Are the ghosts of the art deco Cafe Imperial at peace with the fast-food giant McDonald’s, now occupying its former space on Avenida dos Aliados in Porto, Portugal?
This ornate recently restored mansion is located in central Porto on Placa da Liberdade on the elegant Avenida dos Aliados, a street lined with beaux-arts and Neoclassical buildings dating from the early 20th Century. Right here in the middle of all this history, is the McDonald’s Imperial.
Except for the exterior, it does not look at all like a McDonald’s. Really, it still resembles the Cafe Imperial, its predecessor, that had originally opened in 1936,
The setting is one of wide sidewalks which for decades have allowed waves of pedestrians to parade up and down, perhaps stopping for a snack at one of the many cafes.
And one of these cafes now happens to be … a McDonald’s that has become known as the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world. Since 1995, it has occupied the former space of the Imperial Cafe. Like many other buildings in Porto, this, an emblematic building and a popular meeting place in times gone by had fallen into disrepair and was in need of restoration. It found its savior in the fast-food giant, a company as un-Portuguese as one can find.
Nonetheless, the restoration was carried out quite authentically by two well-known architectural studios, Archange and A.Burmester. Their sensitivity to its history saved most of the original features of the cafe which dated back to 1936.
With tables on the sidewalk beneath the shade of mature trees, the entrance is dignified. The original shopfront was altered only slightly to remove the large revolving door that would never have managed the torrent of guests who now enter its portals
The original iconic bronze eagle logo from the Imperial Cafe, designed by the famous Portuguese sculptor Henrique Moreira remains above the door at the front entrance, observing everyone coming and going. If you look carefully, the name ‘Imperial Cafe’ can still be read behind the golden signage of McDonald’s.
Many Americans entering the McDonald’s may be indifferent to its history and dive into their burgers and fries just to experience a taste of ‘home’ while abroad. That would be their loss — because this is truly a magnificent interior that plays second fiddle to what McDonald’s is doing inside.
The interior is palatial with many fine art deco details still extant from its original incarnation in 1936 when it was designed to house the elegant art deco cafe, patronized by the cafe society of its day, a trend especially popular in Portugal.
Soaringly high ceilings with crystal chandeliers, their pendants sparkling in the light, are suspended at regular intervals, highlighting a ceiling brimming with art deco design.
Need I add that when I was there, it was packed with tourists. Many seemed oblivious of their surroundings, occupied with selfie sticks eager to tell their friends and followers where they were.
Most captivating and central to the restaurant is the large, jewel-colored stained glass window, extending all along the back wall, then continuing up the staircase. This was designed by the renowned stained glass expert, Ricardo Leoni, who created it in his workshop before installing it in the Cafe Imperial. The design represents the cycles of coffee: growing, harvesting, processing, dispatching it via ship, and finally the joy of drinking a cup of coffee — the perfect design for a coffee shop, with patrons finding themselves in the final (and most enjoyable!) stage when it was the Cafe Imperial. This is truly a magnificent piece of art, fit for a museum — and it is a miracle that it was saved, even if the present audience is not respectful of its relevance.
Less conspicuous, but equally elegant, are some white friezes on the ceiling depicting different dance styles. These also were designed by Henrique Moreira, the creator of the iconic bronze eagle in the front.
Into this shell, McDonald’s moved in and installed all their signage, seating and kitchens — after all, this is a McDonalds, first and foremost. Mostly, it follows a similar menu to that found in the US: burgers and fries with a nod to a couple of more Portuguese dishes. — and Portuguese Sagres beer is available.
To one side is a McCafe, where one can order a variety of coffees and pastries. Portugal is known for serving delicious custard pastries made with eggs and cream and these are available here, too, including the most famous and very delicious pastei de nata.
To the purists, this may be an assault, a trendy McDonalds living inside a beautiful art deco shell reminiscent of a fashionable cafe of the 1930s. But I am content that the largesse of McDonald’s allowed the renovation to be done by two famous architects who were respectful of its provenance. Furthermore, this was a dilapidated cafe decades ago, in dire need of restoration — even if the renewed form took on a high trafficked fast-food ’emporium’ surface. Doing so extended the lifespan of the original Cafe Imperial, thereby saving a piece of Porto’s history.
There are about 38,000 McDonald’s in 119 countries worldwide. This McDonald’s, known best as the McDonald’s Imperial, has earned the accolade of ‘most beautiful McDonalds in the world’ — in no small part due to the café that came before.
I hope that knowledge helps quiet the ghosts of the old Imperial Cafe.