But it was humming when we visited in mid-April 2019 and chatted and ate and drank with our friend, Danish academic Janne Aagaard Jensen, 48, while her boyfriend and Nova co-founder and co-owner Miguel Branco, 62 (together, above), kept up the supply of tapas and local wines.
It’s a snug joint, 16 seats in all, lined on two sides from floor to ceiling with bottled wine stock, with a bistro kitchen at the back.
Branco is a former advertising executive who launched Nova in 2017 with fellow Portuguese graphic designer Pedro Caixado.
They opened Nova on March 8 that year (“it was International Women´s Day, by coincidence,” notes Branco) and closed because of the pandemic on March 13, 2020, a whisker more than three years in business.
But they have solid plans for a relaunch, probably early 2021.
“Inside the bar it will be very close to what it was when we closed: 16 seats, maybe 22 with a few out the back.
“The main difference will be that there is a plan (by the city) this summer to prevent cars from going downtown so most of the streets will be just for pedestrians.
“Our street will be a little tiny lane for cars to access parking so we’re going to have larger boardwalks, and if that happens when we open we’ll have room outside for al fresco. That’s our expectation.”
“We had an office in the same building on the second floor,” says Branco. “It was our last office in the advertising business. On Fridays, just the two of us, we’d organise dinners for groups of 12 people, and we’d do the whole thing: We’d cook, we’d get the wines and whatever.
“So the meeting room turned into a dining room. I think everything started there with the food and the wine. Then the place below became vacant and we asked the landlord ‘Can we take the place?’ and he says ‘of course you can’. That’s how Nova started and we decided to make a wine bar.”
“Not a restaurant,” he quickly notes.
“There’s a lot of work in that, a lot of logistics and it’s a nightmare.
“Our concept was very easy. The initial idea was to make just a wine bar. You know, a little tapas and some wine.
“Unfortunately, or fortunately, we had a lot of wine to choose from. When we decided how to decorate the wine bar, we liked the industrial look of it, and we put all those bottles around the walls, and we thought if we’re going to have all those bottles around the walls, why not work as a shop also? The bottles are already there, so why not?”
Years before, both Branco and Caixado worked in the commercial advertising and television industry.
“We used to produce TV shows and commercials for advertising agencies.
“One day a guy just came to me – we were just shooting a commercial when I was a producer – and he asked me ‘Why don’t you join us and work with us at the advertising agency?’
“I said I had no experience … I thought you had to have these ‘techniques’ to work in advertising.
“But the guy says: ‘No, it’s just common sense. You just want the right people to work with you and I think you are the right guy.’
“I was very honoured with that compliment and I said: ‘why not I think I can learn.’ So I went there to work in a very small agency. We were around 20 people. That was it.
“Then I kept moving, from one to another. I started at a small one then I went to work for a bigger one, Ogilvy & Mather, (now Ogilvy) which is still a big player, and McCann Erickson, (now McCann), which is an even bigger player.
“Then I moved to another American company, TBWA. And this was very important because at TBWA I met Pedro (Caixado). I was an account executive, a little bit higher on the ranking, and Pedro was an art director.
“We met there about 20 years ago and we became friends especially because of the same common interest in wine … and food.”
Branco smiles, remembering. “We used to drive 400km to go to the Spanish border just to buy cigars because they had a lot of them there and at a quarter of the price than in Portugal.
“On our way we’d stop and have a nice lunch. After we worked together for maybe four or five years, I left the company and after a little while he left the company and we said: ‘Why don’t we make our own business?’ Just the two of us … actually there we three of us at the time. We said: ‘Why not, we’ll give it a try.’
So 15 years ago we started a new agency, just by ourselves, just for six months. Then it was just two of us.”
It was also during that time that the pair conducted some market research on the sly.
“We were working in an office above Café Principe Real and we watched their clientele to see the kind of people we wanted to attract.”
For her part, Jensen says she moved to Lisbon from Copenhagen for a couple of reasons.
“It’s a lot cheaper to live, for a start,” she says.
“And the people here are a true global village: since many people from former colonies in Africa and Asia have easy access to migrate here (known locally as “retornados”).
“We have a plethora of colours, languages, and ideas.
“Even though the country still struggles after many hard years since the financial crises, there was a growing sense of optimism and many international companies have found Portugal, and especially Lisbon, a good place to set up branches.”
Now she and Branco are working on an idea to ship Portuguese wines back to Denmark, starting with the new trend of “green wines” (Vinhos Verdes). But that’s another story.
Two glasses of Adega Reserva Do Comendador White, a generously flavoured white wine from the Campo Maior region on the Spanish-Portuguese border east of Lisbon, €9 per glass.
One glass of Avesso, a green wine from the Casa Santa Eulalia in far northern Portugal, north-east of Porto, €6.
A round of tapas, including a serve of petingas, small sardines €6.50, one of espardate fumado, smoked swordfish €9, another of polvo, octopus €10, one of lascas de bacalhau, slices of cod €10, and another of queijo com marmalade, goat cheese with quad marmalade €6.50.
We went back for two more glasses of Adega Reserva Do Comendador White.
One of Paula Larureno Vinhas Velhas Tinto, a yummy red wine from Portugal’s central southern region €6.50, and
We wound up with a glass each of Blandy’s medium sweet wine from Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean south-west of Portugal and west of Morocco, at €9 per glass.
Where and how to contact:
Rua Nova do Almada nº 20 Lisbon, Portugal
+351 21 346 0956