Tucked away in the middle of the street on Rua das Laranjeiras in Lisbon, Portugal, is the Soul Food Restaurant by Felicia. You can almost miss this hidden gem that is centrally located in a thriving residential and commercial district, adjacent to major intersections, and close to principal tourist attractions, including hotels, eateries, boutique shops, the Lisbon Zoo, major area attractions and various historical sites.
Furthermore, the restaurant benefits from being near most of central Lisbon’s primary transportation routes. In fact, Lisbon International Airport is only a 16-minute ride away on the Laranjeiras/Sete-Rios metro line.
Since opening in April 2022, Soul Food Restaurant by Felicia has become an undisputable part of Rua das Laranjeiras. A family-owned business in every sense of the word, the restaurant is a lifelong dream of Feliciana de Ceita Neto de Lima —known as Felicia by friends —after migrating to Lisbon from São Tomé, a Portuguese-speaking island country located off the western equatorial coast of Central Africa in the Gulf of Guinea.
Early Years in Lisbon
Arriving in 1989 to visit her husband, who was already working in the Portugal capital as a truck driver, Neto de Lima found that she liked the city. Unknowingly, she returned to São Tomé pregnant with her fifth child and permanently returned to Lisbon with seven-month-old Joselino Neto Lima de Barros in 1990. Eventually, she brought all the kids to Portugal, first the girls and later the older boys.
Neto de Lima soon began working in different Lisbon restaurants helping to prep ingredients. She peeled potatoes and vegetables, cleaned fresh fish, cut meats, etc. In the early years, the hard-working mother of six worked in airport catering and different dining facilities, where she learned Portuguese cuisine and how to make Brazilian and Latin dishes.
When she started working for a traditional Portuguese restaurant, the manager taught her how to cook the food herself and subsequently promoted her to prepare the dishes alone. She stayed there for the next 20 years.
“Cooking had always been a labor of love for me,” says Neto de Lima, dating back to her childhood years in São Tomé, where she learned from her grandmother, mother, and aunts how to prepare traditional African dishes.
She recalls being as young as six when she learned to cook. “In our culture, young girls learn to cook early, to be able to take care of younger brothers while adults work.” She continues, “I lived in a family community where there were some houses united by a common backyard. They didn’t use a stove; they cooked with firewood in the yard. When the adults finished cooking, the youngest kids would then cook with the remaining leftover embers and ingredients given to them by their elders.”
Raising and Educating the Children
Throughout her tenure at the Portuguese restaurant, Neto de Lima always dreamed of owning a restaurant. However, ensuring her children completed their education came first. “Having been forced to quit school to sell food, vegetables and fruit at the market and do housework at home, including washing clothes in the river, is why I wanted to help my children attain their education,” says the mother of six, who had to leave school in the sixth grade to help support her family.
Neto de Lima worked day and night, even selling her vacations for several years to provide her children with every significant opportunity that she didn’t have and wasn’t able to achieve. Today, all of her children are thriving and doing well. Her oldest son, Doka Barros, lives with his family in Colombo, Portugal, where he works as a supermarket manager; Allteryo Barros, the second oldest son, resides in London with his family and works as a cooling engineer; her daughter, Dr. Cineyde Barros, is a family health physician in Lisbon.
- Cultural Curator Mikas Builds a Renaissance Legacy in Lisbon
- Hernâni Miguel Creates a Place for Culture, Music and Food at Lisbon’s Tabernáculo
Paula Barros is the fourth child who also resides in London, where she works as an architect. Joselino Barros is the fifth child and is jokingly known among the family to be the “penultimate child,” attended communications and electronics trade school and worked in internet and cable TV installation and repair before transitioning to planning and marketing promotions.
Finally, the sixth and youngest child is Jose Barros, studied economics at the University of Lisbon.
Beginning a New Chapter
Around 2015, Neto de Lima began a new chapter in her culinary journey when she resigned from her former employer of 20 years due to a change in management. When the new management started to implement rules that she was not comfortable with, she left and went to work in a few other places but, after some months, decided not to continue working for others.
She felt that the time had come to open her restaurant. Opening a family restaurant was furthermore supported by the aspirations of her sons Joselino and Jose, who also wanted to be restaurateurs.
Feeling that working for others wouldn’t allow him to achieve all his potential and believing that the dream of owning a restaurant business with his mother had all the potential to succeed, Joselino decided to embrace the decision of opening a restaurant with his mom.
After traveling all over Portugal while working in the telecommunication sector and eating out a great deal, Joselino says, “I knew that a restaurant consisting of my mom’s cooking was a superb idea.” Both he and his brother Jose had spent plenty of time dining out together while tasting, rating and eating foods in different restaurants. “Comparing these dining experiences with our mom’s cooking made us confident that we had a winning product, which was also encouraged by the feedback of family and friends.”
However, Neto de Lima desired more global exposure to the culinary world before opening her restaurant. So, along with her daughter Cineyde, she traveled abroad to learn about diverse international cuisines. Among the countries the two visited were France, Italy, Switzerland, London, Turkey, Spain, Brazil and Bulgaria.
As Neto de Lima did not speak English, Cineyde would select the restaurants for dining, ask questions, and translate with chefs and restaurant owners on behalf of her mother. According to Cineyde, “It was hard to find restaurants that my mother liked because she is so critical. She would rate the restaurant, taste the food and say it’s missing this spice, or it needs that ingredient.” Neto de Lima’s eyes opened to the world and diverse foods throughout these travels.
Finding a Location
Around 2017, the siblings gathered and unanimously agreed that the time had come for them to come together and support their mother’s dream in some form or fashion. They all knew the quality of the food she cooked couldn’t be disputed.
Finding a location, however, became another journey. Cineyde says, “Our mother spent days and nights searching through internet ads for almost three years looking for a location.” Along with Joselino and Jose, they visited countless commercial sites that proved to be dead ends.
A contract was almost signed for one restaurant in less than desirable conditions at a location far from the city center, but fortunately, the signing was forced to cease when the pandemic started, and the government closed all restaurants. “So, we stopped our search until the end of COVID,” says Joselino.
According to Jose, “Our mother found the current location once we resumed our search here in the Laranjeiras area under the commercial listings on the internet.” “Minor renovations and decorations were made only to the eating area, as the kitchen did not require any changes.”
What makes the current location so appealing is that aside from its city center proximity and the neighborhood appeal, Neto de Lima can easily walk from home to the restaurant since she does not drive.
Given the long hours the restaurant stays open, its proximity helps mitigate the demanding working hours, especially because Neto de Lima is the sole chef. “I never get tired of cooking, as it’s my passion. What keeps me going is the feedback I receive from my clients and guests. If they love my meals, then I’m happy,” she says.
Deciding the Business Name
It was Neto de Lima who proposed the restaurant’s name by using the Portuguese translation “comida com alma,” which means “food with soul.” Jose shares, “In the Portuguese culture, this represents how Felicia commits herself in the kitchen by giving 100%. It’s the way she does things with all her heart and passion.”
She wanted to put that name in Portuguese and Joselino wanted to include it in English while adding his mother’s name – Felicia.
They all laugh when they say their mother still says “comida com alma,” because saying soul food in English is difficult for her. Soul Food Restaurant by Felicia serves Portuguese and African cuisine that tastes like mama’s home cooking with an epicurean flair. The menu encompasses a full range of choices, including hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, salads and main courses consisting of fish and various meat dishes, along with desserts and mixed drinks.
Realizing a Dream
The restaurant has been continuingly growing since opening its doors less than a year ago. Aside from gaining increased business from tourists, commercial and residential traffic within the neighborhood, it is becoming a weekly family dining spot as well as a luncheon favorite among businesspeople.
Having outdoor seating capacity for eating and drinking is another restaurant advantage. Recently, they have added happy hour time for drinks and are now receiving reservations to close the venue for private events. Although the biggest challenge is to find consistent help in the kitchen, Neto de Lima says she would love to open a second location in five years and have space for a cooking school in Portuguese and African cuisine.
She aspires to give people with culinary degrees who lack practical experience internship opportunities to help young chefs in their careers. Her advice to younger people aspiring to be chefs or dream of having their own restaurant is to never give up. “Always believe in your dreams. A dream is not necessarily easy, which is why it is called a dream, but you should never give up on that dream.”
Soul Food Restaurant by Felicia is located at Rua Das Laranjeiras 35 loja A, 1600-140 and is open Monday, Wednesday – Sunday 12:00 noon – 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. – 3:00 a.m. They are closed on Tuesdays.