There is an undeniable pleasure to be had from just sitting in a café, watching the world go by for a couple of hours. As time slips away from you, people walk past, the weather changes, you order some tea, you eat a snack or a piece of cake and in the meantime you read, write, work, listen to the music playing in the background or follow a conversation happening somewhere around you. A café like “Wanli” offers exactly that: it’s a beautifully decorated space where class, quality and coziness shake hands and sit down with each other for a peaceful afternoon and maybe share a piece of a very memorable chocolate cake.
We don’t mean to sound grumpy, but Lisbon has an astounding lack of nice cafés (with the emphasis on nice). Sure, there are plenty of pastelaria’s and the likes, but the quality and variety of the food and drinks more often than not leaves much to be desired. The frantic business combined with television blaring out football games or some other nonsense also creates a far from inspiring environment. Then there are the pubs and bars in Bairro Alto of which most are just (noisy) tourist and Erasmus traps and / or are closed during the day. The unpleasant consequence of that is that the truly nice and good cafés fill up in the blink of an eye in the weekend, meaning you probably have to go to another part of the city and try your luck again, or just go home and play café.
In a way then, it’s nice that “Wanli”, no matter what the time or day, always seems to have a table or a couch available (except for Sunday, when it’s closed). The café derives its name from the eponymous Chinese plate from the Ming dinasty which was used mainly for baptism. The plate hangs on the wall in the back room where a couple of couches were convienently put for your comfort and pleasure. The plate is not the only historical object hidden here in this place, which used to be and still resembles an antique shop.
It’s littered with curiosa from nearly every decade of the last century and then some: an old radio, beautiful lampshades, chinoiserie, art prints, old photographs, a beautiful coffee colored old map of Portugal, dolls, antique furniture and couches, a small book collection and other things that were never made to be put together in the same room but work so beautifully here. All the while, it never feels too fancy or formal: the floor has beautiful old, weathered stones with patches of concrete, there are dirty cartoons hanging on the unisex bathroom wall in the back and there’s a small baby carriage standing in the front in which plants are grown. There’s even a coy pond in the back.
“Wanli” is basically a foggy mountain top retreat, a one man’s utopia: the owner Carlos Fagulha treats the space – which used to serve as the horse stables of the Távora Palace – as an extension of his own home. With every returning visit – and return, you will – you wonder: was this here last time too? The antique extravaganca scattered around the rectangular room alone probably warrants enough reason to set a foot inside of the glass windowed door, but the food, the drinks and the playlist of smooth jazz, soul, blues and Americana music will make you want to stick around and sit back comfortably in one of the beautiful old 70s couches. If you have a taste in these matters as good as the owner of course.
In case you’d still be wondering, we’re regulars here: “Wanli” has been open since 2010 and we’ve been coming here for the last three or four years or so. In the meantime we have tried a lot of the things on the menu. As it turns out, there’s always something new and delicious to be discovered. On a more recent visit, the “tosta mista” (the Portuguese, simplified version of a croque monsieur) made with prime quality black pig ham from the Alentejo really blew us away and is probably one of the best tostas you’re likely to find anywhere in the city.
Not only that, but you could also do much worse than go for the homemade empadas on offer here or order a cheap vegetarian meal for lunch. Granted, they’re re-heated in the microwave, but they’re definitely made fresh that day and most likely consist of a simple couscous salad or a veggie chilli. It’s tasty, healthy and comes with a nicely dressed simple green salad with a lovely, fruity olive oil. It serves perfectly as a quick, light lunchtime dish and is ideal café food and quite unique in meat-obsessed Lisbon. Take our word for it when we say that we’ve have had far worse vegetarian food for a LOT more money.
However, if there’s one thing not to be missed here, it would be the homemade cakes. Normally you can choose between an orange, nut or chocolate cake with ginger. All three cakes made according to traditional recipes are quite delicious, but you’d be hard pressed to find a dark chocolate cake as good as this one anywhere else in town. Crumbly on the bottom and soft, smooth and gooey in the middle and the very persistent, beautifully balanced bittersweet flavor of dark chocolate throughout which keeps on lingering in the mouth long after the cake has magically disappeared. We haven’t bothered to ask but it’s probably a true calory bomb and you’d have to be a raving lunatic to really care about that here.
It all makes “Wanli” an ideal place where you can spend many hours, without getting bored of what you see, hear, eat or drink. In the afternoon you might go for one of the amazing teas (their green or black tea is truly magnificent and rivals both in terms of price and quality that of many so called tea houses around town) and as it gets dark, you can let yourself be surprised by some good red wine or moscatel. Should you feel peckish, you might feel inclined to order a piece of unforgettable chocolate cake or a delightful tosta mista. It’s the ultimate reward to yourself after an afternoon of having enjoyed the eclectic fruits of your life decisions. Here at “Wanli”, nostalgia is exactly what it used to be.
Opening hours: Mon-Sat: 12h00-02h00
Address: Calçada do Marquês de Abrantes 82, 1200-720 Lisboa
Phone Number: +351 216 031 562