The upstairs restaurant at Alfama is known for high quality food and a classy atmosphere. Downstairs, where the fado happens, the space is more intimate: when I was there on 6 February with five other friends and family, about 25 people were enough to fill it. As in a classic Portuguese fado house, the musicians and singers perform from the corner, without microphones. The effect--so important for the fado--is that you are keenly aware of the fact that you're all in the same space, part of the same conversation. Amazingly, there was not a peep from anyone as the music played--something that, even in Lisbon, is a rarity.
Nathalie Pires is tireless in her devotion to the fado, singing both in the US and abroad (including gigs at Mario Pacheco's Clube do Fado in Lisbon). Her impact in the US has been enormous, so it was a pleasure to hear her in this more intimate space. It appears that, as her career evolves, she is branching out--exploring new lyrics and new sensibilities. I particularly appreciated her more upbeat performances, such as "Nunca há silêncio vão" ("Silence is never in vain"). I look forward to hearing how far she is willing to push this new direction: she certainly has the personality and technical skills to pull it off.
Tarcísio Costa, a co-owner of Alfama and also one of the singers, brought a romantic sensibility to the fado, notably on the lovely Vielas d'Alfama. His singing was as confessional and as unpretentious as one might find in the actual Alfama quarter of Lisbon. He is the kind of singer who obviously has many stories to tell, not the least of which is trying to make a "real" Portuguese restaurant happen in NYC. In a strange twist that shows just how tight the fado's grip can be, he began singing after his mother--who, Tarcísio says, instilled in him a affection for the fado--died in 2009. But his mother wasn't of Portuguese descent, but Italian. And Tarcísio isn't from Portugal, but from Brazil.
FADO at Alfama restaurant happens every other Wednesday during most of the year. Best to call ahead and confirm. Given the size of the space, a reservation is essential. They are located at 214 E 52nd St New York, NY 10022; Phone (212) 759-5552.