Brussels is a foodie’s dream. One of the reasons I loved living there so much was all the eating out I got to do. When I think of the city now, I still spontaneously start to salivate. Take a look at my top picks of places to go and munch.
If you go one place for… frites
Chips in Belgium are usually thrice cooked in beef fat which makes them taste simply wonderful, but it’s not great if you’re veggie. In fact, it’s not a terribly easy country to be a vegetarian in at all. But while I love you guys with your good health and good morals, you’re on your own here – these bovine-enhanced frites are the bomb.
Head to Maison Antoine in the Place Jourdan and queue up at the kiosk at the far end of the car park. Grab yourself some frites with a huge dollop of sauce of your choice and take a seat at any of the cafes around the square. As long as you buy a drink there, you’re welcome to eat your Maison Antoine chips at one of the little tables outside for free.
Fortunately for me, Place Jourdan was walking distance from my old office at the EP, so occasionally at lunchtime I’d wend my way through Parc Leopold and treat myself to a coronet of crispy fried goodness.
If you go one place for… waffles
Tourist waffles are soggy rectangles of cooked batter topped with cream, fruit, chocolate and possibly some kind of syrup or sprinkles. They are sold from kiosks around the city, particularly in the streets around the Grand Place. These you do not want.
Why would you, when you can get a hot-off-the-griddle, melt-in-the-mouth gaufre Liege from the waffle van? The waffle van is Belgium’s answer to the ice cream van, and boy, does it make a lot of sense given that it’s rarely ice cream weather over there.
I was never a big waffle fan before I went to Brussels, but then I’d never had a genuine, fresh Belgian waffle. When done properly, they’re crispy, buttery, sugary checkerboards of heaven. Liege waffles differ from normal waffles in that they are not perfectly rectangular and are denser. The chunks of pearl sugar which are dropped into the batter caramelise when they’re cooked, making them sweeter, crunchier and more delicious.
The only problem with the waffle van is that it’s on wheels and therefore trundles around the city at will. A good bet for the weekend is outside the Magritte Museum, but in case you can’t find it and urgently need to get at least one waffle inside you, head to Mokafe in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert for the Brussels variety. I must warn you that they are inferior, but they do come dusted with icing sugar and a cute little fork.
What a silly name for a biscuit, ey? And yet, the humble speculoo is to Belgium what shortbread is to Scotland. The most common variety are the Lotus ones that you’ll probably get gratis with your coffee, but for the real deal head to Dandoy, superior crafters of biscuits with shops around the city. I suggest you take the opportunity to pop into the one just off the Grand Place du Sablon when you go on your obligatory chocolate binge.
Speculoos are crispy, sweet and slightly spicy, and are traditionally eaten plain, but just like digestives and Hobnobs, the chocolate variety is definitely more exciting. You can also buy speculoo spread, which looks like peanut butter but is infinitely more delicious than that vomit-inducing paste.
Dandoy don’t just excel in speculoos though. A whole biscuity smorgasbord is laid out behind the glass counters. There’s something for every taste, but I go crazy for their chocolate Florentines, as well at their beautifully intricate marzipan creations.
If you go one place for… coffee and cake
Make it Arcadi, just at the top end of les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, if you’re looking for a cake counter so thrilling it makes you want to do a little dance of joy the moment you clap eyes on it. Tarts and cheesecakes and flans and gateaux are all done to perfection. The only problem is choosing. Oh, how to choose!
Go with a sharing caring friend (no possessive types) and order three slices between you. They’re so rich you might not be able to finish them, but if you don’t attempt to make a good old go of it, I will presume you have no soul.
Arcadi have an extensive normal menu as well, which I’ve dipped into from time to time. As their speciality is baking however, the savoury tarts are by far the best bet here and are a million miles away from a soggy chunk of English quiche.
If you go one place for… lunch
If a café based around pitta bread sounds dull to you, then think again. Le Perroquet is all polished wooden tables and art nouveau mirrors and tiled walls. Grab yourself a huge Hoegaarden and cast your eyes over the extensive menu that will completely reinterpret your idea of a pitta sandwich.
Each deep-filled pocket arrives in its own little basket and comes packed to brim with whatever sublime mishmash of ingredients you have chosen. I’d go so far as to say that they’re Belgium’s answer to the burrito. They’re as good, for sure. I personally enjoy anything with lardons, spicy merguez sausage and cheese. Or the ‘Feta Miel’, which contains grilled lamb, feta, honey and raisins.
As someone who finds most condiments repulsive, I expected to shun the four pots of sauce that were served with it. A suspicous drizzle and a nibble later though and I was dousing my pitta in the stuff.
Le Perroquet is a real Brussels institution and when I rocked up with my colleagues one evening, all long-time locals, they were thoroughly disappointed that I’d been before and that they weren’t the first to share this wonderful place with me.
If you go one place for… dinner
Le Fin De Siècle is hands-down my favourite restaurant in Brussels. It’s informal, noisy, friendly and nearly impossible to find. In some ways it’s like many of the restaurants that are particularly fashionable in London at the moment – no sign outside, no reservations, queues at busy times – but the vibe is way more jovial and way less pretentious.
I recommend you get there before 8.30 on week days and possibly around 8 at the weekends to avoid queues.
There are no menus, just take a look at the big board on the wall and make your choice. It’s not in English, but don’t be afraid to ask. Like I said, the staff are really friendly and efficient. It’s easy to be confused at the seemingly random prices in euros and cents of each of the dishes, but the reason for this is that when Belgium switched currency, the owners decided to stick with the exact conversion, rather than round up or down to the nearest euro.
It’s not usually worth mentioning the bread that arrives before the meal, but the Fin de Siecle’s homemade loaves are really special. Have a peek through the open doorway at the back of the restaurant and you’ll see the deep golden domes lined up on shelves, all ready to be sliced up and eaten.
I’m a sucker for the goats cheese salad, which arrives as all the best salads do, with a whole cheese on the top — split in two on little toasts and drizzled in honey, I must add.
Traditional Belgian dishes such as stoemp saucisse (sausage and mash), lapin a la kriek (rabbit in cherry beer) and carbonnades flamandes (the juiciest, richest beef and beer stew you’ll ever taste) are all super hearty and done to perfection. I’m also partial to the Iranian lamb stew.
Dinner for two with beer will probably come to between 35 and 50 euros.