Mercado Negro brings modern Portuguese dining to Toronto. Every aspect of this restaurant is alluring—from the decor and presentation of each dish to the details in between.
The restaurant is owned by Carlos Oliveira who was born in Aveiro and his wife, Luísa, who is originally from Mealhada, Coimbra. With them they brought over a love for the delicious flavours of their homeland. When making the decision to become restauranteurs, they chose St. Clair West as the location for this unconventional Portuguese space. Carlos has spent most of his life working in restaurants that serve the Portuguese community so opening a restaurant for them made sense. “I have always loved and defended my origins. Our livelihood was built in the Portuguese community—they have always been my clients, these are the people I served. They are my people and for me, it was important to continue being Portuguese—to be even more Portuguese. “
Their determination to stay connected to their roots, combined with ideas and flavours yet to be explored on this side of the Atlantic have made this concept a successful reality.
Although Mercado Negro is a Portuguese restaurant, there is a prominent Cuban influence. The couple have spent an immense amount of time dining with local friends in Havana, which is where their fascination with the tapas experience stems from. This dining format allows a group of diners to collectively experience a variety of what the kitchen has to offer.
“We started liking the tapas idea a lot, because it’s a great way to keep everyone at the table engaged. There’s no time for phones. People are tasting each other’s portions and having conversations. During our last vacation in Havana, the concept made us think—we like to cook, maybe it’s time to start a new chapter? This was one of those moments when ‘fate conspired.’ So far, this fusion of Portugal has been very well received by everyone who has visited Mercado Negro.”
“We had gone to Portugal and these little tapas places were opening everywhere—small, with a very vintage and homemade feel. I felt connected. Here in Toronto I was thinking that the opposite happened, there was a disconnect—no interesting Portuguese music, nothing that would comfort our soul. I wanted to create something that greeted people warmly and somehow would make the guest feel connected.” They have been very successful in accomplishing this—the walls, lamps, dishes, service, and food all contribute to an atmosphere that echoes home. Connected, cozy and most importantly, at home.
“Our clientele is different than the community’s norm—very young and fun—they stay longer. To me, this means that we are achieving our goals. Everyone who visits us feels comfortable and enjoys the moment,” shares Carlos.
Carlos is also very quick to point out that the success ofMercado Negro lies with his staff, which includes their son Guilherme and daughter Gabriella. The leader of the kitchen team is Chef Filipe, from the island of Madeira. Filipe spent six years at the Chiado, a well-known Portuguese restaurant, where he started as a dish-washer, but he quickly realized that he really wanted to learn how to cook. At Mercado Negro he and his team are given the freedom to create and he takes on this task with very high standards—his own— “I am very demanding and particular, so I try to cook as if it was for me”.
The attention to detail, like the jars filled with dried beans on the counter reminiscent of old Portuguese markets, gives the space a very authentic feel. Everything is done for a reason, including the name. Mercado Negro (Black Market) is a name that leaves some Portuguese shocked because it reminds them of the infamous Portuguese slave trade and many (rightfully) have a heavy conscience. To others the name sparks curiosity. There is however, a simple explanation for the name; similar to a black market, Mercado Negro is a place where you will find things that you normally won’t encounter in other places.
When dining at Mercado Negro you will see a “flock” of ceramic andorinhas (swallows) on the wall—these have a very special meaning. “The andorinhas are immigrants like us,” explains Carlos. “In Portugal, when children went off to start lives in other lands, people put the andorinhas in front of their homes. They are a symbol of family and home. The andorinha always comes home in spring. We love Canada, it’s fantastic. We choose to live our lives here and this is home, but as soon as we land in Porto or Lisbon, there is a special emotional connection that happens inside.”
To us, the andorinhas also symbolize the return to Mercado Negro for another fantastic dining experience.