RIO DE JANEIRO — The Blowfish’s Den was a mess. The tables were full of empty bottles, dirty plates were piled up and the bathroom was out of soap.
In the corner sat the owner of the bar, Marco Antônio Targino, eating a plate of fried pork nibbles. “For those who like dirt,” he said with a smile, “this is a beauty here.”
Out the front, the cobbled alleyway was packed with unmasked revelers, swaying and singing around an impromptu samba band. It was the largest crowd since the start of the pandemic, and Mr Targino took it all in.
“It feels like I’m alive again,” he said. “I didn’t die.”
Neither is his bar. The pandemic shutdowns and lost sales have nearly killed the place, and the hundreds of drinking places like it. But now, in one of the clearest signs that Rio de Janeiro is returning to something like normal, the city’s “dirty feet” are back.
That’s the name for the holes in the wall that open onto Rio’s sidewalks lined with plastic tables and chairs, offering cold beer and baked goods at almost any hour of the day. Known as “pé sujo” in Portuguese, a dirty foot is a cross between a dip rod and a greasy spoon, where the grit and grime are part of the charm. The countertops are rusty, the prices are low, and shoes and shirts are often optional.
“You are not allowed to smoke in the large restaurants. You can smoke almost anything here,” says Sandro Lima Rodrigues, a bald goat-cheese server in La Paris, a dirty base where a breakfast of espresso and grilled bread smeared with processed cheese costs 90 cents.
“We are the essence of Rio,” he added.
Yes, Rio de Janeiro has golden beaches, breathtaking views and the colorful Carnival, but many Cariocas, as the residents are known, agree that to discover the spirit of their city, you have to experience a dirty foot.
“Rio is not a democratic place,” said Marcelo Freixo, a history professor who now represents Rio in Brazil’s Congress. “But there are a few places where you can escape that inequality: the sambas, the beaches and the dive bars.”
The pandemic forced a quarter of Rio’s restaurants and bars to close, according to a local trade group, and the city has just put in place new rules barring unvaccinated bars amid concerns over the Omicron variant. But, much to the relief of many Cariocas, most dirty feet are still going strong.
Fernando Blower, a Rio bar owner who heads the trading group, attributed their resilience to the fact that many family businesses have gotten creative.
The Blowfish’s Den, or Toca do Baiacú, sold art donated by a well-known cartoonist who regularly drinks at the bar. La Paris opened when the police weren’t watching and sold takeaway beer when they were. Confectionary and Bar Solange (that’s one bar, and no, it doesn’t make candy) delivered plates of beef ribs and liver to the neighborhood regulars. All three continued to pay their employees during the lockdowns, even without government support.
The Senate Warehouse, or Armazém Senado, sold toothpaste, toilet paper, and bleach. The two brothers who own the business took out a loan of about $5,000 and then started their samba nights again at a time when the city was still restricting gatherings. (Their decision made headlines when the mayor showed up — and was photographed singing without a mask. He paid a fine.)
Mr Targino, 64, first started drinking in what would become the Blowfish’s Den in the 1980s, after working as a banker nearby for days. Over cheap beer and cachaça, he befriended the other regulars, including a local boat mechanic.
In 2007 the bar went up for sale. Concerned it would turn into another gentrified restaurant, he bought it and renamed it after an old waiter who he thought resembled a puffer fish. He sketched a new logo on cigarette paper: a fat, beer-drinking fish.
“It was really nasty,” Mr Targino said. “Deplorable. A latrine.”
“Now it’s just a mess,” he said.
To clear things up, Mr. Targino the boat mechanic, Geraldo Serrador, in. Now the bar’s concierge and handyman, he didn’t appreciate his boss’s description of hygiene.
“Now I’m worried there’s a dirty glass in the kitchen,” Mr Serrador, 61, shouted over a samba band.
Dirty Feet are close siblings of other types of casual bars, the boteco and botequim, which started out as corner shops and take their name from “bodega.”
The origin of the term “dirty foot” is not so clear. Some bar owners attribute it to poor patrons who only wore sandals or had no shoes. Others said it was because customers spit on the floors, which would clean the bars with sawdust.
“You got there with dirty feet,” said Paulo Mussoi, a journalist from Rio who has been writing a column about dirty feet for more than 20 years.
For decades, the bars were mainly for working-class workers. Many didn’t even have women’s toilets. But in the 1990s, Rio’s middle class discovered dirty feet and boteco, and they soon became fashionable, celebrated as hidden culinary gems.
The food in dirty feet bars shows influences from Portugal, West Africa and northeastern Brazil. There are fried sardines, pickled eggs, gizzards and stews made from cow’s feet and oxtail. The bars have inspired imitators who mimic their low-key style, but at higher prices. They call cariocas ‘clean feet’. (It’s an insult.)
Your average dirty foot is a neighborhood hangout that reflects the rhythm of life in Rio. Take Confectionary and Bar Solange, in a residential area of Rio’s middle-class Gloria neighborhood, south of downtown.
Pelé Joensson, 57, a Swedish immigrant, said he arrives most days around 6 a.m. to buy coffee and carry one of the plastic chairs from the bar across the street to watch his neighborhood wake up . He then spends hours socializing.
“If you live alone, this is where you have your social life,” he said.
Towards the end of the morning, a waiter and cook, known to everyone as ‘Toninho’ or Little Tony, poured fresh pork stew ($3 per plate). Three construction workers leaned against the other end of the bar during intermission and drank soda. Hours later, neighbors celebrated a local porter’s birthday with cake and a raffle for frozen cod.
By nightfall, the scene grew louder. Customers pulled the flimsy plastic chairs from a pile by the door and added them to an ever-growing circle of friends. Each group shared one 20-ounce bottle of beer ($1.40) at a time, divided into small glasses. The approach is intended to prevent anyone from drinking hot beer, a sacrilege in Brazil. The bottles are housed in cozy cooler boxes known as ‘little shirts’, which is Portuguese slang for a condom.
One particularly vociferous group included a taxi driver, a real estate agent, one of the first transgender executives at Unilever and a retired salesman in leather pants.
“What Makes a Dirty Foot?” asked the real estate agent, Luiz Felipe Cavalcante. “Beer, food, people, friendship, football. Oh, and women, women!”
Aparecida Araújo, a cement saleswoman, filled in with another missing ingredient: “Drunk talking nonsense.”
Mr Targino, the owner of the Blowfish’s Den, said what defines a dirty foot is not the food or drink, but its laid-back ethos.
“If you take a pig, bring it into your house, wash it, tie a bow around its neck and leave it in your backyard, what’s it going to do? It will throw itself in the mud and get dirty again,” he said. “I want to go where I feel good, have my shirt open and wear flip flops. There I am in my natural habitat, just like that healthy piglet.”
Breno Salvador contributed reporting.