Being a member of a dinasty that is considered gastronomic royalty of sorts is no easy task, Thomas Troisgros is the grandson of the French legend Pierre Troisgros and one of many chefs in that family to have made great careers. Three years ago he took over Olympe from his father Claude Troisgros, a local celebrity, and made it his own. Out went his dad’s bestselling French classics and in came daring creations like sardine with lardo, Amazonian pepper and mate kombucha or smoked and fresh heirloom tomatoes with miso and eggplant. The restaurant is small and cozy and Troisgros couldn’t be a more welcoming and cheerful host.
Rua Custódio Serrão 62, Rio de Janeiro
Outsider Alberto Landgraf, a chef born in Southern Brazil who first made his name in São Paulo, has fast become a star in Rio ever since he opened Oteque in 2018, now at nr. 23 of the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list. Driven, extremely technical and supremely talented, Landgraf turns out tasting menus composed of dishes that may look simple yet are anything but. He has a knack for pairing seemingly disparate ingredients with stunning results, such as his famous niguiri-like sardine and foie gras on brioche bread. This hip and intimate restaurant has, too boot, a great team of sommeliers and a stellar wine offering, with Zalto crystal glasses to match.
Rua Conde de Irajá, 581