Followers of European politics keep a close eye on Belgium, for it is the home of the European Commission and the Council of ministers of the European Union, whose decisions chart the course of history. Belgium offers more than politics however: a long
Great Food in Belgium
There’s an interesting statistic floating around the Internet which states: there are 1, 800 restaurants in Brussels, Belgium. Whether this is particularly true noone seems to know, but it does tell you something very important about the Brussels and the Belgians:there’s plenty to eat there – and they really love to eat!
Dining — A National Pastime
One of the great injustices of life is that Belgian cuisine isn’t generally as world renowned as the neighbouring French fare (with two exceptions, which we’ll come to later). This lack of attention is a pity, as Belgium’s cuisine it is often described as being of ‘French flair, in Dutch portions.’ One of the most intriguing things about Belgian cuisine – or rather, the Belgian approach to cuisine – is that there is relatively little snob value involved, a refreshing attitude best exemplified by the way frites (otherwise known as French fries) are treated. Considered snack food anywhere else, in Belgium frites are proudly served even in Michelin restaurants. If great tasting, wholesome and unpretentious dishes are your desire, then Brussels has plenty to offer!
Hunting for a restaurant is easy work. Some of the most fashionable districts for restaurants are Place Sainte-Catherine, the old aristocratic quarter (with restaurants to match its breeding) and the Sablon, where midrange restaurants are clustered with high-class antique shops, cafes and chocolate delis. Around St Catherine Square and the Fishmarket, there are lots of seafood-themed restaurants and though the Grand-Place has more than its share of expensive, unremarkable tourist restaurants, many fine establishments are also hidden among the less memorable.
Restaurants in Brussels
As a rule, good Belgian restaurants go for a low-key, comfy atmosphere — think wood paneling and red checked tablecloths. One of the most long-lasting (and therefore one of the best) establishments in this mold is the Aux Armes de Bruxelles on the Rue des Bouchers, which has proudly served traditional Belgian cuisine since 1921. With its impeccably dressed waiters and dark paneled rooms, it is unabashedly old-fashioned, including its insistence on mouthwatering dishes served in heaped portions. Popular with locals, celebrities and the occasional royal, it fills up quickly most days except on Monday, when it is closed, so don’t forget to call ahead (+32 2 511 55 50) for reservations.
More contemporary and sophisticated is the Le Belga Queen on Rue de Fosse-aux-Loups, a former bank where the quality of the food is generally as high as its ceilings. There’s a cigar bar downstairs and some rather funky restrooms with glass doors (which unfortunately, don’t always work, so check to make sure it really does frost up when you close the door, lest you flash the rest of the room). Also popular with the young, hip crowd, booking is essential and can be made at +32 2 217 2187.
Of course, with over 1, 800 restaurants in Brussels (so they say) there’s plenty of choice for the most discerning diner, and there is everything from Italian to Japanese available as well. If you’re not sure where to dine, take a quick look through the Michelin restaurant guide available in your hotel, or just ask around — chances are, you’ll get directed to a good eating spot!
The previously mentioned exceptions to Belgian cuisine’s general obscurity are, of course, chocolates. Belgium has always been at the forefront of the chocolate world, and is famed in particular for its delicately balanced dark chocolate (in contrast to Americans who put in more sugar, the French more cocoa, and the Swiss more milk). In 1812, Brussels was the place where the first experiments with pralines were concocted, precursor to a thousand copy-cat forays in other countries; today, Brussels is still the home of some of the best chocolatiers in the world.
To sample Belgian chocolate, you only need to pick one of over 2000 specialty chocolate shops scattered about the country. On the high end of the scale, perhaps the best known chocolate shop is Neuhaus, the oldest chocolate shop in the country at 140 years old and inventor of that very first praline, where the astronomical prices (about USD3.25 for 100 grams) are reflected in the amazing cream filled Manons, or nougat filled Caprices. Then there’s Marcolini on Place du Grand Sablon, opened by the renowned chocolatier Pierre Marcolini, with its chocolate fountain in the window and a dozen odd varieties of chocolate ecstasy. On the very other end, you can flag down any of the roaming vans which wander around the cities, dispensing affordable chocolate topped waffle to the masses for a piffling EUR 1.50.
If you’d like linger over your selection, perhaps accompanied with a fine tea, then there are plenty of tearooms in which to indulge yourself. One of the best known shops is Wittamer, at the Place du Grand Sablon (opposite the Marcolini shop), established in 1910 and still run by the same family whose name is emblazoned on the shocking pink storefront. This shop offers fantastic light pastries, cakes, mousses and chocolates. If you like, you can also take home a cake (or three), neatly wrapped in their trademark shocking pink wrappings. There is also the Dandroy Biscuiterie on Rue au Beurre (how appropriate for a chocolate shop be to on Butter Road!). Family owned and run for six generations, many of its fine baked goods are still made using the original recipes. There are dozens of delectable treats, but the pain d’almond — spiced biscuits topped with chipped almonds — are an especially memorable taste.
Another good place for chocolate lovers is the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate at 13 Grand Place, where anything and everything you ever wanted to know about the cocoa bean is on display, from its first recorded use by the Aztecs of Mexico all the way up to that fateful moment in 1812 when the first praline was made.
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