Brussels manages to be at once a quiet provincial city and the bustling capital of Europe. “10 years ago this place was dead,” a cab driver told me during a recent visit, “but today it’s on the move. There are jobs for everybody and the city gets lovelier every day that passes”. Urban spaces and green areas have been tastefully redeveloped, and the plethora of offices and embassies and consulates that the European Union has spawned has in no way tarnished Brussels’s image as a beautiful cosmopolitan city.
Moving on to matters culinary, the city boasts a robust traditional cuisine and a range of beers whose variety and quality rivals that of Italy’s wines—or almost. Brussels is choc-a-bloc with Michelin-starred, haute cuisine restaurants, but the best places to eat are the traditional brasseries and inns. La Mort Subite is an unbeatable classic of the genre. A twenties-style café awash with Art Nouveau decorations, it manages to attract the most various local clientele, despite the fact that it appears in every city guide. Here it’s de rigeur to drink Gueuze, a blend of old and new Lambic beers (turbid mash barley beers, nicknamed the ‘Champagne of Brussels’, only made in a small area outside the city). It’s a tart, fizzy brew, ideal as an aperitif. Other Lambic-based beers are Faro, sweetened with sugar and caramel, Kriek, made with the addition of barrel-macerated cherries, and raspberry-flavored Framboise.
But if strong, top fermented fermentation Trappist beers are your tipple, a good place to go to is In ‘t Spinnekopke, a pretty little eighteenth-century inn at Place du Jardin aux Fleurs 1. Here they have a list of about 100 labels and a lot of the traditional dishes include beer as an ingredient. You can even opt for a beer-based menu: scallops with Rochefort, dark and fruity with a hint of figs; mussels with beer-flavored cream; and, to finish, sorbet à la Kriek.
Finally, if its good, old-fashioned Brussels cooking you’re looking for, then I recommend the Roue d’Or, a stone’s throw from the Gran Place, at rue des Chappelliers, 26. A magnificent eighteenth-century multi-tier silver display stand (one of only six in the world) hogs the attention at the center of the main dining room, decorated with Magritte-style murals. The establishment is situated bang in the middle of an area of ‘touristy’ restaurants, but its cooking won’t disappoint you—on the contrary. Herrings, anguilles au vert, local fish and meat dishes and, above all, succulent mussels cooked in every way imaginable. In short, here you’re sure to enjoy a simple, authentic Bruxellois meal at an eminently affordable price.
Adapted by John Irving