How very sensible of Lisbon, this year's European Capital of Culture, to declare the city itself the central exhibit of its tenure. Congratulate a Lisboan on his luck in inhabiting such a place and he'll invariably agree eagerly.

It is beautiful, from the exquisite grace of the Geronimos Monastery in Belem to the snakeskin-like black-and-white pavements of its main streets. Fascinating, neglected niches abound, like the crumbling Thirties night-clubs in the Parque Maie precinct, off the elegant Avenida de la Liberadade. The city is cosmopolitan, yet avoids a show of plastic, high-street commerce: its taxis are prettily coloured, plentiful and cheap, and its dowdy, efficient little Metro has an unworldly lack of advertising.

Lisbon is also a great city gastronomically, not in an exalted food-is-art manner but in its range of everyday eating. Gastronomy is not listed in the Lisbon 94 culture brochure, perhaps because the Portuguese are too unpretentious. But it certainly could be.

Conventional wisdom says that the best places to eat are the family-run tascas in the narrow alleys of the Bairro Alto. There you can enjoy dishes of the day - feijoada (casserole of beans and sausage) or octopus rice - with elbow-to-elbow informality.

My vote goes to the great cervejarias, however. These represent mass catering at its most admirable, with dozens of well- drilled waiters and cooks churning out hundreds of plates of a fixed repertoire to a consistent standard. Cervejarias rely on three staples: beer, served from ornate porcelain pumps; mariscos, seafood specialities; and bife - a thin-hammered steak served in a bowl with lots of wine and mustard-flavoured gravy, chips and sometimes a fried egg.

Lisbon's cervejarias are not as spectacular or as sophisticated as their Paris cousins, the Alsatian brasseries. But they have the same democratic bustle. The most attractive is the Cervejaria Da Trindade in the Bairro Alto, which opened in 1836 in a former convent refectory. The blue, white and yellow azulejos, or wall tiles, date from the mid-19th century, and some of the white- jacketed waiters from the early 20th. Across town, Portugalia has big stone pillars, chunky Forties wooden furniture and a terrific stained-glass window depicting a napkinned burgher quaffing a tankard of Sagres beer.

What do you eat apart from bife and mariscos? There are excellent Spanish-style croquettes. There is a variety of soups, steaks, brochettes of swordfish and veal, and concoctions such as acorda, a strange but tasty mush of bread cooked in oil and broth, often with shellfish. And there is, of course, the ubiquitous bacalhao, salt cod mainly imported from Norway, which you can see and smell in its various grades and sizes, stacked like piles of asymmetric doormats, in specialist shops. Fried in olive oil, Gomes da Sa-style, with potatoes, onions, olives, parsley and hard-boiled eggs, bacalhao is very good indeed, provided you like salt, of course.

Lisbon is a fishy city generally, and one of the most interesting areas to sample this is the Rua das Portas de Santo Antao. Here, opposite the newly renovated music hall, is the Somar, with one of the finest Fifties brasserie interiors in Europe: pistachio, salmon and cream walls in its 30ft-high dining hall; a railed mezzanine; a vast marine-life mural; and a 10ft vivarium full of feebly wrestling giant crayfish. One smart young Lisboan I spoke to was rather sniffy about the Solmar, and it may be a touch overpriced, but that decor . . . At this more plutocratic end of the eating spectrum, Lisbon's traditional restaurants (the staid, club-like seafood specialist Gambrinus; Tavares, with its ornate 1860s interior) have been joined lately by smart newcomers sporting magret of duck and trendy ways with bacalhao.

Round the corner, behind another closed door in what looks like a courtyard of workers' cottages, is Procopio, a cocoon of dark wood panelling, Art Nouveau lights and Persian rugs. It was a forerunner of the new era bars, where champagne socialists, lawyers and journalists congregated after the 1974 revolution. Nowadays, the heroes of 1974 are regarded as naff old lefties by the youngsters who park their motorbikes outside the rash of Barcelona-style designer bars in the Alcantara docks area or along the nearby Avenida 24 Julho. Some of these joints are quite classy, like the Philippe Starck-ish XXIV Julho, with plum velvet drapes, twirly bronze light-fittings and purple marshmallow-like bar stools. The Alcantara Cafe, first and best of the docklands post-modernists, has managed to transcend youth cultishness, and there is usually a good cross-section of society sitting among the green steel pillars and underlit statuary, sipping port or whisky.

New-wave cafe life is a late-night phenomenon. For daytime refreshment, there are long-established landmarks such as the Cafe Nicola on Rossio Square, with its curious grey-and-maroon interior, or Brasileira's pleasant terrace in the Chiado. There are also, totally ignored by chic new Lisbon, places such as the extraordinary Casa de Alentejo, in theory a club but in practice sleepily welcoming to all. In its cavernous and dingy interior are Moorish patios, great mirrored ballrooms, tiled murals, baize-tabled reading rooms and a bar strewn with cigarette butts. The dining- room serves Alentejo food - pork stewed with clams, garlic, coriander and eggs - at a price only a handful of the many Alentejo restaurants in Lisbon can beat.

Gastronomic exploration is not confined to Portuguese specialities; all the former colonies are represented, too. There are Goan curry houses; Brazilian churrasqueiras, where waiters circulate with a mobile buffet of grilled and roast meats; Macaon restaurants, indistinguishable from Hong Kong ones. Among Lisbon's Africans, Cape Verdeans predominate, and the star dish on those bleak Atlantic islands is cachupa, a heavy stew of beans and maize, whatever pork products are available (bacon, sausages, belly, feet, ears) and sometimes fish and vegetables. The doyen of Lisbon's Cape Verdean restaurants is the Monte Cara, still also known as Bana's after its former owner, a genial singer who sometimes looks in to croon a morna with the house trio. Here you can get a decent bottle of wine to accompany your cachupa or Angolan fish-and- okra stew and finish the evening downstairs in the night-club.

If you want a real Cape Verdean experience, you can do as groups of islanders do back home at disco closing time. Around 4 or 5am head for the front-parlour amateur cookshops that serve cachupa in its breakfast mode, refried with an egg on top. In central Lisbon, a number are situated around the Rua do Poco dos Negros. You have to be a bit of a detective to find them. I set out to find one, Tilina's, at 3am on a deserted mid-week night. Eventually I spotted a man depositing rubbish outside a doorway and he informed me Tilina's was upstairs. So it was, two floors above: a large, decrepit 19th-century apartment with a dozen clients, an ironing board and two or three puppies in the front room, and Tilina, her ship's cook husband and half a dozen friends in the kitchen. I shared a table with two inebriated Cape Verdean seamen who swore Tilina's old man's fried chicken was the best in the Atlantic.

The cachupa, at pounds 1.10, dense and tasty with a sizzling fried egg, was as good as anything I've eaten in Lisbon, and my proxies from the Cape Verdean merchant navy will fight anybody who says otherwise.

FACTFILE

Getting there: British Airways (0345 222111) and Air Portugal (071-828 0262) fly daily between London Heathrow and Lisbon. Both airlines have a fare of pounds 209 return, with a weekend supplement of pounds 5 each way. Bookings for the summer are heavy. A cheaper but trickier alternative is to find a charter flight to Faro, in the Algarve, and travel by bus or train to the Portuguese capital.

Further information: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 22/25a Sackville Street, London W1X 1DE (071-494 1441). The sixth edition of the Rough Guide to Portugal (Penguin, pounds 9.99) is the most up-to-date guidebook available.

(Photographs omitted)

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