Every so often, one comes a dish or a restaurant that is a perfect reflection of place. A bowl of rustic green chile stew with a folded flour tortilla on the side, for example, is a perfect reflection of its northern New Mexico context. It taps into not just local ingredients but the local soul.
One can eat a lot of great food in Rio de Janeiro that doesn’t really reflect the spirit of the place or its people, the Cariocas: the great Porcão, a storied all-you-can eat barbecue restaurant or churrascaria de rodízio, is a delight, but it’s not really of Rio. Olympe has fantastic French-Brazilian fusion down near the Botanical Gardens, if you’re curious about the gastronomy scene. And you can get a pretty good (if shockingly expensive) caipirinha at Veloso, the Ipanema cafe where a pretty local girl so inflamed Antônio Carlos Jobim that he wrote a song about her. But to know and love Rio is to know and love its beaches, every Carioca‘s happy place. And that’s where I found my favorite Rio restaurant, Mirante da Prainha.
Prainha beach, the little beach, is actually a ways outside Rio proper; to get there, one drives west, through the bustling suburb of Barra de Tijuca, and around a headland into a conservation preserve. Jagged ridges and peaks, matted with coastal rain forest, surround a small half-moon of sugar-white sand. Unlike the miles-long beaches at Copacabana and Ipanema, Prainha is a ten-minute stroll from end to end. It’s popular with surfers and nature-lovers, quieter than most. Clear your whole day to go there, not because it takes so long to get to, but because you don’t want anything else on your mind. Don’t cheat; this is important.
At the west end of the beach, on a bluff with a great view of the surfers, is Mirante da Prainha. It’s not much to look at: plastic chairs and tables along a low wall, a rusty swing set for the youngsters, a palapa-type shelter for the kitchen. You have your choice of seating arrangements, as long as it’s al fresco – the better to enjoy the soft sea breeze. The view down the beach and over the water, with the spectacular mountain Pedra da Gavea in the distance, is breathtaking.
The menu is simple: cold beer, grilled whole fish, a few sides. A plate of manjuba, whole fried anchovies, goes well with that cold beer; Brahma is the local favorite. For the main course, I recommend the vermelho, a sturdy-bodied local saltwater fish with creamy white flesh and ruddy scales. Every meal comes with the two things no meal in Rio is ever complete without: garlicky white rice and black beans. A Carioca will top them with toasted farofa, or manioc meal, which contributes a buttery crunch. Make sure to order the pirao, a manioc porridge enriched with cilantro, sweet peppers, and flaked fish, an unusual but delicious accompaniment to Brazilian seafood.
There you sit for the next hour or two, feasting on perfectly grilled fish and collecting empty Brahma bottles. At the end of the meal, you’ll be a bit sun-blasted, your skin tacky from the salt water, utterly at peace as you root out the last bit of moist flesh from the fish’s skull and curl your toes into the sand.
That feeling you’ve got?
That’s the soul of Rio de Janeiro.
Mirante da Prainha
Av. Estado da Guanabara 689
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
+55 21 9964-1220
Charlie Lawton is a food science nerd, passionate cook, and environmental consultant who currently resides in southern New Mexico with his Brazilian wife and a dog he named after a Mexican restaurant. You can find more of his work on his blog, The Ingredient List.