June 10, 2023

“I have a lively restaurant and a lively rooftop with some rooms in between,” says Julien Leroy, the owner of the new Lisbon outpost of the fashionable Paris-based Mama Shelter brand. “I love hotels, but I’m really a restaurant buff. And not everyone can operate a top city restaurant.”

Leroy, however, certainly can. The restaurant was the talk of the town almost as soon as it opened, in January, as was the rooftop, when it opened earlier this month. (Suffice it to say, it was much anticipated.) Bookings typically have to made two or three weeks out, because it’s so popular with locals. That’s saying a lot for a restaurant that seats 250 and a rooftop that can fit 200 standing, and in a city with a lot of competition. (Leroy stresses that there’s always some room for walk-ins—accessibility being one of Mama Shelter’s core values.)

His project offers “good service and good design,” he says, “but it’s special because you can dance and be free.”

That’s very much in line with the thinking of the Trigano family, the founders of Club Med, when they launched Mama Shelter in 2008. At a time when other boutique hotels were selling cool, they sold warmth—inclusivity, eccentricity, sass, fun, affordability and accessibility. (Even the name gives you a feeling of being cared for.) When I attended the opening of their hotels in Prague and Belgrade several years ago, they were using the term “urban kibbutz.”

For this hotel, some five years in the making, Benjamin Trigano set out to find the “Portugal spirit” and determined that it’s the azulejos (colorful tiles) on the buildings, the elaborate patterns in the sidewalks and especially the ocean. The carpets and bathroom tiles in the room evoke all of this, and the restaurant is filled with more than 300 fish and marine-inspired pieces from noted local ceramicist Bordallo Pinheiro. (Between that and the pieces in each of the 130 rooms, Mama Shelter was that company’s biggest buyer for the year, says Leroy.)

In truth, Lisboetas would have gone just to check out the gorgeous dining room (and to see who else was there), but the food is quite good. As with all the hotels in the “multi-local” Mama Shelter brand, it takes delivery of 90% of its produce on the same day that it’s used. And the chef—Portuguese, like almost everyone working at the hotel—has come up with ways of using bacalhau (the country’s beloved salted cod), for instance, that are “fresh and accessible for international guests and for locals,” says Leroy. There’s that inclusivity again.

Along with the food, the music (and the subtle surfer vibe) is the hotel’s other calling card. There’s live music in the restaurant on five nights most week, and different music on the roof. “The amount we pay live artists per month is the same as what other hotels pay in a year,” says Leroy, also noting his commitment to give women DJs and other performers half of the programming slots.

Upstairs, the rooftop is stylish, if generally busy. Given the hotel’s location at the edge of the usual tourism zone, its ninth floor (quite high in Lisbon) has a different vantage point over the city, and a particularly interesting one. You get the castle and the river and the famous bridge, but also the lovely Basilica da Estrela, some office buildings and a bit more urban grit. You also get Balinese beds, lounge chairs, an island bar underneath a pergola, lots of greenery and twinkling fairy lights.

And while the rooms may be, in Leroy’s casual description, the things between his two lively spaces, they’re not just an afterthought. They’re playful, with that ocean-y, tile-y carpet design, carnival masks hung over the bedside lamps, Smart TVs framed in Portuguese cork, and handwriting on the bathroom and bedside mirrors meant to encourage selfies and instagramming. Mama loves you, as they like to say, but she also knows how to build a fan base.

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