Café Majestic (Porto, Portugal)

Porto as a city has certainly had a lot of ups and downs in its history, but much of the actual downtown area is a product of the 1920s, when the inter-war period was actually quite good for Portugal. The city had some major redevelopment, including the city hall and the Avenida dos Aliados grand boulevard lined with all sorts of great Art Deco and Streamline Modern interiors, nicely blended with some traditional architecture. And that’s also the era when the café became one of the great parts of city life, with all sorts of politicians, writers, artists, communists, students, and the like all gathers over cups of coffee topped with tall piles of whipped cream; at one point there were literally dozens of these throughout Porto, and a handful survive more-or-less intact; one of these is Café Majestic.

The Majestic actually opened in 1921 as “The Elite Cafe”, and it’s had a few hard decades at times, but with a major makeover back in the 1990s, it has got a beautiful facade with nice stonework, an elaborate interior with mirrored walls, detailed woodwork, and delicate filigree. And an almost implausibly large number of small café tables wedged in with tightly packed chairs as white-jacketed waiters dart about serving up coffee, breakfast, and light lunches. It is, quite frankly, quite a beautiful space.

The down side is that like the Lello bookstore across town, the Majestic really is an impressive architectural space hearkening back to a former era, but it’s also an example of the Instagram effect, being one of the places to take a selfie. So it’s got lines, often intractably long, so if you don’t go on an “off” time, be expecting to wait a while.

But The Majestic isn’t just know for the ambiance. It’s got a menu that’s pretty much on par with the other cafés around town, with a great selection of coffee drinks, sandwiches, and even a pretty respectable-looking Francesinha. But there’s one menu item that most reviews implore you to try, and that’s the Portuguese- and Brazilian-style “French” toast: Rabanadas.

While nominally just being your standard French Toast/Pain Perdue, the key here is the details: they start with a particularly crusty Portuguese bread (the Portuguese love hearty, rustic bread crusts), soak it in milk and serve it enrobed in a rich, yolky custard just teeming with lemon zest, vanilla, and cinnamon. Add in some walnuts, pine nuts, and some dried fruit, and it’s a dish that’s both delicious and beautiful to look at. We certainly enjoyed it, as well as a nice cup of coffee topped up with a small mountain of fresh, real whipped cream.

If in Porto, a trip to Café Majestic is definitely worth doing at least once… But if deciding that you wanted another serving of rabanadas, or a nice croissant, or a nice, quiet café instead of the bustle and wait of Café Majestic? Head a quarter mile away back to Avenida dos Aliados and check out their sister Café, Café Guarany. The same owners, the same menu items, the same rabanadas, the same white tables with the same white-clad waiters dashing about. But without crowds, and with a nice, relaxed atmosphere in a still-interesting interior that’s an interesting blend of “Cafe” and “Brazilian Indian” (Similar to the Mayan Revival architecture happening through the US in the same time period).

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