Food in Brazil is delicious, inexpensive (especially compared with North America and Europe), and bountiful. Portions are huge and presentation is tasteful. A lot of restaurants prepare plates for two people; when you order, be sure to ask if one plate will suffice—or even better, glance around to see the size of portions at other tables.
In major cities the variety of eateries is staggering: restaurants of all sizes and categories, snack bars, and fast-food outlets line downtown streets and fight for space in shopping malls. Pricing systems vary from open menus to buffets where you weigh your plate. In São Paulo, for example, Italian eateries—whose risottos rival those of Bologna—sit beside pan-Asian restaurants, which, like the chicest spots in North America and Europe, serve everything from Thai satay to sushi. In addition, there are excellent Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, and Spanish restaurants.
Outside the cities you find primarily typical, low-cost Brazilian meals that consist simply of feijão preto (black beans) and arroz (rice) served with beef, chicken, or fish. Manioc, a root vegetable that's used in a variety of ways, and beef are adored everywhere.
Many Brazilian dishes are adaptations of Portuguese specialties. Fish stews called caldeiradas and beef stews called cozidos (a wide variety of vegetables boiled with different cuts of beef and pork) are popular, as is bacalhau, salt cod cooked in sauce or grilled. Salgados (literally, "salteds") are appetizers or snacks served in sit-down restaurants as well as at stand-up lanchonetes (luncheonettes). Dried salted meats form the basis of many dishes from the interior and Northeast of Brazil, and pork is used heavily in dishes from Minas Gerais. Brazil's national dish is feijoada (a stew of black beans, sausage, pork, and beef), which is often served with rice, shredded kale, orange slices, and manioc flour or meal—called farofa if it's coarsely ground, farinha if finely ground—that has been fried with onions, oil, and egg.
One of the most avid national passions is the churrascaria, where meats are roasted on spits over an open fire, usually rodízio style. Rodízio means "going around," and waiters circulate nonstop carrying skewers laden with charbroiled hunks of beef, pork, and chicken, which are sliced onto your plate with ritualistic ardor. For a set price you get all the meat and side dishes you can eat. Starve yourself a little before going to a rodízio place. Then you can sample everything on offer.
At the other end of the spectrum, vegetarians can sometimes find Brazil’s meat-centric culture challenging, especially outside larger cities. Increasingly, though, salads and vegetarian options are offered at nicer restaurants in areas catering to foodies, tourists, and those with more international tastes. You’ll also find salads at buffet restaurants, called quilos, found throughout Brazil.
Brazilian doces (desserts), particularly those of Bahia, are very sweet, and many are descendants of the egg-based custards and puddings of Portugal and France. Cocada is shredded coconut caked with sugar; quindim is a small tart made from egg yolks and coconut; doce de banana (or any other fruit) is banana cooked in sugar; ambrosia is a lumpy milk-and-sugar pudding.
Coffee is served black and strong with sugar in demitasse cups and is called cafezinho. (Requests for descafeinado [decaf] are met with a firm shake of the head "no," a blank stare, or outright amusement.) Coffee is taken with milk—called café com leite—only at breakfast. Bottled water (agua mineral) is sold carbonated or plain (com gás and sem gás, respectively).
Meals and Mealtimes
Between the extremes of sophistication and austere simplicity, each region has its own cuisine. You find exotic fish dishes in the Amazon, African-spiced dishes in Bahia, and well-seasoned bean mashes in Minas Gerais.
It's hard to find breakfast (café da manhã) outside a hotel restaurant, but in bakeries (padarias) you can always find something breakfast-like. At lunch (almoço) and dinner (jantar) portions are large. Often a single dish will easily feed two people; no one will be the least bit surprised if you order one entrée and ask for two plates. In addition some restaurants automatically bring a couvert (an appetizer course of such items as bread, cheese, or pâté, olives, quail eggs, and the like). You'll be charged extra for this, and you're perfectly within your rights to send it back if you don't want it.
Mealtimes vary according to locale. In Rio and São Paulo, lunch and dinner are served later than in the United States. In restaurants lunch usually starts around noon and can last until 3. Dinner is always eaten after 7 and in many cases not until 10. In Minas Gerais, the Northeast, and smaller towns in general, dinner and lunch are taken at roughly the same time as in the States.
Credit cards are widely accepted at restaurants in the major cities. In the countryside all but the smallest establishments generally accept credit cards as well, but check before you order. Smaller, family-run restaurants are sometimes cash-only. Gratuity is 10% of the total sum, and it's usually included in the bill. The tip is always optional; if you weren't happy with the service, you can ask for it to be removed from your bill.
Reservations and Dress
Appropriate dress for dinner in Brazil can vary dramatically. As a general rule, dress more formally for expensive restaurants. In most restaurants dress is casual.
Regardless of where you are, it's a good idea to make a reservation if you can. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there's no other way you'll ever get a table) or when they're not accepted. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
The national drink is the caipirinha, made of crushed lime, sugar, and pinga or cachaça (sugarcane liquor). When whipped with crushed ice, fruit juices, and condensed milk, the pinga/cachaça becomes a batida. A caipivodka, or caipiroska, is the same cocktail with vodka instead of cachaça. Most bars also make both drinks using a fruit other than lime, such as kiwi and maracujá (passion fruit). Brazil has many brands of bottled beer. In general, though, Brazilians prefer tap beer, called chopp, which is sold in bars and restaurants. Be sure to try the carbonated soft drink guaraná, made using the Amazonian fruit of the same name. It's extremely popular in Brazil.