In my experience, the majority of restaurants in Brazil are of the “kilo” variety i.e. they are self-service and they sell the food by the kilo[gram]. This brings with it an entirely different restaurant experience, which becomes a familiar routine when you live here but is very different to the predominantly ‘a la carte’ (or at least table-service) experience in the UK. I imagine that the popularity of kilo restaurants began with them providing a cheap, quick and convenient way to have your lunch during the working week – a sandwich-drink-crisps meal-deal from Marks & Spencer would not cut it in Brazil! However, many ‘kilo’ restaurants operate at the weekend, when speed and convenience is not so important, and it is quite common to find relatively high-end kilo restaurants serving customers who are not there because they need to save money.
To describe the process, I recently took photos on a Saturday lunchtime visit to one of my favourite ‘Kilos’ in Belo Horizonte: “K-Bab” (a name which hints at the Middle-Eastern lean to the food but which in the UK would make you think of plastic chairs and rotating dog-meat). The manager eventually questioned why I was taking so many photos of his restaurant/staff so I explained and told him he would get an advert in my blog!
This post is not so much about the food but more the process of eating at a kilo restaurant in Brazil. But I will mention a bit about what’s typically on offer. As I say, this one has Middle-Eastern dishes (Brazil has a large population of Lebanese descent and you regularly see their influence – read an early post of mine) but the food is still generally quite Brazilian or ‘Mineiro’ (from Minas Gerais state).
So here are the steps:
1) Pick up your ‘Comanda’
The first step is to pick up your personal slip of paper onto which the staff note what you eat and drink. There is normally somebody at the door giving these out as you arrive. In this case, they come in a posh leather holder but it’s normally just a piece of paper.
2) Choose your table.
If you’re in a group, it’s common to chose a table and then take it in turns to go to choose your food. Depending on the restaurant and if your waiter is on the ball, they will take your drinks order before you start choosing food.
3) Take a plate and start choosing! (don’t forget your ‘comanda’)
Self-service is the way forward and the food is normally arranged by type into different areas. So, there’s nothing stopping you. Pile your plate as high as you like – but remember, you pay for the weight! Sometimes the restaurants will offer a reduced charge if you are only eating salads or if you are not eating meat, but normally its a flat-rate. This photo caught a quiet moment but normally there are several people swarmed around the self-service area – especially the rice and beans section!
K-bab has some delicious Middle-Eastern mezze as you can see here, in order from nearest the camera: ‘kibe-cru’ (raw beef and wheat – fantastic with a squeeze of lime), humous, toum (garlic spread), tabouleh and various other Mediterranean salads. Yum!
If you’re greedy like me then these, and some lebanese bread, warrant a plate-full of their own as a ‘starter’. You can return as many times as you like to get more plates of food but each time you do, you need to go to the….
You can’t have a kilo restaurant without a ‘balança’ (weighing scale). You place your loaded plate onto it and hand over your comanda for the weight and sometimes the cost to be noted. At this point you normally also collect your cutlery and sometime you order a drink at this point too.
If you look carefully here, you can see that my 370gram starter is costing me R$17.35 (approx £5 or US$9) at the restaurant’s flat rate of R$46.90 per kilo. There are plenty of kilo restaurants costing R$20 or R$30 per kilo which offer less choice, lower quality and/or more simple eating areas. They will normally advertise the rate at the entrance.
Back at your table, your drink will soon arrive and you can start eating. Here’s my fresh pineapple juice with mint.
To give you an idea about some of the other foods that you will typically find in a ‘kilo’ here are some more pictures of the selection that day:
Every kilo restaurant in Brazil will have at least one type of beans and rice on offer. In the picture below you have ‘feijão preto’ black beans (on the right), ‘feijão tropeiro’ (a very ‘Mineiro’ and caloric dish comprising beans, manioc flour, pork-scratchings, sausage, onions etc), plain rice and rice/lentils (Lebanese).
After your rice and beans, comes your meat. Normally you have a selection of pre-cooked meats and fish which have been grilled or stewed in various ways.
At some kilo restaurants, you also have the option of freshly-cooked meats straight from the ‘churasco’ (BBQ). Here the ‘churrasqueiros’ wait for you to tell them what type of meat you would like – ‘picanha’ (sirloin), ‘alcatra’ (rump), ‘lombo’ (pork loin) or ‘linguiça’ (sausage) are common choices. They then pull a skewer out from the churasco and carve a piece (or several!) according to how well-cooked you like it……OK i’m dribbling on my keyboard now.
The other type of Brazilian restaurant, which seems to be being exported to London and other cities of the world, is the ‘Rodizio’. In this case, you pay a set price to eat as much as you like, and the waiters bring certain foods on rotation (‘roda’ – the root of the name). The classic Rodizio has waiters circulating with different skewers of meat and carving at the table of anybody who wants that particular type.
So here is my second plate when I went back for some picanha beef, rice and some ‘biquinho’ chilies.
Brazilian food also has lots of Italian influence so most kilo restaurants will have a pasta dish or two as you can see below. In my experience, Italian food here has been ‘Brazilian-ised’ (its a few generations since the major Italian immigration wave – see my earlier post), taking on local flavours and culinary preferences, and lacks some of the simplicity of classic Italian cookery.
5) Time for ‘sobremesa’
Once you’ve eaten as much meat and savoury food as you want, its time to see if you have any space for a sobremesa. I dont think puddings/desserts have the same importance in Brazilian restaurants as in the UK or restaurants of France and Italy. There’s normally one or two options of set puddings such as creme caramel, or the picture below shows a passion-fruit flavoured pudding of this sort. The other common option for sobremesa in restaurants and at home is ‘dolce de leite’ – a very sweet brown caramel-flavoured paste made of highly condensed milk. You can see a white pot containing some on the left of this photo. It is often served with (or sometimes contains) candied peel of various fruits. Otherwise there is fresh fruit (see next picture) or ‘goibada’ – a sort of marmelade made of condensed guava fruit (see the pot containing a dark red paste behind the dolce de leite) – served liked quince jelly with cheese.
6) Time to pay
So you’ve eaten and drunk until your heart’s content and are ready to head home for a sleep, or maybe back to the office. First of all you need to settle the bill, but this is simple at a kilo restaurant. Everybody has their own comanda showing what they had to eat and drink so at this point you can either pay just your own, or you can pay together. Here is my comanda with my mezze course, my meat and rice (210grams – another R$9.85) and my one drink. There is also spaces for sobremesa (a different charge-rate), beer, soft-drinks, water and ‘others’.
7) Cafezinho on your way out
Sometimes coffee can be ordered and drunk at the table (filter coffee normally or espresso-based varieties) but the normal thing is to grab a tiny plastic cup of coffee ‘cafezinho’ on your way out of the door. Here is a typical coffee stand with thermos-flasks of filter coffee (and mint tea). There is always sugar, sweetener liquid and often chunks of raw cane sugar available. If like me you don’t take any of these, you can expect to be looked at like an alien. In general, Brazilians drink their coffee small, weak and sweet.
8) Hand back your comanda
Last of all, and in order to be let out of the restaurant, you need to hand over your comanda which will have been stamped to show you have paid the bill. If you have lost it, you are liable for a big charge. You can actually share a comanda between a couple or family and put all your food and drinks on one, but you are still expected to show one for each person leaving the restaurant, even if they are blank.
The system of using a comanda and paying for everything you consume all-together is very common in Brazil and is also normally used in bars and clubs. It means that cash-payments can be centralised at one secure location – normally behind a glass security screen – rather than cash being handled and stored behind a bar. It has the added benefit of speeding up the delivery of drinks in bars and makes buying someone else (or a round) of drinks as easy as handing over your comanda to the waiter.
I mentioned earlier that even some relatively-expensive restaurants, with very nice eating environments and atmospheres use the ‘kilo’ system. This is true – the system is very widespread and popular – but it’s not every restaurant. The most expensive ones, and any which are serving foreign cuisines or aiming for the top of the market, will use a traditional table-service system. And you pay more accordingly.
I do like kilo restaurants a lot. They often provide high-quality food and are excellent value so you can have a relaxed meal among friends or family without spending much (my meal and drink above was about R$35 or £10/US$17). However, you do lose some of what makes going to a restaurant such a nice experience. The difficulty of deciding which dish you want. The anticipation of waiting to see if it looks and tastes how you hoped. And possibly more than anything; the social experience of eating your courses of food over a long period of time with gaps to socialise, digest your last course and look forward to the next one. You don’t get this at a kilo restaurant. The whole meal can be over within an hour – great for lunch breaks! I think that Brazilian’s are cautious eaters and don’t necessarily want to chose from a menu – they like to see what they are going to eat. Often, going to a kilo restaurant is just a functional eating event – especially for lunch-hour office workers – providing (hopefully) the same quality and types of food as your mum cooks at home, but with less effort. This is less true for groups/families at the weekend but I still think that a lot of Brazilians are missing out on the pleasures of a ‘true’ restaurant experience.