“London is nice, but don’t sleep on Brussels.” Some words of advice from a communications professor before I departed for a 10-day spring break vacation in early 2009. At the time, extreme beer consumption was essentially the only thing on my college student mind, so I didn’t give a trip to Belgium’s bustling capital much thought or consideration (despite its close proximity to London and the fact that it boasts some of the best beer in the world; a factoid I carelessly ignored, thanks to the likes of Keystone, Budweiser, and Natty Light).
Now, as a mature adult who places less value on cheap, effervescent alcohol and more on broader, high-quality dining and drinking excursions, I obviously look back at the missed opportunity with much regret. So it’s no surprise that when Brussels’ tourism department invited me to experience the city’s food scene firsthand, I immediately accepted the offer, packed my oversized (sigh) bags, and began to brush up on my Dutch, French, and German*. (*Just kidding. I literally don’t speak any of these languages. #TypicalAmerican)
While culinary fanfare surrounding France, Italy, and Spain’s restaurant scenes has always dominated the media landscape, I was hoping to find that Brussels was so much more than waffles, frites, beer, and chocolate. And after five days exploring the city and eating as much our stomachs could, well, stomach, I can confirm that it surpassed my expectations and then some. Brussels proves to be a true “crossroads” (Crossroads of Europe is its nickname due to its central hub of the rail, road, and air traffic) of cultural influences rooted in simple flavors, but punctuated with a distinctive grit and charm. (One of my biggest surprises was just how funny Belgians are and this playfulness translates in many of their dishes—at least the ones that I got to sample.)
So, yes. Props to that wise professor whose name I can’t remember to save my life. Don’t sleep on Brussels. Instead, enjoy the familiarity of what they do best (waffles, beer, frites, and chocolate), but toss any preconceived notions aside so you can cozy up to the many diverse tastes offered by this great, albeit quietly-celebrated city.
Here’s a guide to every restaurant, store, and culinary offering I enjoyed most for anyone who may (and should!) be planning a trip.
A Michelin Moment
A whopping 18 restaurants in Brussels-proper currently maintain Michelin stars with more than 100 establishments coveting the same honor within 100 kilometers of the city. Perhaps the most celebrated of the bunch is two-starred Bon Bon, where I was lucky enough to dine for lunch one rainy Friday afternoon.
What’s most compelling (and most difficult) as a food editor is coming across a flavor combination or texture I’ve never encountered before. This theme was consistent across all of Chef Christophe Hardiquest’s tasting menu dishes, spotlighting seasonal ingredients with novel preparations. My favorite of the afternoon was a delicate appetizer of sliced oysters, wrapped in seaweed and injected with herb-infused creme fraiche, then plated among caviar, gin and tonic and cucumber gels, and topped with a refreshing mint oil. The individual flavors were unexpected and unusual, but presented a refreshing and harmonious mouthfeel when consumed together.
You’d also be remiss to not save room for dessert, particularly the croissant waffles served with homemade jam and hazelnut spread. Sure, you can stroll through city center and grab one of the many hot waffles to go (and trust me, I did that too), but the butteriness and flakiness of this clever take is worth writing home about.
Like the Locals Do
Not every restaurant will garner the same press and awards as a Michelin-starred Bon Bon, but that doesn’t mean it will lack the same sophistication or finesse in cooking styles. Steakhouses like modern Colonel appeal to tourists and locals alike with hearty entrees like Black Angus hanger steak and a slow-cooked filet of lamb, while more traditional joints like Les Brigittines cater to Belgian purists with recipes that have been passed down from generations. (The veal brains are prefaced with “like my grandma used to make” on the menu.)
Tiny Fernand Obb operates as a trendy hidden gem, churning out innovative takes on Belgian classics like shrimp croquettes (award-winning, I should add!) and meat-forward burgers, while TERO at Villa Empain shines with vegetable-heavy courses for a light and rejuvenating lunch.
Another exciting aspect of Brussels is its emphasis on local ingredients and commitment to showcasing the best of produce, meat, and dairy from its surrounding farmlands. La Fruitière, heralded by Belgium’s 2016 Cheesemaker of the Year, Véronique Socié, attracts patrons with her wide variety of cheeses, including a tart and fragrant goat cheese that she makes in-house. Stop by for a cheeseboard and a glass of wine for a memorable afternoon that should hold you until dinner.
It’d be blasphemous to not at least mention two of Brussels’ most famous exports, chocolate and beer, the former being a love affair that I almost can’t discuss without being X-rated.
We visited two chocolate factories on the trip, Laurent Gerbaud and Frederic Blondeel, who run two entirely different operations. Gerbaud’s shop is more traditional with chocolate-making classes offered in a private room, while Blondeel’s is more Willy Wonka-esque as he creates chocolate from plant to shelf and sells his product to the masses. Both were equally delicious, offering unique truffles and bars with ingredients like basil, quince, and passionfruit. I also may or may not have shipped boxes (yes, plural) home to enjoy during the holidays.
As far as beer is concerned, Brussels is the undisputed authority, with popular Cantillon Brewery touting traditional practices and techniques impacted directly by the cold weather. (To avoid excess bacteria, you can only make it in a large, shallow, and open copper vat when the temperature dips.) Sure, the somewhat bitter and less-carbonated base may not be everyone’s brew of choice, but there is a flavor iteration for every personality that even beer haters will enjoy (since it’s naturally less hoppy, light, and fruit-forward). Cheers!
If you know me well, you know that I’ve never met a fry I didn’t like (except shoestring, because who wants to pick up a blob of straggly potatoes that you can’t dip?). As a result, it has undeniably become my favorite food and I consider myself to be a true fry connoisseur. I can say with certainty that the fries, or “frites,” in Belgium are absolutely some of the best I’ve had in my life.
Twice-fried and topped only with sea salt and dipped in mayonnaise may be the traditional route, but chefs like Sergio Herman are elevating the OG indulgence at restaurants like Frites Atelier with gourmet varieties dressed in Flemish beef stew, Japanese furikake, and Indonesian peanut sauce. Unfortunately, I never got to dip them in a pot full of mussels (a regional delicacy), but that’s simply another excuse to head back to Brussels and continue to make up for the shortcomings of my youth.
Header image courtesy of Getty Images.