The word Couvert on Portuguese menus can be a bit misleading to foreign tourists, as it isn’t the typical fixed-fee cover charge which is added to the bill in some other countries. The term couvert in Portugal is used to describe the small dishes that are served as appetisers before the meal. Common appetisers include: pão (bread), manteiga (butter), manteiga de ervas (herb butter), manteiga com alho (garlic butter), patê de sardinha (sardine pâté), patê de atum (tuna pâté), azeitonas (olives), queijo (cheese), maionese de delícias do mar (mayonnaise with seafood), cenouras à Algarvia (Algarvian-style carrots), grão de bico or feijão-frade com bacalhau (chickpeas or black-eyed peas with cod), among many others.
In most Portuguese restaurants appetisers are brought to your table as soon as you have sat down, but there is no obligation to eat them. In Portugal you only pay for what you eat, so if you don’t eat anything from the selection you won’t be charged. The couvert should be listed on the menu, so if you are concerned about how much it is going to cost you can ask to see the menu before you decide to accept it, however, they aren’t usually very expensive. Some restaurants charge per person for a selection of appetisers, for example, for €2 per person you may get a variety of bread rolls, herb butter, garlic butter, olives and tuna pâté. Other restaurants charge per item, for example, bread (€1), olives (€1.50), tuna pâté (€2.50), cheese (€3), so you can just try the ones you want. One thing that tourists who haven’t been to Portugal before often complain about is the fact that the food is presented as if it is free and they feel ripped off when they see it included on the bill, but it is not a tourist scam, it is just a cultural difference. The presentation of appetisers is standard practice in restaurants throughout Portugal, with the intention that diners have something to nibble on while looking at the menu and waiting for their food. It is perfectly acceptable to ask the waiter/waitress to take it away if you don’t want it, or just ask him/her to leave certain items, such as the bread and olives. The quality of the appetisers can vary from restaurant to restaurant; in some you may get pre-packaged sardine pâté, whereas in others it may be freshly made in the restaurant. You may also get offered regional dishes that you wouldn’t normally get to try and, as the Portuguese proverb goes, ‘Quem não arrisca, não petisca’ (‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ or, literally, ‘He who doesn’t take a risk, doesn’t get to have a little snack’!).