cafe

Close your eyes and think of Paris, with its wide boulevards and charming side streets, each graced with inviting cafés calling to you to sit a spell and enjoy the ambiance of the passing city.

Ah, I could spend hours in such cafés!

Here in Sao Paulo, we have teeming boulevards and winding side streets, but for the most part, few such inviting cafés. Certainly, some can be found in the Avenida Paulista area downtown, and in a few other European-style neighborhoods, but throughout most of Sao Paulo, lanchonetes (lawn-shon-et-shees) take the place of cafés.

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Lanchonetes and bars can be found on almost every street corner and along the main roads through town. Typically designed with tile floors and walls, with fluorescent lighting, they offer travelers a quick respite from transit and the workaday world. Rather than wicker chairs and tables, they offer plastic chairs or bancas, counters where you typically stand for a quick cuppa or stools for meals.

Here, you can pop in for a cafézinho and an empanada or sweet roll, or have a meal at a reasonable price. It doesn’t really matter where which lanchonete you choose: most of the food tastes exactly the same in all of these establishments. And every one offers frozen ice cream treats or beers served estupido gelado (stupidly cold).

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Sao Paulo has few franchise restaurants, certainly none on the scale of most American cities, where every strip mall features either fast food “restaurants” or the equivalent of IHOP or some other “typical” franchise. Here we have Outback Steakhouse and Appleby’s, and a few Brazilian franchises (Fogo de Chao, for one), but most of the restaurants are unique. And most are incredibly expensive.

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A couple dining out for dinner can expect to pay a minimum of US$50 for dinner, without wine. We’ve heard that Sao Paulo is currently one of the most expensive cities in the world. We’ve certainly stopped dining out as much as we had been just a year ago, when we could dine for $35.

Given these prices, it’s no wonder these lanchonetes are so popular. The one in our neighborhood is handy when I’m out walking the dogs and want to grab something for lunch. For US$5, I can get two empanadas and a drink. Can’t beat the price.

Oddly enough, there seem to be very few fast food restaurants here. We have MacDonald’s nearby, but it’s also very expensive, costing US$25 or more for two combos.

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There’s also Habib’s, a popular fast food place featuring kabobs and Middle Eastern finger foods, such as tiny pizzas or meat pastries, but Scott and I weren’t impressed when we tried it.

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We’ve been told that American franchises such as KFC didn’t make it here because most of the food was eaten by hand, and Brazilians are charmingly odd in how they eat finger foods: you use a wax paper-like napkin to pick up the food, but there are no regular napkins for your fingers. (And here, the only napkins you put on your lap are cloth napkins. The paper napkins aren’t meant for laps.)

For the most part, here in Sao Paulo, lanchonetes are the primary options for fast, and inexpensive, food.