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Meet the Locals – Lilly Malta Varella

Just over a year ago I took my first trip to Drosophyla, a very unique bar in the downtown area of São Paulo. As I wrote back in 2015:

The bar lies just behind Roosevelt square and the minute I walked inside I was instantly sold. The place is a huge house with plenty of comfortable rooms to relax in. Actually, it feels like being inside a Downton Abbey-esque house.

And here’s the thing, after living in São Paulo for so long I’d come to expect that a place like this would be pretentious. After all, the decoration is very elegant, no expense seems to have been spared on the furniture and the service is of a high standard. However, to its credit, it really doesn’t feel like this at all.

For what you get, Drosophyla isn’t overly pricey, manages to maintain a laid back atmosphere and it is very unique.

At the time I remember seeing a large painting of a woman in the main bar area. “Who is this paining of?” I asked the waiter, two gin cocktails into my night.

“That is Lilly.”

This was the first time I’d laid eyes on the owner of this bar. Then a few months later, I made contact with her through Facebook. I was working with a travel website to provide recommendations on places to drink in the city, and I’d included Drosophyla to this list. So, I reached out to tell her and soon after we became Facebook friends.Lilly1

After looking at her pictures I quickly realised that she was EXACTLY the type of interesting, larger-than-life character I wanted to interview for my blog! I was sure that she could offer an interesting perspective of life here in São Paulo that would be interesting for readers of this blog. So last week we met up and I got to learn more about her (over gin cocktails in her bar). She certainly didn’t disappoint!

So Lilly, what kind of person comes to Drosophyla?

In truth, and I am really happy to say this, there isn’t a specific public that frequents the bar. Sometimes you will see people who are 70-years-old drinking next to the younger clientele. But I guess the average age is thirty to fifty. I like that this bar is democratic. If you have a bar with just one type of person, like only hipsters or only very rich women, for example, this is always going to be boring. A place with a mixture of people is more interesting.

How would you describe your bar to people who have never been here?

This house is is on the State register of historical places, it is totally original; it had been closed for more than 20 years when we began restoring it. This process took a year. So Drosophyla gives you an opportunity to come to the centre of the city and experience something really different.

When you arrive somewhere, you want to get inside quickly; you want to drink something, to sit down, to be happy. You don’t want to be in one of those places where you arrive and then wait in a line with a lot of people just to enter. You won’t find this here and you won’t find this place rammed full either. Also, I don’t normally advertise, people find out about this bar through word of mouth.


There are many things in Drosophyla from my trips abroad. There are a lot of things related to China in this bar (Lilly then gestured to the walls of the room we were sitting in). This wallpaper, for example, is from Shanghai.

I’ve have been to the countryside of China where I visited the local markets and talked to people about their lives. When I created the concept for this bar I wanted to incorporate some of the magic I’ve discovered from these places. Then I invented this story, Madame Lili Wong from Shanghai lived here from the 1920s onwards. She was an artist living in this house with her German husband. So people coming here also get to experience some storytelling.

And do you have any family from China?

No, unfortunately not! I would like to because I think Chinese culture is very enchanting.

So the character Madame Lilly Wong had a German husband, but I know that you have a husband from New Zealand. What some of my readers may be interested in is this: how does he find life in this city?

He loves São Paulo! Actually, my friends often point out to me that he knows the city much better than they do! I sometimes say to my husband, “Aren’t you tired of being here?” And he always says “no!” He really values what the city has to offer.

But for some, this city is complicated. Not everyone in the world likes the same things though, right?I mean, it can be frustrating here sometimes, I know that. It must be especially difficult for those foreigners who move here who are very proper. Life here must be annoying for them. But, well…all I can say is, this is Brazil!

When people who don’t know São Paulo well come to this city, they sometimes have a fear to go downtown. What would you say to that?

It’s a shame, isn’t it? I love the centre because I love being surrounded by history. This is the heart of the city. I think the following; there is a folk-law about the centre of São Paulo being a place that is extremely dangerous. The centre of São Paulo is getting better. I’m not saying this because I work here; I am saying this because I feel it.

And what do you like to do in the city when you’re not working?

I love to walk, what I really like to do is to start walking with the attitude of “let’s get lost!” When I first came to São Paulo, I used to be afraid of walking around the city. Now of course, it is different. I will sometimes say to my husband, let’s go to Bras and walk around. I love walking around the streets here, looking at the old houses. I think it’s great to discover more about this city by getting lost in it. Two of my favourite neighbourhoods to do this in are Bras and Campos Eliseos.
Lilly2There are so many beautiful, colorful buildings there. I like to see places that aren’t artificial, real places that real people live in. I don’t appreciate these artificial shopping centres; I prefer old places with history. I like to ask myself, “who lives here?”  I guess this is part of my ‘mineira’ (someone from the state of Minas) spirit.

So what would you say to someone who is thinking of coming to Brazil who isn’t considering a visit to São Paulo? I mean, would you recommend that people come here?

Of course! São Paulo is a different reference point to the rest of Brazil. For me, Rio is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and people should go there. It has jungles, beaches and waterfalls.

São Paulo isn’t like this. We don’t have these beautiful things, but what we do have is a metropolis with variety, art, opportunity, personality and charm…such great food and – obviously night life!

Andrew, I’ve already read an interview you did on your site with the woman who fought an alligator. What a story! You asked her if she’d recommend São Paulo and she said ‘no’.

Yes, she has been the only one I’ve interviewed so far not to have recommended São Paulo to my readers!

I think it’s really cool that she answered in this way, ‘I don’t like it and I don’t recommend it!’ You won’t find someone who lives here who will tell you that they think São Paulo is just OK; you either love it or hate it. Period!

She works with biology; she prefers a different kind of life. I imagine that she’d be really happy in the Amazon because I got the impression that she likes nature, greenery. But this is not me! I really like the chaos of São Paulo, the craziness, the metropolis, I love everything punk; and this city is punk! I think that São Paulo is a city that welcomes you with open arms; it really is a magical and thrilling place.

To learn more about the bar, check out the Facebook page here.

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