Breakfast meetings are generally viewed as a barbaric invention ruining the slow start of a civilized day but they will be accepted in companies used to working with North American partners.
Dinner is for entertainment, celebration or the family rather than for business discussion. You should not target dinner for negotiating a deal. If you’re over from abroad, Portuguese hospitality means that your contacts will almost certainly invite you out to dinner and usually expect for you just to enjoy yourselves rather than work for your meal. Dinner is usually at about 8pm and is unlikely to finish before 11pm.
Lunch is the key business event: I would estimate that most deals are made at lunch.
Lunch is usually at 1pm.
Allow plenty of time for lunch (1 hour is a snack, an hour-and-a-half is normal, two or more hours is for important business).
The idea for lunch is to get to know your business partner as a person. Unless it is unavoidable you should only talk business towards the end of the meal when the coffee arrives. If you need to pack in more business conversation, suggest meeting at the office for half an hour or so before going on to lunch (rather than afterwards). Conversation during the meal can be very wide ranging and personal.
Wine is often drunk – virtually always at dinner – although more and more business people drink water at lunch. For a longer “serious” meal then wine is normal. Drinking spirits (e.g. whisky) with the food is thought to be very weird but beer is fine.
Vegetarianism is still a fairly new idea in Portugal but in Lisbon at least there is a reasonable choice of rather good veggie restaurants and many normal restaurants are waking up to the idea that a bit of grated carrot, lettuce and cheese is not a real vegetarian dish. Special diets such as Kosher or Halal, are practically impossible but these things are changing fast.
Food and wines
Portuguese food is good and generally simply cooked. On coastal areas such as Lisbon, the fish is excellent and fresh. Take care with the salted codfish (Bacalhau). This can be cooked in literally hundreds of ways, many delicious, but the simplest and most traditional give you a lump of boiled or steamed very strong tasting salty fish. Otherwise they have good beef, pork, chicken, kid and lamb.
There are some outstanding wines, especially red. Ask your host or the waiter for advice. The well known Portuguese wine brands you see at home in the supermarket are virtually never drunk by the Portuguese because they only tend to export cheap wines. Of course Port wine is world-beating. Dry white port can be drunk as an aperitif and red (including vintage) as a digestive but the Portuguese themselves tend to prefer whisky or brandy.
Coffee here is excellent – I believe the best in Europe. The standard coffee is a small black espresso type and if you just ask for a coffee, that is what you’ll get. However, any restaurant or café will happily produce just about any other type (there’s a bewildering long list of names, none of which would be understood in a Starbucks, nor vice versa ), if you just explain how you want it.
Other cuisines are represented but generally only in the cities and very rarely with the quality you would expect in, say, New York or London. The assumption is that Portugal has its own gastronomic culture and so you come to eat great Portuguese food.
Having said that, the ubiquitous US fast food chains extend around the country, so if you’re desperate for a Big Mac, KFC, Ben & Jerry’s, or pizza, don’t panic. Italian, Chinese and Japanese are also pretty widespread if not always too authentic. Not all your favorite brands will be available but at least you can hit the craving with a dose of familiar food.
Home and family
The Portuguese only occasionally have dinner parties at home and do not routinely take business guests into their homes. If you are invited home to meet the family, take this as a great compliment and sign of respect and a certain intimacy.
As mentioned in the gifts section, you might try to get a gift for any children – even a token like some chocolates or candies. You are likely to meet the children and even fairly young children may dine with the adults. Physical demonstrations of affection and appropriate touching of children are normal, even from perfect strangers. This an affectionate culture, in moderation.
Inviting and paying
It is normal to invite a business contact for a meal. Dinner is more social or intimate than lunch. If you do invite your Portuguese contacts out, ask them to choose the restaurant, although you can specify any preferences (typically Portuguese, seafood, with a view, downtown, whatever). Most hotel restaurants (with one or two wonderful exceptions), are rather blandly international and so are not recommended if you want to cement cultural ties.
The Portuguese will usually try to pay for a foreign guest’s meal as part of the culture of hospitality. If you wish to pay, just make it clear you’re inviting and get the waiter to bring you the check. Take care with this as the waiter will usually assume that the Portuguese “host” will want the check. When you want the check call his or her attention with the standard “writing in the air” sign.
If you want something, it is perfectly OK to signal to a waiter yourself and ask for whatever is missing.
Service charges are not included in the check. You should tip but don’t exaggerate – 10% is very generous. If you need the check for expenses, make sure you ask for a proper receipt (factura), as otherwise you may just be given the till receipt.
Most restaurants take credit and debit cards but check for the signs on going in and beware that American Express and Diners are not nearly so widely accepted as VISA. Chip & Pin is widespread and has been for two decades.
Colleagues (i.e. where you’re at the same hierarchical level and not on a formal supplier/customer relationship), will often split the check and “go Dutch”. (In Portuguese fazer uma vaquinha – literally “making a little cow”. A prize goes to anyone who can tell me why).
You may be invited to go on to a bar or club afterwards. If you’re male, tactfully check what kind of club, as you might not want to go to a place with “hostesses”.
If you’re invited to a Fado restaurant, where the traditional fado music is performed, beware that, while ethnically fascinating, they’re not good for extensive conversation as it is considered profoundly rude to talk while the singing is going on.
There are some pretty good blues, rock, dance and jazz places around but I have not come across any decent country & western spots.