Restaurants that become beloved local institutions aren't always the most luxurious, the most creative or the most expensive restaurants in town. In fact, they're likely to be exactly the opposite - comfortable and homey rather than luxurious, traditional and non-changing rather than creative and avant-garde, and a bargain rather than expensive. These are the restaurants that stay open for 30-40 year or more, often without ownership changing hands. These are the restaurants that locals began frequenting as children with their parents and now continue to frequent with their grandchildren. These are the restaurants that neighbors point to with pride and say, "I've known the owner of that restaurant for twenty-five years and I've never come here and not seen her (or him)".
In Fortaleza, Flavors of Brazil;s hometown, most people would tell you that Dona Zena, a small lunchtime-only restaurant located downtown, is exactly that kind of institution. Since Dona Zena opened more than 20 years ago, in a distinctly down-market street located between the commercial and university districts in the center of Fortaleza, the restaurant has filled to the rafters daily with diners eager to eat one of Dona Zena's PF's (PF = prato feito = blue plate special) or if it's a Friday or Saturday, her feijoada, generally conceded in Fortaleza to be among the city's best.
Owned, managed and operated by a 65-year old woman named (as you might guess) Dona Zena, the restaurant has recently begun to be noticed outside the neighborhood and indeed outside Fortaleza. In the 2012 edition of Comida di Buteco, a Brazil-wide celebration of boteco culture, one of Dona Zena's signature dishes, her meatballs, was voted the best dish in Fortaleza, beating out candidates from more than 15 other boteco-style restaurants. The same dish was featured on a national daytime TV show, Mais Você, hosted by Ana Maria Braga, Brazil's nearest equivalent to Martha Stewart. Dona Zena herself was flown to Rio de Janeiro to appear on Mais Você, where she shared her recipe with TV viewers from across the country.
Her new-found fame hasn't changed Dona Zena - the restaurant or the person. The restaurant's menu is unchanged, the prices are unchanged, and the loyalty of its customers is unchanged. As for Dona Zena herself, she's unchanged too. In a recent interview in one of Fortaleza's daily newspapers O Povo, Dona Zena talked about the difficult times of her childhood, the hard work that went into the creation and operation of her restaurant, and about her three loves - her family, her restaurant and her customers.
Tomorrow, we'll publish some highlights from that interview.