Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On the Road - Rio de Janeiro (Pt. 6) - The Botecos of Rio

The hole-in-the-wall-push-out-onto-the-sidewalk type bar known as a boteco, botequim or butequim is to Rio de Janeiro what the neighborhood tavern is to Milwaukee, WI or Boston, MA, or what the local pub is to denizens of small towns and villages throughout the UK and Ireland. It's an institution, and anyone who wants to mess with the formula had better be careful, because it's a beloved institution. Cariocas (residents of Rio) are fiercely loyal to the idea of the boteco in general, and to their own particular boteco in particular.

Botecos can be found in all corners of this sprawling city, from tony Lebon and Ipanema, to the tourist haunt of Copacabana, and right through to the middle-class suburbs in the northern zone of the city. Even the hillside slums known as favelas have botecos.

The standard boteco is a small space open to the sidewalk, with a small stand-up bar, a cashier's cage, a display case for pre-cooked snacks, plenty of refrigerators for icy-cold beer, a minimal kitchen and a rudimentary bathroom. On the sidewalk in front are any number of plastic tables and plastic chairs, all sponsored by one or another of Brazil's major breweries and sporting the brewery's colors. There's often barely enough room to stand inside the boteco itself, so the majority of patrons stand outside or sit at one of the sidewalk tables. During the day, when stores and shops are open, the tables might be restricted to the space directly in front of the boteco, but as soon as retail stores close, the number of tables blossoms, and the sidewalk for half-a-block or more can be taken up with patrons sitting, chatting, drinking and snacking.

All botecos sell beer, and a they sell a lot of it. They all also serve soft drinks and bottled water, but in minimal quantities. It seems that mixed drinks are almost unheard of. Beer is normally sold in 600 ml (20 oz) bottles, and served in thermal coolers to be poured into small glasses. This avoids the problem of warm beer, which Brazilians universally detest and which is the inevitable result of a too-large glass.

Botecos sell snacks and sandwiches too - packaged snacks like potato chips and nuts, savory pastries and pies almost everywhere, and "blue-plate special" meals at some botecos during meal times. The quality of these snacks and meals varies greatly and customer loyalty often depends on the quality of the food - after all, as long as it's served properly cold, a bottle of Brahma or Antartica beer is not going to vary from boteco to boteco.

These bars are extremely social places, and also extremely casual. In the frequently hot climate of Rio, it's not at all unusual to see a bunch of guys standing at the bar in a boteco dressed only in flip-flops and skin-tight Speedo-style bathing suits. (And it's not only the young and well-built who adopt this style of dress). I sometimes wonder where they keep their money and keys! Everyone seems to know everyone in a boteco, and a stranger is likely to be questioned, in a friendly manner, about where he or she is from and what he or she thinks of Rio and this boteco. In short order a newcomer can become a regular - it happens here almost as fast as it does in Ireland, but not quite.

The original-style botecos, of which many remain, have recently been joined by more up-market cousins. In the newer, more stylish botecos, there will be space to sit at a table inside, the decor will be cleaner and more tasteful, and there is likely to be waitstaff. The menu will be more varied, and the quality of the food is higher, as are the prices, of course. (The whole concept of these new botecos is a bit like the British gastropub.) To distinguish between the two styles, cariocas have begun to use the terms -sujo and -limpo. Translated these mean "dirty feet" and "clean feet". The original style, naturally, is the "dirty-feet" boteco, and they newer style, where patrons are expected to have at the very minimum washed their feet before entering, is the "clean-feet" boteco.

To travel to Rio and not spend some time getting to know the boteco culture would be a shame. Probably even a crime. In the sections of the city that tourists are likely to visit, botecos are very safe, if a bit rowdy at times, and the most worrying thing might be the unwanted attention of the local drunkard. Take it all with a smile, a word or two of Portuguese, and soon you'll be everybody's new best friend. And when they tell you that they mean it.


  1. great post. Of course, anyone living in Belo Horizonte like me, will tell you that BH is the capital of the bars and botecos, not Rio. As evidence, may I point out that the picture of "Bar do Caixote" is a bar in BH and not in Rio? In any case, the bar culture is definitely a big part of Rio and must be experienced to get any sense of the "real Rio".

  2. Thanks, Corrine. I've heard that BH is a great bar town, and it's on my itinerary for later this year. I'm looking forward to Mineiro culture and Mineiro cuisine. I'll have to check out Bar do Caixote while I'm there - I found the picture online and it wasn't identified by location. I thought it exemplified what a pé-sujo boteco should look like.