One of the best parts of traveling is undoubtedly discovering new food and drink. But this can prove a challenge: obviously you want to eat well, but you don’t want to blow the budget. You want to try a few local specialties, but what exactly is “Onglet met kriek”*?
Brussels provides all the answers. Bruxellois take their food seriously and woe betide any restaurateur who doesn’t meet their high standards. Whether it’s street food or sophistication you’re after, you’ll find plenty to satisfy you here. And the best thing is that you definitely don’t have to sacrifice taste for euros. Here’s your guide for what to eat and drink in Brussels.
*Steak with bitter cherry sauce
Cheap and Cheerful – Street Food
If you’re on a budget, then welcome to Brussels. The city abounds with on-the-hoof eating options, which will keep you going from morning through till night. Street food here isn’t just for students and budget travelers, either. You’re quite likely to be queuing next to middle-class matrons with their shopping bags.
Frites (French Fries) are a Belgian institution. Friterie vans are everywhere, particularly where there’s an outdoor event. The very best frites come deep-fried in beef dripping and are served fresh and hot in a paper tray. Top with mayonnaise for that true Belgian taste.
Street food here gets way more sophisticated than just hot dogs and fries. Vans will serve you tubs of mussels, cups of whelks or even a demi-douzaine (half-dozen) oysters. Naturally, you can get a glass of crisp white wine to accompany them.
In the mood for something sweet? Try a gaufre – a Belgian waffle – freshly-cooked and topped with icing sugar, fresh fruit or even Chantilly cream.
Try Gourmet Brussels Food on our Brussels Night Walking Tour
Lunch al Fresco
For a sit-down lunch that won’t break the bank, head to the cobbled streets behind the Grand-Place. Restaurants here serve a Prix Fixe menu that includes a main course, drink and maybe even dessert. Sit outside (there are heat lamps in winter) and watch the world pass you by.
Seafood is the big draw here: langoustines (Dublin Bay prawns), clams or even lobster. But it’s mussels that are king: served any which way you like, whether it’s gratinée (topped with grated cheese), marinières or just plain boiled.
For dessert, indulge yourself with an ice-cream sundae such as a Café Liegois or a Dame Blanche. And do round it all off with a strong black coffee.
Uptown and Upmarket
The Upper Town is where smart Bruxellois office workers go for a weekday lunch. The food is classic, timeless and very Belgian. If you’re feeling brave , try tartare de boeuf (that’s raw, minced beef, often topped with a raw egg) or ris de veau (veal sweetbreads). For the less adventurous there’s steak, rabbit, fish or fresh pasta.
Expect seasonal accompaniments: if it’s asparagus season, then asparagus is everywhere. You’ll still get potatoes, but probably in the form of croquettes (mashed potato with a hint of nutmeg, wrapped in breadcrumbs).
Chocolate, Chocolate, Everywhere
You’ll be falling over chocolatiers in Brussels, especially on the Place du Grand Sablon, where the more superior brands vie ever-so discreetly for your custom. The chocolate here is all just fabulous, so where you go depends really on how much you want to spend:
– Leonidas & Neuhaus: Impress your friends without breaking the bank.
– Godiva: Impress your boss, but you might want to check the bank balance (or close your eyes) before paying
The next two are the ne plus ultra of chocolate, and hence at the top of the price range. But when it tastes this good, who’s counting?
– Wittamer: the Grande Dame of Belgian chocolate was created here in 1910 and sits majestically behind pink awnings. A box of exquisitely-wrapped, melt-in-the-mouth macarons or wicked pralines from here will ensure a return invitation from even the snootiest dinner party hostess. Or just go next door to the Tea Room, sip a signature hot chocolate and bite into a perfect éclair. Voila! Brussels on a plate.
– Marcolini: this Enfant Terrible has oozed attitude since opening up shop in 1995. Less chocolate shop, more haute couture boutique. The packaging is black, square and minimalist. The staff are snooty verging on terrifying. You’d better know your Sambirano Madagascar from your Chuao Grand Cru if you’re going to shop here.
Sample Belgian chocolate and see how it’s made with a Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour and Workshop
When it comes to ‘having a beer’, Brussels offers more options than are truly healthy. At the Poechenellekeller bar opposite the Mannekin Pis, I counted 148 different beers on the menu. I asked the waitress for more details:
“We have just under 200 altogether and we have to know them all” she smiled.
I didn’t dare ask if she’d tried them all.
Belgian beers fall into a few categories. Here are 4 you’re likely to come across:
– Blondes. Probably the single biggest category, this is your traditional pale lager. If in doubt, just ask for a pression (draught) and this is what you’ll get.
– Fruit beers. Beer with added fruit flavors (strawberry, cherry, blackcurrant). Tastes just like fruit juice. Take it from me: it isn’t just fruit juice.
– Trappist Beers. Silently brewed by Trappist monks in monasteries like Orval or Chimay. Comes in small bottles. It’s advisable to check alcohol content before drinking, or make plans to lie down soon afterwards.
– Lambic Beer. A Brussels beer, brewed by spontaneous fermentation. Quite dry, this also comes in re-fermented form as Gueuze, often served in champagne-style bottles.
Find out what makes Belgian beer so tasty on a Brussels Beer Tasting Tour
So, as they say in Brussels, depending whether they’re Flemish or French: Smakelijk and Bon Appetit!
Photos courtesy of Louise Heal.
– Louise Heal