how one of Lisbon’s oldest bars survived almost everything

He jumped among the rubble and broken walls that gave rise to one of Lisbon’s historic bars when he was still a child. It is one of the oldest memories that Maria João Pinto Coelho keeps of Procópio, which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary.

He vividly remembers a Sunday afternoon, with the family around the table, washing small pieces of glass “bought for a little bit at the Feira da Ladra”. Cleaned, painted and assembled, they gave rise to a glass curtain that still survives today in the bar next to Jardim das Amoreiras.

His father, Luís Pinto Coelho, was a decorator obsessed with antiques — and his trait remains not only in Procópio but in the other bars he imagined and created around Lisbon, from Foxtrot to Pavilhão Chinês and A Paródia. Procópio was the first and arrived at the right time to serve, in pre-revolution Lisbon, as a social bar for high society. Two years later came the April revolution and its tables became meeting places for politicians, journalists and intellectuals.

Five decades later, much has changed, both in the world and in Procópio, which has still kept the decor and the dark, intimate and welcoming atmosphere untouched. Interestingly, Luís Pinto Coelho got rid of his creation shortly after the inauguration. The divorce in the hot summer of 74 put the bar management in the hands of Alice Pinto Coelho — and it took a lot of dexterity to, in a world of men, lead a nightclub to success.

“If it weren’t for a lady with an iron fist, the bar wouldn’t have crossed, for example, the desert of the 90s. She never let the bar fall”, reminds NiT her daughter, Maria João, who at 61 continues to insist to play an active role in the iconic establishment built by the parents.

From the good old days of Procópio, he remembers his progenitor’s rounds of antique shops. “My father was very sweet, he made his children participate in the business. As I was the oldest, I took it very seriously,” he recalls.

The unmistakable environment of Procópio

“We would travel with him on weekends, buy junk at Feira da Ladra, in the old shops on Rua de São Bento, which gave rise to these excellent antique dealers, but which at the time were authentic junkyards.”

He remembers his father as someone “obsessive”, who “loved what he did”. Nothing was wasted. He loved taking ordinary objects and turning them into decorative objects. “I had a fascination with female figurines, I bought everything — busts, full-length pieces. The bars he created are full of them, but I think Procópio has the most.” Several of these statuettes were transformed into lamps “that produce the famous golden light of the bar” and that “create a unique atmosphere”.

In the family home “it was also like that”, he recalls. “There were paintings from floor to ceiling, swords in the entrance hall, metal objects. Little collections everywhere. My father was a compulsive collector.”

Maria João says that she inherited from her father the passion for interior design and also for bars, for hotels. She still dreamed of graduating from the hotel school in Porto, but it was not possible. She studied law and had a successful career in communication and advertising. And while the business flowed naturally, she watched from afar her mother’s leadership over Procopio—until more difficult times arrived.

The boom of bars in Bairro Alto and clubs on 24 de Julho drew in younger crowds. At Procópio’s tables, only the oldest customers resisted, insufficient to make the business survive.

“In those 90s, the clientele were just older people, from 45 to 50 years old. The house was full of flies”, he recalls. She felt that at that moment it was necessary to intervene and give all the necessary help to the mother. With the support of her sister, Sofia, she gathered efforts to put Procópio back on the map.

Working in the communication area, he realized that he had the ideal tools to revitalize the business. “My mother still considered selling it, but when we started working on communication, things changed from one moment to the next.”

“We never worried about the type of service, that was secondary. The problem was really survival, we were being completely swallowed up by the other bars”, she says. “We later realized that many of these new bars closed after a year or two. We never closed.”

Maria João with her mother, Alice, and sister Sofia.

Despite having moved away from the bar he helped to build, Luís Pinto Coelho was concerned with all the spaces he had created. “He got tired of talking to me about Procópio”, recalls Maria João. “I rarely went there. It came in once or twice a year, but I remember us talking a lot in the 90s, because I could see that the house was in trouble. He had a particular love for Procópio because he had stayed in the family.”

The arrival of the new century brought vigor to Procópio and Maria João even promoted the launch of a book about the bar, in commemoration of its 35th anniversary. “We had overcome this difficult phase once and for all.”

The emergence of the Internet and social networks has changed the game. “At that time, my mother was already 70 years old and, at those ages, it is difficult to manage a business in the same way, especially something so dynamic and that has to adapt to so many changes in the market”, he notes. “It was impossible for her to be alone taking care of him.”

It underlines, however, the driving force that was Alice. “To do what my mother did, you need a lot of vision, willpower, knowing what you had in your hand”, she recalls about the difficulties of managing a nightclub in the 70s. entered alone and left accompanied’ not to use the bar for these purposes. That was how she spoke to them—with respect and consideration. She thought they had great taste, but she didn’t want that environment.”

The pandemic was another obstacle in Procópio’s long and lively history and forced a change in strategy. They closed their doors in March, but Maria João took advantage of her knowledge of the laws and realized that there was a legal way to escape the mandatory closing of bars: transform it into a snack restaurant.

Cocktails are the bar’s big new bet.

“We had this asset that proved to be an advantage over most other bars – we could open as a restaurant”, he recalls. It was either that or face a possible fatal debt. “By June or July we were open again.”

Then came another transformation and what, he believes, will be another golden age of Procópio. “We started to have a much younger clientele, without fear of the pandemic. The business remained healthy and now we are back in strength as a bar.”

This dynamism also resides in one of the great new bets, cocktails. “We used to serve them, but now we have a specialist to prepare them, a professional who has worked his whole life on this.” It is from the hands of the new bartender that the latest tributes to the women who have carried the historic bar over the years have come.

Alice, of course, in honor of the matriarch. Maria João also already has hers and the only thing missing is her sister, Sofia, who “is in the study phase”. After fifty, will there be so many more? “I will no longer be here to celebrate them”, she confesses, not forgetting to mention the third generation that will be able to follow this path. The oldest son “already knows everything there is to know” about the business and “the youngest has been working at Procópio for three years”. The goal now is this: “keep a solid home for the third generation.”

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