BrusselsWords Ben McFarland
Photography Jenny Zarins
Whatever you do, don’t trust the Belgians. They’re a shifty bunch. For years they’ve been peddling the myth that Brussels is deadly dull. On first inspection, they have put together a convincing case. Having begun life as a 10th-century fortress town, bilingual Brussels (Dutch and French) is now the 21st-century epicentre of the equally impenetrable European Union, populated by pinstriped, pen-pushing Jean-Pierres.
While Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Rome the Colosseum, Brussels has the Mannekin Pis. This is a statue of a small boy with a big head, weeing, next to tacky shops hawking smaller versions of a small boy with a big head, weeing. The sole saving grace of visiting it is witnessing the underwhelmed “Is this it?” expressions on tourists’ faces.
Don’t believe the lack of hype, however. The whole “Brussels is boring” thing is nothing but a conspiracy borne of a disorderly past. Belgium has been invaded so often that its people may have deliberately tried to make their country seem as unexciting as possible to any would-be conquerors.
How else to explain the 1960s experiment known as Brusselisation, during which the city – anticipating its future status as the capital of Europe – demolished lots of lovely old buildings and replaced them with far less attractive modern ones. The ornate and the art deco now awkwardly rub shoulders with sorry-looking modernist structures. It’s as if the Belgians purposely made Brussels look plain.
Again, don’t let the mask fool you. Brussels has an enchanting, multi-ethnic and endearingly eccentric underbelly, and lots of beautiful bits too. Like an epic album, the city rewards those who invest time and effort in it in ways that few other cities in Europe can.
“It’s much more fun than Paris,” says Astrid Froidure, a French national who lived in England, Australia and New Zealand before settling in Brussels. “It’s a quarter of the price and, while it’s very cosmopolitan and a real melting pot, it has retained that old-school European feel. It’s not flash and the people who live in Brussels are experts of understatement and very humble about their great city.” Then she adds, quickly, “Actually, don’t mention my name – people will get angry that I’m telling you all this!”
One of Brussels’ best-kept secrets is its food. If you happen to be a gallivanting gastronome standing on the Eurostar platform at St Pancras, with train ‘A’ heading for Paris and train ‘B’ for Brussels, board the latter – you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The clichéd take on Belgian food is that it’s just waffles, mussels, chips and chocolate, all smeared in mayonnaise. But as with all its best aspects, Brussels just doesn’t crow about its quality cuisine as much as it could, or indeed, should.
In his hilarious book, A Tall Man in a Low Land: Some Time Among the Belgians, Harry Pearson writes: “In Belgium they make hundreds of different types of cheese – orange, white and blue, hard, soft, goat’s cheese – and no-one has ever heard of them. In the Netherlands they make two very boring sorts of cheese and the whole world knows about them.”
Thanks to its history and its positioning, Brussels has a culinary tradition that has been heavily influenced by other European culinary traditions, and deftly dovetailed with an admirable insistence on indigenous ingredients – long before ‘localism’ became foodie fashion elsewhere.
One thing you’ll notice in Brussels is that the locals like to eat and drink, and tend to organise their day around doing one or the other or, if at all possible, both.There are 35,000 cafes and bars in Belgium, one for every 285 citizens (twice as many as the UK), and the best way to get to know the capital is by eating and elbow-bending in its taverns, brasseries, restaurants and alehouses, or estaminets.
It’s important to know where to go, though. Central Brussels is penned in by five wide boulevards that loosely trace now-departed walls that were laid out in a sort of pentangle in the 14th century. In the centre is the Grand-Place, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see how it earned its epithet. Regardless of the time of day, the early 17th-century buildings, particularly the stunning Town Hall and the brewers’ guild houses, make an amazing backdrop to enjoying a pricey beer or two.
If you’re hungry, however, it’s probably best to avoid the labyrinthine streets surrounding the Grand-Place, where waiters brandishing plastic lobsters will try to entice you into tawdry restaurants. The quality of the food tends to be low, the prices high and the whole experience underwhelming.
A much better idea is to make the short trip on foot to Place Sainte-Catherine, the real stomach of Brussels, on the other side of Boulevard Anspach. Fishmongers would once congregate here to sell their catches, but, while fish and crustaceans still feature prominently, the area is now a focal point for a broader food scene, with cheesemongers, delis, bakers, restaurants and cool cafes lining the square. There’s also an impressive food market held here on weekends and Wednesday mornings.
Sainte-Catherine is a cool quartier. Head north on the Quai aux Briques and you’ll find further opportunities to eat well. To the east and south are laidback cafes, tearooms and bars – especially on Place St.Gery and Rue des Chartreux – while Rue Antoine Dansaert is one of the trendiest in the city.
At the tip of the pentangle, so to speak, there’s the old town known as the Marolles. This is where lepers lived during the Middle Ages and it once had its own dialect – rather similar to Dutch, but with a bit of French and Spanish thrown in. Today, the Marolles is a fashionable district that brims with antique shops, pop art galleries and working-class bars. On the cobblestoned Place du Jeu de Balle there’s a daily flea market where locals sell a mind-blowing cornucopia of crazy bric-a-brac – be it a single spoon, art nouveau ceramics or perhaps a plastic doll’s arm.
The walk down Rue Blaes towards the Eglise Notre Dame de la Chapelle takes you from shabby to chic in the shape of Grand Sablon, a square that’s choc-a-bloc with chocolatiers and designer shops. If you’re after a high-heeled shoe made from chocolate then this is the place for you.
More designer boutiques can be discovered on Avenue Louise close to Le Chatelain, a bohemian district that is now so gentrified that its weekly food market (Wednesday) starts at noon to cater for yummy mummies and the school run.
One metro stop north is Porte de Namur, the best place from which to explore La Matonge, a mainly Congolese quarter with an array of African clothes shops, record stores and snack bars selling deep-fried caterpillars, grasshoppers and dried fish. For a bite to eat try the pedestrianised Rue Longue Vie but be warned – there is no Um Bongo anywhere.
To really experience the eclecticism of Brussels’ food scene, don’t miss the Sunday market in the otherwise lacklustre area around Gare du Midi and Brussel-Zuid train stations. Offering gastronomic gifts from around the globe, it’s the ideal place to buy provisions for a packed lunch before hopping on the Eurostar home, with a revisionist view of beautiful Brussels as anything but boring and bureaucratic. But remember, mère/moeder’s the word.
EAT & DRINK
A la Mort Subite 7 Rue Montagne Aux Herbes Potagères; + 39 2513 1318. Family-owned Sudden Death is a beer-drinking institution named after a bankers’ dice game. An ornate, fin-de-siècle affair, where gueuze (blended lambic) flows on tap, it’s well-touted in tourist guides but a must if you haven’t been.
AM Sweet 4 Rue des Chartreux; +32 2513 5131. Tardis of a tearoom and cafe that does a lush line in cakes, pastries, breakfasts and chocolates. Comfy sofas upstairs and wi-fi.
APDM 92 Rue de Flandre; +32 2511 4500. A lovely spot for breakfast, this bagel bar has great coffee, smoothies, cupcakes, wi-fi, super staff and a table in the sun.
L’Archiduc 6 Rue Antoine-Dansaert; +32 2512 0652. Classic, slightly tattered and smoky art nouveau cocktail bar with a curved mezzanine and a cool crowd, young and old. (Smoking is allowed in venues where drinking, not eating, is the main event. There will be a full ban in 2012.)
Bar A Tapas 46 Rue St Catherine; +32 2512 7547. This friendly little fishmonger’s stand sells fresh calamari, oysters and prawns, but also escargots, chorizo and bouillabaisse – all with an appealing Spanish accent.
Bier Circus 57 Rue de l’Enseignement; +32 2218 0034. This brilliant beer bar and bistro off the tourist treadmill specialises in lambics, and many dishes feature beer, from fish and lambic waterzooi (stew) to chocolate mousse à la Chimay Bleue.
Au Bon Vieux Temps 4 Impasse St Nicolas; +32 2217 2626. The Good Old Times is an old-school alehouse tucked down the end of an alley in the city centre. Decked out in dark wood and stained glass, it’s quiet, classy and quintessentially Brussels.
Chez Jeannot Place St Catherine; It has been 26 years since Jeannot set up his makeshift seafood stall selling mussels and oysters, all caught within the past 24 hours and served with Marolles sauce. Shuck it and see.
Chez Marcel 20 Place du Jeu de Balle; +32 2511 1375. Proper old-school Marolles bar frequented by locals and flea market vendors. Serves Cantillon.
Chez Phillippe 138 Rue des Tanneurs. Around the corner from the flea market, Phillippe feverishly furnishes locals with enormous baguettes crammed with cheeses, meats and gherkins for less than €2. Ideal for those on the move/a tight budget.
Cirio 18 Rue de la Bourse; +32 2512 1395. Beautiful belle époque beer cafe with a well-heeled clientele. Try “half en half” – a cocktail of white wine and spumante – and don’t leave without visiting the porcelain urinals.
Crèmerie de Linkebeek 4 Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains; +32 2512 3510. Dating back to 1902, this is Brussels’ oldest cheese shop and has more than 350 Belgian cheeses. Not just an awesome homage to fromage, it does delicious sandwiches and sells wines and lambics. Co-owner Jordan Greenwood speaks impeccable English.
Delirium 4a Impasse de la Fidélité; +32 2514 4434. This basement beer cafe stocks a staggering 2,000 beers from around the world. Definitely an unmissable one for beer boffins.
Den Boer 60 Quai aux Briques; +32 2512 6122. A famous fish restaurant majoring in mussels from Brussels.
Het Goudblommeke in Papier (La Fleur en Papier Doré) 55 Rue des Alexiens; +32 2511 1659. René Magritte was a regular at this quaint, quirky 18th-century tavern with a good gueuze selection.
L’Idiot Du Village 19 Rue Notre-Seigneur; +32 2502 5582. Slightly surreal setting but inspired cooking at this upmarket restaurant discreetly hidden away near Grand Sablon.
Kergi 159 Rue Blaes; + 32 2503 4844. Every day, Senegalese N’Diaye Naphie shops at the local market, sees what looks good, brings it back to his miniscule restaurant and, with no fridge and just a small stove, creates a delicious dish for Marolles locals. It’s different every day but always amazing value. Freshly squeezed ginger and lemon juices provide perfect a pick-me-up.
Les Brigittines 5 Place de la Chapelle; +32 2512 6891. At this upmarket art nouveau restaurant, renowned chef Dirk Myny deftly delivers authentic yet avant-garde Belgian cuisine using indigenous ingredients. Choucroute laced with lambic, shrimp crevettes, pig trotters and melt-in-the-mouth braised cow udder.
La Mer du Nord 1 Rue St Catherine; +32 2511 6671. Don’t miss this lively pavement bar and kitchen where staff clad in fishing jumpers prepare crab burgers, oysters, fish soup, escargot and herrings, to be washed down with chilled white wine.
Moeder Lambic 8–10 Place Fontainas; +32 2503 6068. Modern, minimalist and rated by many as the best beer bar in Brussels, Moeder only serves beers from independent, artisan breweries and has 46 draught beers, 200 bottled beers, food, live music and DJs.
La Porte Noire 67 Rue des Alexiens; +32 2511 7837. Subterranean specialist beer bar on the site of a former convent with an awesome array of Belgian beers and regular live Irish music. Younger crowd and open till 3am.
Restobieres 32 Rue des Renards; +32 2502 7251. Wash down rabbit with a lambic at this cracking beer restaurant in the middle of the fashionable Marolles.
Spinnekopke 1 Place du Jardin aux Fleurs; +32 2511 8695. Here since 1762, “Little Spider’s Head” is a tiny restaurant famed for its brilliant beer list and simple yet hearty Belgian food, often cooked in beer.
La Villette 3 Rue de Vieux Marché aux Grains; + 32 2512 7550. A time warp of a restaurant, decorated with gingham tablecloths, dark wood and beer paraphernalia. Known for its cuisine a la biere (yes, that’s food cooked in beer).
SHOP & SEE
Belgian Comic Strip Centre 20 Rue des Sables; +32 2219 1980. A cornucopia of comics and cartoons housed in an awe-inspiring art nouveau building.
Bier Tempel 56b Grasmarkt; +32 2502 1906. This beer emporium not far from Grand-Place stocks a huge range of classic and rare Belgian beers from breweries old and new. There’s beer-related glassware, books and t-shirts too.
Bozar (Palais des Beaux Arts) 23 Rue Ravenstein; +32 2507 820. Music, cinema, art or dance, there’s always an exhibit worth catching at Brussels’ artistic epicentre. Also home to the Belgian National Orchestra.
Champigros 36 Rue St.Catherine; +32 2511 7498. Make way for mushrooms in as many as 30 different guises, from truffles to wood and button, all beautifully presented too, in a shop that’s been family-owned since the 1950s.
Charlie 34 Rue St Catherine, +32 2513 6332. Brilliant bakery run by a former Michelin sous chef. Try the house jam.
Cook & Book 251 Paul Hymans Avenue; +32 2761 2600. A cool concept that combines themed bookshops, cafes and the largest terrace in Brussels.
Leonidas 41 Place du Grand Sablon; +32 2513 1466. World-renowned chocolate shop, famous for its pralines.
Les Petits Riens 101 Rue Americaine, +32 2537 3026. Shop with impunity at this store selling clothes, furniture, vinyl and books to raise money for the homeless and social projects.
Pierre Marcolini 1 Rue des Minimes; +32 2514 1206. Pierre Marcolini is the only Belgian chocolatier who oversees every step in the production of his delectable couverture chocolate, from cocoa harvest to box to ‘boutique’.
Magritte Museum 135 Rue Essegham; +32 2428 2626. This museum occupies the house the surrealist master lived in for nearly 24 years.
Wittamer 12–13 Place du Grand Sablon, +32 2512 3742. Swanky cafe and shop showcasing Wittamer’s swish chocolates. Another Wittamer shop can be found a few doors down.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts 5 Rue de Musée; +32 2508 3320. Home to more than 20,000 paintings, sculptures and drawings, and divided into four museums dedicated to modern art (closed till 2012), ancient art (Rubens, Van Dyck) and the paintings of Antoine Joseph Wiertz and Constantin Meunier.
Adagio Brussels Centre Monnaie Anspach; +32 2212 9300. This great central hotel has spacious rooms that come complete with their own kitchens and wi-fi.