By Jack Lang
And so, after five months queuing in the cold, nibbling upon the most meagre of bar snacks, we are shown to our seats. The Restaurante Campeonato Brasileiro is not the easiest place at which to get a booking these days, attracting a global clientele as never before and yet continuing to confound with its pioneering mix of exoticism and local stodge.
A swift glance at the occupants of the tables around us (your intrepid writer is accompanied by a mysterious partner, whose occasional bons mots should serve to break up the monotony of this poorly-conceived restaurant analogy) highlights one of the most unique features of the Brasileiro – its enormous geographical reach. See they guy with the mopey face? He represents Náutico, a city in the Nordeste. He’ll have to make two round trips of 6000 kilometres before the season is out. That’s over a quarter of the way round the world. No wonder he’s ordering another whiskey.
A waiter – our waiter, apparently – bumbles over to our table, knocking over a coat rack as he goes. He, in case you hadn’t clocked it yet, is not only a waiter but also a metaphor for the clumsiness of the organisational side of the restaurant/football league I’m supposed to be previewing in this article.
“Pssst,” my partner chimes in. “The thing at the start with the five-month wait in the cold was an allegory for the increasingly outmoded Brazilian football calendar.”
“Oh,” I reply.
The waiter, we discover, only really knuckles down to seating people after the evening’s soap opera and has a tendency to focus on clients from Rio and São Paulo at the expense of others. This year, he’s taking a holiday (he mentions something about a Confederations Cup) in the middle of the year, meaning the restaurant will pretty much be double booked from July to mid-December. He does have extremely shiny hair though.
He tells us about the staff. The Brasileiro is famous for its career-bookend roster of chefs: there are a few young guys everyone seems to be talking about (some kid called Bernard is apparently a shoo-in for a Michelin star) and a bunch of veterans enjoying one last hurrah. The former tend to trade in individualistic flair (think gelatine and Earl Grey-flavoured smoke) while the latter prefer to recreate their best dishes of the past.
Recently, though, there has been a trend of importing swanky foreign cooks and repatriating local talent, which has raised the overall level of the Brasileiro. While the fare, if we’re being truly honest, still pales in comparison to the offerings of refined European eateries, the gap is getting smaller by the year. “Slow progress is progress nonetheless,” my partner quips.
Let’s take a quick tour of the room, shall we? (We shall.) See the two guys at either end of the top table? That’s Corinthians coach Tite and his Atlético Mineiro counterpart, Cuca. They’ve been here longer than anyone and have the bellies to prove it. (My partner splutters something about silverware between glugs of red.) The Atlético guys do look to be having a little more fun – Ronaldinho is sharing out some of his home-baked madeleines – but Corinthians aren’t to be taken lightly. Some Italian guy is whispering in the ear of star midfielder Paulinho though, which could be a worry.
At the next table are the Fluminense crowd. Yep, that’s Fred chatting up a waitress. They did well last year but look to be fading somewhat. They shared a lift here with Botafogo, who, by comparison, are chomping at the bit. With Clarence Seedorf in the midst of an Indian summer, the Glorious One (modesty gets you nowhere) could be in the mix. But the less said about neighbours Flamengo and Vasco da Gama, the better. It’s only 8.30 and they’re already scratching around in their wallets to figure out if they can afford another beer.
Cruzeiro have been in fine fettle this season, as have Internacional. Both will feel they are due a title challenge, having passed out before dessert last time they were here. The latter’s Porto Alegre rivals, Grêmio, will hope that Vanderlei Luxemburgo (one of Brazil’s most notable power eaters) and a spate of promising signings will put a disappointing exit from the Libertadores behind them to trouble the favourites.
“Uff! Let me…”
We swivel in our seats to watch a kerfuffle by the entrance. Is that… Neymar? It is, you know! He’s being bundled out the door and into a Catalan’s van? The maître d’ acts swiftly, demoting Muricy Ramalho and his miserable-looking Santos diners to a tiny table by the toilets. They won’t be having much fun tonight. On the table to the left, São Paulo don’t look quite so crestfallen but you do wish they’d keep their kids on a leash; Luís Fabiano hasn’t stopped insulting the bar staff since we entered.
On the communal table, Coritiba, Vitória, Ponte Preta, Atlético-PR, Goiás and Portuguesa are scrapping away for every last bite of a steak. A couple of them will probably exceed expectations in 2013; my money is on the first two. That self-conscious man in the corner is Chrissy “Criciúma” Uma. He’s used to eating in much more modest joints. And the screaming noise you can hear is coming from assorted members of the Bahia squad and board, who are currently having a catfight out in the rain. There’s always one.
“When you chose this restaurant scheme,” my partner sighs, “I assumed it would be partly to avoid having to go through every team. Now you’ve bored me in two distinct ways.”
My partner is right, of course. (S)He always is. I tuck my napkin into my collar and exhale, semi-contentedly. At least the meal will be better than the preamble.