Madeira. Home to Jurassic landscapes, endlessly changing weather conditions, lethally strong Poncha and ultra-fresh fish. I spent six weeks on the island this past winter, and to say I fell in love with the place would be an understatement. It’s a Portuguese paradise, and I’m already nostalgic thinking of its vivid greens, salty air and floral scents. We were staying in Funchal – the biggest city in Madeira and the ideal jumping off point for exploring the island. I loved the Old Town in the east end of the city, but many prefer the Lido area to the west.
Coffee and brunch in Funchal
The coffee in Madeira is generally pretty good, but for some reason it’s generally served at nuclear temperatures! Let it cool down for a minute before attempting to get your morning caffeine fix. If you’re looking for a cappuccino, asking for one might get you a coffee with whipped cream on top. Better to order a chinesa (a long white coffee) or a garoto (an espresso with a shot of milk). The exceptions to this rule are included in my recommendations below…
At the top of the cable car in Monte, this sleek café serves hands-down the best coffee on the island. Fruity, well-rounded and the perfect temperature. I also enjoyed their cheesecake, sandwiches, salads and pretty much everything else I tried.
Art Food Corner
At the bottom of the cable car in the Old Town, Art Food Corner is a hippie hangout with a killer macchiato and a delicious (vegan) hummus bowl. They are dog-friendly too (as is Land, above, for that matter) which is a bonus when travelling with your canine companion, as we were.
Hipster heaven in the heart of Funchal centre, Prima Caju is dripping with foliage and wicker furniture. Luckily, the food does justice to the funky, botanic zen interior: I loved the fresh juices, eggs any which way, and generous bowls full of veggies, protein and tasty dressings.
On the Lido side of town, the Loft has a large sunny terrace, decent coffee, fresh juices and avocado-on-toast type dishes. It doesn’t hit the mark every time, but deserves a mention for fulfilling a niche in the neighbourhood.
Traditional Madeiran food in Funchal
Unsurprisingly considering that you can see the ocean from almost everywhere, fish and seafood are to be found in every traditional Madeiran restaurant. Look out for the black scabbardfish on menus (a white fish that’s prepared in many different ways) as well as the limpets served in garlic butter (like a cross between mussels and snails).
Whatever else you eat in Madeira, you’re bound to come across the local disc-shaped bread rolls: bolo do caco. They’re served with almost every meal, split down the middle and filled with a garlic and herb butter that’s hard to resist. But you can also eat them stuffed as sandwiches – look out for prego no bolo do caco at snackbars across the island: the bread is stuffed with steak, salad and (if you’re feeling really fancy) an egg. These moreish sandwiches make a cheap and satisfying lunch wherever you go.
A note about snackbars: don’t judge a book by its cover! Some of them really do only serve drinks and bags of crisps, but others serve full-blown meals at ludicrously affordable prices. Our local snackbar (Bela 5 – see below) was frequented by students, police officers, tourists and everyone in between, and all were treated as though they’d been a regular for years.
Casal da Penha
This traditional restaurant appears in every Madeira guide you’ll read but for good reason: the terrace is draped in bougainvillea, the fish is simply but perfectly prepared, and the service is top notch. Our waitress had been working at Casal da Penha for 23 years – which says something about the establishment!
An unassuming café down a side street in the Old Town, Escadinha probably does lots of things very well but we were particularly impressed by two of them. Firstly, the fried corn empanadas were perfect hangover food. And secondly, the dishes of the day were extremely good value: a plate of feijoada (pork and bean stew) was delicious at under €8.
One of the many snackbars across the island, Bela 5 serves cheap and cheerful meals of grilled fish or meat, potatoes or rice, vegetables or salad. It’s as simple as it sounds, but everything is cooked fresh to order and tastes exactly as it should. Plus, they do a killer burger in bolo do caco bread – we went back for it time and again!
Modern Portuguese restaurants in Funchal
Of course, some notable chefs are getting creative with the island’s fantastic produce and ingredients. And that’s given rise to some more modern, innovative cooking in Funchal restaurants.
With its sleek interior and QR-code menu, Kampo definitely feels every bit as up-to-date as its kitchen. Local chef Júlio Pereira specialises in meat at Kampo, as evidenced by the glass cabinets of aged beef that you’ll pass on your way in. We loved the smoked beef carpaccio, braised ox belly and confit duck with fabulously umami-rich duck rice.
Júlio Pereira’s second venture does not disappoint either, with Akua specialising in fish rather than in meat. We tried the Asian fusion-style tuna tataki cones, fish tacos, Peruvian ceviche and fideua – a medley of seafood with squid ink pasta and aioli. Both restaurants had lovely wine selections as well.
Lá ao Fundo
Specialising in Asian-Portuguese fusion food, Lá ao Fundo doesn’t always get it right but several of its dishes are worth the breakaway from the norm. Try the tartare (either tuna or beef), prepared at the table in front of you by Chef Jaime with a host of creative additions. But beware: he has quite the dry sense of humour!
Design Centre Nini Andrade Silva
Exhibition space, restaurant, events venue and rooftop bar all rolled into one, the Design Centre is worth a wander around just to marvel at the interior alone. Designer Nini Andrade Silva has used the oval-shaped stones that you find throughout Madeira as the inspiration for her design, from the chairs and tables to the sun loungers and the artwork. On a warm day, head up to the terrace for a drink overlooking the Atlantic: the white sangria is refreshing and filled with fruit (which makes it somewhat healthy if you eat it all afterwards?!). The menu features innovative takes on the classics, like seared tuna tataki with salsify, leek aioli and charcoal. Prices are a little on the expensive side by Madeiran standards – but you’re paying for the view.
Il Gallo d’Oro
With two Michelin stars, Il Gallo d’Oro is widely believed to be the best restaurant on the island. But I debated on whether to include it in this list because, as Michelin-starred restaurants go, it’s quite traditional. Starched white tablecloths and somewhat formal service accompany dishes like foie gras and pâté en croûte served in their signature golden ball – but you wonder if these things are appropriate on restaurant menus in 2022? On the plus side, I enjoyed the creative takes on the local tuna (with ponzu) and crab (with frozen beads of tomato) as well as the fascinating collection of different salts. Be warned: dinner at Il Gallo d’Oro will set you back between €165 and €275 for the food, plus significantly more if you opt for the wine pairing to go with it. Pours are generous, though – we were pretty tipsy by the end!
International food in Funchal
Luckily for those of us visiting for longer, there’s more to Madeira than fish and steak sandwiches. If you know where to look, you can find an array of international cuisine from Asia to the Americas.
Sakura Sushi – Japanese food
Sakura is a top little sushi spot down one of Funchal’s many mosaic-lined streets. There are good value lunch and dinner deals, but the a la carte menu is not pricey either. We tried various sashimi, chicken gyoza with an excellent dipping sauce, salmon tataki with a fantastically interesting dressing, plus several uramaki and special rolls. Including a bottle of Portuguese wine and a tip, dinner came to €65 for two people on our first visit and even less on our second – great value.
The Snug Smokehouse – American BBQ and craft beers
The Snug’s second branch houses a proper smoker, at least four craft beers on draft and lots more by the bottle. Those we tried were all delicious, and the beef short ribs, smoked chicken, pulled pork and burgers weren’t half bad either. Not to mention the sides – I was mildly addicted to the mac & cheese and coleslaw. Service was also very friendly; our waiter let us try every draft beer before deciding which to order (and he also let us bring our dog).
Fala Fala – Middle Eastern/vegetarian food
Perhaps a little pricey by Madeiran standards (at €8 each), the falafel wraps at Fala Fala are stuffed with falafel (obviously), hummus, various veggies and sauces, and come with crunchy sweet potato fries. They also have the virtue of being vegan, which is hard to come by on the island.
MadCuba – Cuban food and cocktails
On Thursdays, MadCuba runs a Happy Hour from 5-7 pm, during which all cocktails are two-for-one. The daiquiris and margaritas were simple and well-made, and only cost us €5 for two. We also tried the Cuban pulled pork and chicken, both served with rice, beans and plantain chips. Nothing fancy, but very tasty (and there’s homemade hot sauce if you like it spicy like me!).
Basmati – Indian and Nepalese food
Perhaps surprisingly, we found a very passable Indian restaurant in Funchal: Basmati, which was a relative newcomer to Funchal’s international dining scene. Try the prawn masala or the chicken madras: if you order your dish hot, it actually IS hot – unlike most other things we ate in Madeira!
Bars in Funchal
Regular readers of this site will know that I like a drink or five… and there are plenty to choose from in Funchal. The fortified Madeira wine might be what the island is best known for abroad, but the Poncha (Madeiran sugar-cane rum mixed with honey and citrus fruit) is far more popular among the locals here. With the warm weather and long evenings, you’ll also find lots of bars are well set up for sunset drinks overlooking the Atlantic or rooftop views over the city. It’s always five o’clock somewhere!
Overlooking the park area in the Old Town, Venda Velha is my favourite spot for Poncha in Funchal. They serve several different versions, but the two most famous are the Regionale (made with orange and lemon) and the Pescador (made with straight up lemon). There’s also a tangerine version and a passionfruit version for those who like their drinks a little sweeter. Beware: they don’t taste that strong but they can be pretty lethal. Drink in moderation. (I didn’t and I paid for it!)
Madeira Rum House
In this atmospheric tavern, try the flight of four different local rums for €15, from light and white to dark and smoky. If you’re not bothered about the germs, sharing one between two is probably enough unless you’re a massive rum fan. Of course, Madeira Rum House will also mix you a mean Poncha and serve you some snacks to soak up all that rum.
Sweeping views abound from this huge roof terrace, with various areas to lounge, work or chat. Three House offers a two-for-one Happy Hour on Fridays in the early evening, which works out well since prices are €10-12 per cocktail normally. Try the Baco the Dog (a grapefruit-based sour) or the Dandy Agavoni (a take on a Negroni).
Barreirinha Bar Café, Cidade Velha or Santiago Beach Bar
All three cafés offer excellent views south over the Atlantic for a sundowner. Whether you’re on the local Poncha or sticking to a nice cold beer.
Not technically a bar and only open until 6 pm, Pereira D’Oliveira is a cellar and store that also offers Madeira wine tastings. You’ll get three free samples, from sweet to medium-dry, while sitting at upturned wooden barrels. Of course, they’re hoping you’ll buy a bottle to take home with you afterwards, but you’re under no obligation.
For regular wine (not fortified Madeira wine) by the glass, stop by Barca Velha in Funchal centre. The proprietor can be polite or taciturn depending on his mood, but his wine selection is good and his pours are generous. The jamon and olives are tasty too, if you’re in need of a snack.