The future Girl from Ipanema, Helô Pinheiro, was but a tyke and Tom Jobim nothing more than a wannabe composer working a day job at Continental Records when an earlier ode to Rio de Janeiro girl-watching hit the charts.
In February 1952 revelers strutted through the city’s streets singing a coyly risqué Carnaval march entitled “Sassaricando.” Recorded by “Brazil’s starlet” Virginia Lane, it celebrated the “old man at the entrance to the Colombo” – “amazed” at the sight of “the widow, the teenager and the lady... shimmying” as they sauntered past.
Like many commercial establishments in Brazil, the Confeitaria Colombo does not have a doorway. Instead the old man of the lyrics would have loitered in a broad passageway that runs the entire width of the first floor. When today’s visitors step past that same threshold, they enter a living time capsule – a remnant of a Rio de Janeiro gone by, one that now seems charming for its opulent optimism. During this “belle époque,” still the nation’s capital and cultural hub, Rio de Janeiro aspired to something that many locals considered far more essential - to become the Paris of the Americas. Downtown Rio was still considered a cool place to chill. And the president of the republic might very well keep a personal tab at the Confeitaria Colombo.
Founded in 1894 by Portuguese immigrants, the Colombo soon found its history intertwined with that of the capital and, by extension, of the nation. The building has undergone several reforms, but the first floor interior remains pretty much the way customers found it during the 1913 reopening. The style might be described as turn-of-the-century continental flamboyant eclectic. “Confeitaria” literally means confectionary or sweet shop, and the house’s vocation is highlighted by the glass cases near the entrance that display traditional baked goods, sweets and desserts. For six decades confectioner Antonio Teixeira would arrive daily at 5:30 a.m. to prepare the delicacies. He would no doubt be pleased to learn that many are still made faithfully one-by-one from the old Portuguese recipes he followed.
Behind the sweets and pastries is an area now dubbed the Bar Jardim. With a capacity of over 100, its tables are topped by marble imported from Italy. Flanking them, covering the walls on both sides, hang eight mirrors. Imported from Antwerp, Belgium, they measure 3.4x4 meters (11x13 feet) and weigh as much as a car - 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) each. Two shattered on the first attempt at transatlantic shipment; another on the second try. Ornate Portuguese tiles cover the floor. The light fixtures are from France.
The makeover at the Colombo reflected the broader urban renewal that had overtaken Rio de Janeiro around the turn of the century. Visiting in October 1913, former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt noted that since the declaration of the Brazilian republic in 1889, Rio de Janeiro had been converted “from a picturesque pest-hole into a singularly beautiful, healthy, clean, and efficient modern great city.”
In his classic book A History of Brazil, E. Bradford Burns described the vibrant downtown: “Pedestrians were crowded together between the buildings, one, two and three stories high... Their walls painted white, pink, blue, yellow, and pastel shades were as colorful as the crowds they framed. The women paused to gaze into the elaborately decorated shop windows displaying the latest French and English imports. They still expressed an old preference for French styles.”
The men huddled in restaurants and coffee bars. The Colombo belonged on a short list of downtown haunts for the political, intellectual and business elites. “More business was transacted over a demitasse of strong, sweet coffee in a corner coffee bar than was ever done in any office,” wrote Burns. “The price for a small cup of the always freshlymade beverage was a penny and a half. The steaming jet-black coffee was poured directly from the stove into the cup, already half filled with sugar by the customer. There was great truth to the Brazilian proverb that good coffee should be ‘as strong as the devil, as black as ink, as hot as hell, and as sweet as love.’ The coffee animated conversation as it relaxed the drinkers. They tarried in energetic discussion, pausing frequently to shake the hand of a passing acquaintance and to inquire into his health and that of his family. For intimates, there was a warm embrace, given with genuine cheer and enthusiasm.”
Intellectuals and politicians could always be found at such spots. Poet Olavo Bilac spent so much time at the Colombo that he – more than its founders – came to symbolize the spirit of the establishment. A charismatic figure whose presence ensured regular attendance by Rio’s literary aristocracy, Bilac was a leader of the Parnassians, who wrote in a style once described as “a kind of neo-Neoclassicism” by scholar Claude L. Hulet. Legend has it that Bilac was the original old man who watched the girls pass by the Colombo entrance. Legend also has it that he managed to crash the first and then only horseless carriage (owned by an acquaintance) to set its wheels down in Rio de Janeiro. Another asserts that he wrote his Last Will and Testament at one of the Colombo’s marble tabletops. One thing is certain: in honor of its illustrious patron, the Colombo named a chicken sandwich after him. It comes with Minas cheese, eggplant, ham, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.
Bilac’s friend and colleague Emílio de Menezes liked to refer to his usual table at the Colombo as “my office,” according to Alda Rosa Travassos and Elizabeth de Mattos Días in their book “Confeitaria Colombo.” (Readers of Portuguese can purchase one of the few remaining copies at the Colombo’s memorial room.) Menezes translated Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven in his “office,” according to the authors.
Coincidentally Bilac and Menezes both died in 1918 – a year before co-founder Manoel José Lebrão chose to return to his native Portugal. Sometimes called Daddy Lebrão, he would “forget debts, serve double shots for the price of singles, listen to everyone, defuse arguments and fights, pay trolley fares, and accept in lieu of payment promotional verses in praise of the Colombo,” report Travassos and Mattos Días. His labor practices were both advanced for the times and unabashedly paternalistic: the Colombo was among the first firms in Brazil to provide vacation time, for example, but employees were required to live in company dormitories and could only get married after asking for permission in writing. Lebrão is also credited with instituting a program by which hardworking and talented employees could become partners. Candidates for partnership were called “interessados” – literally “interested ones.” The program lasted until 1965. “The interessados worked in all aspects of the business, and they were motivated because they wanted to become partners,” recalled José Pereira Correia Lopes, operations manager today, first hired in 1958. “And the employee was motivated because he wanted to become an interessado. It was a big disappointment when the program ended.”
Pereira swears that Lebrão was the first to utter the phrase: “The customer is always right.” Next to one of the mirrors, a plaque on the wall duly attests to the fact. That might surprise historians who attribute the quote to H. Gordon Selfridge, founder of the Britain’s Selfridges chain stores. Like the debate over the first successful flight, pitting Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont against the Wright Brothers, this one is unlikely to find resolution soon, if ever.
In 1922 a storage area on the second floor was converted into a tearoom – replete with an atrium that allows upstairs patrons a view of the elegant first floor. In reporting its inauguration, one journalist outdid himself: “Decorated with maximum artistic good taste, the new tearoom... brings together all of the necessary elements to turn the space into a preferred destination for the Rio de Janeiro elite.”
Darn if he wasn’t right. The tearoom soon became popular for afternoon gatherings of the society ladies. Cafes, bars and restaurants were mostly off-limits to refined women, but as a “confectionary,” the Colombo offered them a public oasis. “The upper hall was their meeting place,” said Pereira.
Their tradition is preserved in today’s menu, served, albeit, downstairs. For a set price, R$25,50 (US$9) for one or R$46,00 (US$16) for two, the Chá Colombo (Colombo Tea) comes with – besides the requisite tea – a table full of breads, cheese, toast, fresh fruit, sweets, pastries, etc. With a scaled-down spread, the Chá Virgina Lane (Virgina Lane Tea) can be had for about two-thirds the price. “The afternoon tea is our main attraction,” said Pereira.
As time passed, the tearoom became a restaurant. Today a self-service buffet lunch is served. Lunch guests can behold the living vestiges of a time when leading figures of Rio de Janeiro society customarily took lunch at the Colombo. Once upon a time, executives from companies like the state oil monopoly Petrobrás, state bank Banco do Brasil and directors from the Central Bank had perennially reserved tables at the Colombo, recalled Pereira. During stints in Congress and the Senate, future president Juscelino Kubitschek, the father of today’s capital Brasília, would pop in to order the flounder. Pereira himself waited on former President Eurico Gaspar Dutra (1946-1951) “He was a regular,” recalled the manager. “And he used to send his grandson to come over to pick up items.”
Today the directors of Flamengo, Brazil’s most popular soccer club, maintain their reserved table. They can be found just beyond the ancient elevator, at a table adorned by a little Flamengo banner. Behind it a plaque pays homage to José Lins de Rego, a late Flamengo director. In the Bilac tradition, Lins de Rego just happened to also be one of Brazil’s most important modernist novelists.
Confeitaria Colombo Links
The official website
Order books by Olavo Bilac (in Portuguese) from Livraria Cultura.
Order Bilac Vê Estrelas, a fictional account by Ruy Castro featuring Olavo Bilac and his buddies at the Colombo (in Portuguese) from Livraria Cultura.
Order Plantation Boy by José Lins de Rego from Amazon.com.
Order a copy of the award-winning guidebook Rio For Partiers.
More about Rio de Janeiro on BrazilMax