How Ferreira Café soared to the top of Montreal’s flourishing Portuguese food scene

Ferreira Café continues to bring in a lot of its seafood from Portugal Credit: Ferreira Café

Ferreira Café, the crown jewel in Montreal’s Portuguese food scene, opened in 1996—but nowhere near the traditional Portuguese neighbourhood on the Plateau.

Ferreira Café owners Claudia, Carlos, and Sandra Ferreira (from left to right) standing in front of their restaurant in Montreal.

Claudia, Carlos, and Sandra Ferreira (from left to right) spearhead Montreal Portuguese icon Ferreira Café.
Credit: Caroline Perron Photography

Owner Carlos Ferreira settled on Golden Square Mile in downtown Montreal. He hoped an upscale Portuguese restaurant could carve a name for itself in a domain almost exclusively reserved for French and Italian establishments. 

“He had two dreams in one, and it was to open a Portuguese ‘embassy,’ as well as one of the best restaurants in Montreal,” says Sandra Ferreira, Carlos’s daughter and the general director of the Ferreira Group (which also runs Café Vasco da Gama and Campo).

Fast forward 27 years, and it’s mission accomplished. Ferreira Café has drawn glowing reviews (including an award for excellence from Wine Spectator magazine). Plus, Portugal’s prime minister awarded Carlos Ferreira a medal of honour for promoting Portuguese culture in Canada. Read on to learn about how Ferreira Café became a local icon.

Humble beginnings

Carlos left a career as a welder in Portugal and moved to Montreal in the early 1970s. He got his start in restaurants washing dishes at the airport before moving on to deliver bread for iconic brasserie and bakery Chez Gautier. That lit a spark for a career in hospitality, and he continued moving up in the industry and saving money until he could open his own restaurant.

Spotlighting Portuguese ingredients

Carlos was eager to share foods from home with Montrealers, and that led to the opening of Ferreira Café in 1996. Right from the get go, showcasing top-quality foods from Portugal was central to the restaurant. “Portuguese cuisine is very focused on the freshness of the ingredients,” Sandra says. “It’s all about putting that line-caught sea bass on the plate, and it will be served simply with olive oil.” 

Sardines remain a favorite at Ferreira Café along with line-caught cod from Portugal and more local ingredients such as scallops from New Brunswick. No corners are cut in the cooking process: The creamy, flaky pasteis de nata (custard tarts) take 48 hours to make. 

Carlos was also a pioneer of importing Portuguese wines such as bright vinho verde and tannic tinta roriz (tempranillo) to Montreal. At one point, the restaurant reportedly had one of the largest collections of port wine in North America. The Ferreiras now make their own wine and olive oil in Portugal that’s served at the restaurant.

A metal tray with a whole fish surrounded by sliced potatoes at Montreal restaurant Ferreira Café.

Seafood dishes such as this daily catch are a highlight at Ferreira Café.
Credit: Ferreira Café

Expanding horizons

A long table with diners seated on both sides at Montreal restaurant Ferreira Café.

Diners return to Ferreira Café for the exceptional Portuguese food and its stellar ambiance.
Credit: Ferreira Café

Ferreira Café’s fare is unabashedly Portuguese—and diners keep returning for it. But they’re also excited by executive chef Natalia Machado’s ability to break from tradition. The restaurant’s most iconic dish is black cod with wild mushrooms in a port sauce reduction.

“This would not be a typical dish in Portugal,” Sandra says. “It’s not at all what you eat at your aunt’s or your grandmother’s. It’s more of a culinary twist.” 

That approach has been a hit at the other restaurants opened by the Ferreiras. Café Vasco da Gama nearby is a market-style lunch spot for the downtown crowd that makes a mean duck confit and fig sandwich. Portuguese chicken spot Campo mixes up Quebec and Portugal influences in its poutine, swapping cheese curds with unctuous São Jorge cheese and the addition of spicy chouriço sausage.

Keeping its beloved status strong

As much as diners return for a taste of Portugal, Ferreira Café’s warm hospitality has also kept Montrealers hooked. That warmth propelled Sandra to join her father ten years ago. Many restaurant staffers have been there for decades, and the Ferreiras are eager to keep it that way and continue serving some of the city’s best Portuguese food.

“I decided to come as the second generation to really fulfill a mission of longevity and keeping the business alive,” Sandra says. “Ultimately, it’s really a family thing.”

An assortment of liquor bottles on a shelf in front of a tiled wall with images of houses painted on the tiles at Montreal restaurant Ferreira Café.

Charming Portuguese-style tilework is a hallmark of the decor at Ferreira Café’s.
Credit: Ferreira Café

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Tim Forster is a freelance writer and editor focusing on food, culture and technology.