A Night with the Russian Mafia in Lisbon

As we finished a late dinner at a cave-like restaurant in the center of Lisbon, we asked the owner to recommend a bar for a night cap.  Even though we were exhausted from an early morning flight and a full day of sightseeing, it was Saturday night.  We had to check out the local night life and visit a Lisbon bar, right?

Bar in Lisbon

The owner gave us the name of a place and then called a taxi.  Just as the cab pulled up, a waiter informed us that the bar was actually within walking distance.  Nonetheless, the owner and the taxi driver insisted that we take the taxi since it was already there (allegedly we had to pay for it regardless of whether we used it – I think the owner just wanted a kickback from the driver!).  Speaking no Portuguese and not having any luck arguing in Spanish, we gave in.  Amy, Brooke, Mark and I piled into the tiny taxi while Gary and Ryan opted to walk.

A few minutes later, we pulled up to a nondescript building with a dark red door.  We couldn’t spot a sign with the name of the bar, so we were a little skeptical, but the cab driver insisted that we get out.  As we stood outside waiting for Ryan and Gary, we quickly realized that this was not any regular bar.  Every few minutes, a well-dressed couple or group of men approached the door, rang a doorbell and, after speaking with someone hidden on the other side, quickly and quietly entered the bar. Each time, they pulled the door closed tightly behind them. We tried to ring the bell ourselves, but to no avail. Trying to simply pull the door open was fruitless as it was locked. Eventually, we saw our opportunity as a couple entered but neglected to close the door completely.

weird Russian mafia bar in Lisbon

As we tentatively stepped through the red door, a table full of mustachioed old men turned and looked at us in unison, as if to say “who the hell are you and what are you doing here?”  We shot nervous glances at each other, unsure of what to do or where to go.  The bar itself was surreal.  Mirrors and gold adorned the dark walls and creepy, black-faced dolls were perched high on ledges all around us.  On a wall to our left, we spotted a sign with the emblem of the Russian Federation.  The crowd looked more Russian mafia than Portuguese.  We immediately wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.

Russian flag

After what felt like an eternity of stares, a harsh-looking man in his sixties approached us.  We inquired about a table, only to be informed:

“No.  Reserved.”

We didn’t believe that in the least, but we really couldn’t argue.  We spotted a few small chairs and a very short, small table in a nook by the window, and practically begged to be allowed to sit there.  The man begrudgingly agreed and we squeezed ourselves into chairs that seemed to be sized for fifth graders, knocking our knees against the miniature table.  Uncomfortable, but at least we were sitting!  Actually getting a menu and drinks? That would take another twenty minutes.

Inside the Russian mafi bar

In the meantime, I went to find a restroom.  I slowly walked through the main part of the bar, feeling the heat of all eyes being glued to me as I passed table after table.  Not seeing any signs for the restrooms, I spotted a hallway that seemed like in might lead in the right direction.  Instead, a large burly, bearded man stepped in front of me, putting his arm up on the wall to block the way!  He informed me in broken English that I couldn’t pass and he ignored my attempt to ask about a toilet.  Apparently, I would have to do my best not to break the seal!

I returned from my failed mission to find that Gary and Ryan still had not appeared.  We were perched by the window, so we figured we would see them arrive, but we also weren’t sure that they would be able to get in.  Finally, we thought we spotted them walking by, so I ran to the door to get them – only to find that I couldn’t open the door to the bar.  We were locked in.

I nervously fiddled with the door, hoping the gruff man from before wouldn’t appear to scold me.  Suddenly, a much younger, slightly chubby man in a stiff white shirt, red vest and colorful bow tie appeared and asked what I was doing.  With some hesitance, I told him I was looking for my friends, who we thought we spotted outside. To my surprise, the man promptly unlocked the door, poked his head outside and bellowed loudly –

“Frrrieeends!  Frrrieeends!”

With no Gary or Ryan in sight, he asked me their names and then sang out even louder –

“Gaaaaarrrryyyy!”  “Ryyyyyyaaaaan!”

There was still no sign of them as we closed the door and headed back inside, me personally feeling somewhat comforted by the fact that I at least made a new friend.

Amy and our waiter

Gary and Ryan eventually found us (needless to say, they got a bit lost while trying to find the bar!).  With their arrival, we had completely outgrown our miniscule seating nook, but with a friendly waiter now on our side, we were able to move to an actual adult-sized table and leather booth that mysteriously was no longer reserved.  Then came the absinthe.

Absinthe is an alcohol so lethal that it was banned in the United States until 2007.  The menu at the bar not only listed absinthe, but about 10 different variations of the potent drink!  After a lengthy debate with our friendly waiter (choosing between the numerous ways to drink absinthe was a big decision!), Ryan and Mark each settled on a glass on the rocks.  I took the tiniest of sips and nearly spit it out but the guys managed to finish not one, but two glasses!  It wasn’t long before Mark was complaining that the mirrors on the wall were moving and Ryan said he felt like he’d done 10 shots of vodka.


Before things could go too much further downhill, we noticed the rest of the bar patrons were slowly filing out – and of course, staring at us as they departed.  Whatever this bar was, it was abundantly clear that foreigners like us did not frequent it.  As we finished our drinks and gathered our things to go, the host who initially greeted us with such disdain appeared to tell us to leave just as harshly.  We headed back out the red door, this time already unlocked for us, our night in the Russia mafia bar coming to an end.  It wasn’t exactly the Lisbon nightlife we anticipated, but it was certainly interesting!

6 thoughts on “A Night with the Russian Mafia in Lisbon”

  1. You went to the Chinese Pavillion… An old bar, with an old clientele. The speciality are the teas. You should do your homework before going out in a city you don’t know. God forbid I get lost in a dodgy bar in NYC! By the way, guns are illegal in Portugal, I think they are far more lethal than Absynth. Do you know that one of the most famous night clubs in Europe is situated on the riverside, in Lisbon, and it’s owners are John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve? You should’ve gone there 🙂

    1. Thanks Vera. I was only in Lisbon 2 nights and with a large group of friends – we had dinner at a place that was highly recommended and then asked the owners there for ideas on where to go next.

  2. You would make a good writer, for sure 🙂 making a worm to look like a seven head dragon!

    The place you went it’s called “Chinese Pavillion” and it is a cocktail bar.

    Yes, it’s a bit weird but it is surely not a Russian Mafia hangout 😉

    Two minutes down the street and you’d find 300 bars 🙂
    Next time!

    Bad luck with the cab btw… :\


  3. What a bizarre experience. In my neighborhood in Toronto there is a Russian restaurant that has been there for years but always closed. A friend once found the door open and walked in only to be told curtly that it was not open for him…

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