For eleven months of the year, Brussels is a haven for the hungry. Satisfy that late-night snacky feeling at the local friterie (chip shop), where the chips have been double-fried in goose fat. On the way home from a night out with plentiful beers and negotiable closing hours, slip in the side door of a bakery and order a fresh croissant from the bakers themselves.
Take a bite from the delicious multicultural melting pot and start planning your next trip, because there aren’t enough hours in the day to cover all the culinary delights that Brussels has to offer.
The twelfth month is August, when Belgians and expats alike take their holidays, leaving behind only shuttered windows and that oh-so-frustrating handwritten En vacances 1 août – 31 août sign. It is a time to feel sorry for tourists, who are faced with vastly reduced options, and to look forward to September.
This guide works on the basis that you are visiting when Brussels is at its most vibrant, when the terraces are full, beer and chocolate flow and the queues for frites are endless but worth every minute.It was always common to hear the rumble of an industrial coffee machine and see locals sitting outside Brussels cafes with their little cups and the obligatory speculoos biscuit. The concept of speciality coffee took longer to catch on, but in recent years, “slow coffee” establishments have been springing up, welcomed with open arms by the coffee lovers of Brussels.
A personal favourite, OR began life as a coffee roastery in a small Flanders town, but now accounts for 4 espresso bars (1 in Ghent and 3 in Brussels), as well as over 300 wholesale customers. The industrial-style interiors, comfortable sofas and friendly staff make their bars suitable for family gatherings and business meetings alike.
Askum Coffee House
You’ve been “doing” the centre of Brussels: visiting the museum quarter, the Royal Palace and the Grand Place. The cobbles are starting to hurt your feet, it might not be time for a beer yet and you are not giving in to Starbucks. Drop into Askum for some organically grown Ethiopian coffee and other African fairtrade drinks. If you are lucky, you may also experience a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
Café du Sablon
For a moment, stepping inside the door of Cafe du Sablon feels like entering a chemistry lab. All the accoutrements for slow drip coffee are on display and customers are asked to choose their preferred extraction method, be it Chemex, V60 or Aeropress. Grab a seat by the window, watch the trams rumble by and plan your next move, maybe a visit to the lovely Sablon area with its weekend antiques market is on the cards.
If all those modern coffee displays become too much, it might be time for a trip to Corica. It is similar in style to an Italian coffee bar, where locals stand and knock back a couple of espressos without worrying that they are going to be awake all night. Take a moment to chat to the staff, who are experts and will advise you on which of the 27 different coffees will best suit your taste.
Peace, Love and Pancakes is the Yeti motto and come Sunday brunch time, they stand by it. There are now 2 Yeti locations, one downtown on a pedestrianised side street overlooked by a famous Brussels comic wall, the other in the EU quarter, on the edge of the little Parc du Viaduct. Yes, reservations are essential. Yes, brunch is on the costly side. But for atmosphere, location and tasty organic food, it is a winner.
At the weekend, Oma is brunch central. Reservations are essential, as there are very few tables, especially in bad weather. Oma is the German for grandmother and as you queue for the buffet-style brunch, there is a distinct feeling of being in your grandparents’ house. Mismatched crockery, flowery wallpaper, a warm welcome…it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see your own family photo on display. The menu changes from week to week (aside from the consistent coffee, juice and patisseries), but you can count on plenty of good hot and cold food.
It is difficult to write this guide and not get a craving for lavender infused granola, eggs benedict and a fresh basil, lemon and vanilla smoothie in Peck 47. When it first opened, it was the answer to a lot of downtown Brussels prayers. Delicious food, young and enthusiastic staff, essential outside seating and a menu that transfers smoothly from morning to evening in the blink of a cocktail glass. A new location (Peck 20) opened this summer. It has an excellent model to build upon.
Café de la Presse
This corner cafe, all the way at the end of Avenue Louise, is the sister of the previously mentioned Café du Sablon. Instead of high-tech coffee equipment, the emphasis is on comfort, with an array of foamy coffees, fresh sandwiches, quiches and bagels, and luxurious cakes. It is a popular brunch spot, but if the place gets too crowded, you can get your food to go and head into the nearby Bois de la Cambre for a picnic by the lake.
TheTaste has already covered the Bia Mara behemoth, but it deserves to be mentioned more than once. Barry and Simon started off doing street food in Dublin, before opening their first restaurant in Brussels in 2012. Fish and chips may seem simple, but Bia Mara offers so many delicious (and sustainable) options, you’ll forget everything you tasted before. I have seen a grown man with a tear in his eye when he found the restaurant closed because they had run out of fish. The brand has gone from strength to strength, with the Hook restaurants in London, another Bia Mara restaurant in Antwerp and their latest project, Ancho, a Mexican kitchen in Waterloo.
Like its neighbour, L’Idiot du Village, Restobieres is the kind of place you stumble upon by accident, but never forget. On a pedestrian street just around the corner from the famous Jeux de Balles flea market, the menu boasts a variety of traditional Belgian foods and more unusual Belgian beers. Your first instinct might be to take a seat outside, but don’t turn down the possibility of exploring the quaint interior and examining memorabilia ranging from coffee grinders and chocolate boxes to cake trays and beer bottles.
Au Vieux Bruxelles
A trip to Brussels isn’t complete without downing a steaming pot of mussels. The bonus is that moules arrive hand-in-hand with frites, so that box is also ticked. The area around St Catherine in the centre is best known for its fish restaurants, but Au Vieux Bruxelles near St Boniface has been holding its own since 1882. If mussels aren’t your thing, this old-fashioned restaurant also offers other Belgian specialities such as carbonnade (beer stew), stoemp saucisse (the Brussels equivalent to bangers and mash) or waterzooi (a chicken or fish stew).
There are two excellent Ethiopian restaurants in Brussels: Kokob and Toukoul. Both are worth a visit, each offering a discovery menu, although Kokob seems to have a bigger mix. Traditional dishes chosen by the chef are served on a giant platter, to be shared between guests. An injera pancake acts as an edible plate (if you make it that far) and baskets of rolled pancakes on the side are used to scoop up the food. Utensils are not an option. There is no room for pickiness, although meat and vegetable dishes are separated.
Les Super Filles du Tram
There was some debate as to whether to include Les Super Filles du Tram under brunch or dinner. Their Sunday brunch selection is vast, but the restaurant is even better known as one of Brussels’ top burger joints. The ladies who run the place don’t skimp on quality or quantity. The burgers are succulent, with generous sides, the atmosphere is cheery and the decor is colourfully Belgian.
Do not spend your entire trip in Delirium, or the Delirium Village as it is now known, incorporating the tequila and absinthe bars across the little street. At last count, there were 3,162 beers available. It is a fun place to visit once, full of students, tourists and the odd pickpocket, but there are far more comfortable places to be.
A La Mort Subite
For an authentic Brussels beer experience, venture a little further towards A La Mort Subite, which is run by the fourth generation of the Vossen family. Locals and tourists sit side-by-side in the beautiful surroundings, enjoying a variety of Belgian draught and bottled beers, including the Mort Subite lambic brand of gueze, kriek, pecheresse, framboise and blanche.
Le Grand Central
It is something of a mouthful to refer to Frédéric Nicolay as the “entrepreneur designer of Brussels’ catering scene”, but looking at his portfolio of bars and restaurants throughout the Belgian capital, there doesn’t seem to be a more succinct alternative. This is the man who invests in a locality, no matter how rundown or unfashionable it may be, and injects it with life. His latest project is Le Grand Central, a 600m2 space in the centre of the EU quarter. Anyone familiar with Nicolay’s other establishments will recognise the recycled industrial decor, but will also enjoy the big terrace, the generous drinks menu and a modern food selection.
Moeder Lambic was promoting craft beers before that was even a thing, banning Coca-Cola and mass-produced beers from its bars back in 2006. The original bar is situated behind the town hall in St Gilles, with a second premises downtown. Today, they are still focused on ensuring that the products on sale are original and authentic. This dedication makes it very easy to while away an afternoon sampling a wide selection of Belgian beers, cheeses and salted meats.
Sylvia went to Brussels for three months in 2008 and never looked back. The city satisfies her love of food, culture, diversity and travel, with every country in Europe only a flight away. She makes wholehearted attempts at documenting her travels on social media, but would sometimes just like to settle down with a good book.
Follow Sylvia’s blog: www.goingtobrussels.wordpress.ie.