Let’s start by stating that El Portico is not your typical “tipico”. In fact, it’s far removed from the cholesterol-churning roadside “piquetes” that draw crowds from Bogotá, but this venue, close enough to capital, that is has evolved over a half-century as a trusted landmark for fine dining.
Behind the stone portal, the restaurant’s emblem and historical ensign, is a story of one family’s commitment to culinary culture, and keeping the traditions of “small town” Colombia alive. When it opened its doors in 1968 to friends and guests, El Portico was the Pradilla family’s out-of-town home. Today, it has blossomed into a village: one blessed with orchards, a chapel, a colonial church, a small and operational railway station, courtyards, corridors and stables one can visit any day of week, before or after enjoying El Portico’s trusted menu.
Started on a verdant plot of land and part of the dairy farm ‘El Rodeo,’ Jaime Pradilla Keith, and wife Yolanda de Keith, saw their cooking enterprise as more of a social calling than a business. Son, Jaime Pradilla recalls how El Portico got its stone arches, which rise from the garden and greet visitors traveling along the old Bogotá to Chía road.
As an admirer of all things antique, Jamie Pradilla Keith, one day had to run an errand in the Plaza de Bolívar to pick up a wrought iron fence from a soon to be demolished mansion. After talking with the workers and receiving his fence, he noticed that a rounded fountain and stone gateway were also going to be destroyed. He took it upon himself to transport these heavy items (and most unappreciated relics) to his ranch and placed them in the field where cows were grazing.
Months after putting up the columns, Yolanda envisioned a small business selling hotdogs outside Bogotá schools. Jaime Pradilla convinced her that it would be better to sell something others enjoyed more: Spanish hams, chorizos and jugs of Sangria. Facing the main road, a small house was built to accomodate a kitchen and their assortment of Spanish delicacies.
Friends with the Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, Jaime Pradilla ended up “adopting” ‘Malaga,’ a member of one of the teams, and who baptized El Portico with its name.
Thanks to Jaime Pradilla’s business smarts as a Dartmouth University educated economist, El Portico began its expansion. Another building was added close to the family home, a barn and wooden corral for young bulls. Customers first sat on wooden benches and were wined and dined with smoked meats, grilled corn on the cob and a few classic recipes, such Ajiaco Santafereño.
Word quickly got out that El Portico was the place to be for an out of town experience, an idyllic setting for a Bogotá society wedding, a family reunion or company celebration. Rooms were converted into conference salons and on any given day, El Portico, can attend up to eight private gatherings.
Besides the columns, another key addition made all the difference to the cooking of El Portico’s meats. An old forge with bellows from Chia blacksmiths was placed in the restaurant and with the experience of a grill sergeant continues to provide the right amount of air and temperature for the house specialty dish: Carne a la fragua.
Despite the many conventions that have come and gone, and the sun splashed grounds used as a colonial setting for film and television productions, very little of El Portico has changed during its half century. The menu is a testament to traditions; resilient to the culinary catastrophes other restaurants face when trying to compete for roadside clientele or simply pretending to be inventive with veggies and carbs.
At El Portico, an Ajiacó (Bogotá’s iconographic three potato soup) is held to a higher standard, so is the empanada and blood sausage: morcilla. All appetizers are prepared and cooked in the main kitchen, and although service may be old-style, it’s far from stuffy. And for desert? The classic sweet: preserved figs with a dollop of arequipe.
El Portico represents the values of an increasingly endangered nation: one where food was never meant to be fast, but rather cooked and enjoyed at a slow pace amongst friends. Even though our culinary times may be changing quicker than we would like, it’s comforting to know that there are entrepreneurs such as Jaime Pradilla who strive hard to give employment to those who live in the countryside, and to attend clients who always have a reason to celebrate their Colombian heritage.