The Majestic Cafe in Porto opened in 1921, when it was simply named “Elite.” Settings like this were an important part of the social fabric of the city. This one’s central location on Rua da Santa Caterina drew artists, writers and intellectuals who gathered for coffee and conversation. Well-heeled women came to chat over ice cream or tea.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Art Nouveau café originally designed by Portuguese architect Joao Queiroz fell into disrepair, and remained that way for almost three decades.
In 1981, the structure was classified as a Building of Public Interest because of its unique architecture and interior design. It was finally closed for renovation in 1992 and lovingly restored two years later, in 1994.
The line outside
Today, arriving at the café is more akin to entering a living museum. Most patrons are tourists from around the globe with guidebooks, cell phones and cameras in hand. A queue forms outside the door as they snap pictures of the exterior before entering the spacious building with high ceilings.
Large, contemporary, white market umbrellas emblazoned with the café’s logo cover tables handling the spillover of patrons onto the street. But inside and out, food or drink are secondary to the classic setting and ambiance.
When we took our seats, we couldn’t help but be reminded of the Woody Allen flick, Midnight in Paris, which took place in the 20s when the social elite arrived at similar cafés in horse-drawn carriages. Although Majestic was modeled after the Parisian cafes of that vintage, customers don’t tend to linger here. As soon as they’ve soaked in the “view,” they’re off to shop or see the next city attraction.
With changing times, Rua da Santa Caterina has become the major shopping street in the city, closed off to vehicular traffic. While the street houses thriving restaurants, jewelry shops, high-end boutiques, chain stores and kitschy souvenir shops, a number of nearby buildings with impressive facades remain abandoned. Some are in the midst of renovation as city officials try to keep pace with the rapid growth in tourism over the past five years.
A majestic interior
The café tabletops are marble, paired with intricate wood-framed chairs (that look like chestnut wood, commonly found in Porto). The long banquettes against the wall, once red velvet, are covered in rich, embossed leather. Visitors’ eyes are immediately drawn to the ornate ceiling chandeliers, fancy moldings, and beveled glass.
Some of the décor is real wood; some is plaster. Human faces, cherubs and other naked figures, and columns are painstakingly sculpted and painted to look like more precious materials, a technique popular in that era. Although much of the period furniture isn’t original, pitted mirrors on the walls show black scars consistent with their age.
An elegant wood bar and black baby grand piano occupy space in the center of the floor. Bilingual waiters, like those of a bygone era, wear short white jackets and white gloves as they balance drinks on small round trays.
In a city where meals are generally affordable, the breakfast menu here is limited and relatively expensive. Because we hadn’t yet eaten breakfast and were preparing to leave for the airport on our last day in Porto, we ordered French toast and a basket of scones with jam and cream. The dishes and our cappuccinos that was served on elegant china with silver utensils.
Although the food and beverage weren’t memorable, a visit to the Majestic Cafe in Porto is well worth the “cover charge” (whether it’s the cost of a cup of coffee, glass of Port, or more.) In fact, we would consider this quintessential old-world café a not-to-be-missed stop for any visitor to Porto interested in history or architecture.
An ageist but interesting quote printed on the placemats at each table:
“The cafes in Portugal have, up to now, been exclusively the hot bed of revolutionaries, the business meeting point of merchant groups, or where the obstinate aged listlessly passed their time. An example of what a café should actually be, however, has just been given to us.”
-Andre de Moura, 1923
IF YOU GO
Café Majestic, Rua Santa Catarina, 112, Porto, Portugal
- Open Monday through Saturday from 9:30AM to Midnight (closed Sundays)
- Tip: Arrive early in the day to beat the crowds.