It’s fashionable these days to go “off the beaten path”, “travel like a local” or “look beneath the surface”. However, each city has its classics that tourists can’t miss: it would be a shame to visit Paris without taking a look at the Eiffel Tower, or go to Mexico City without tasting a taco.
So what’s a serious traveller to do?
Do the classics right.
In Brussels, there are a few Belgian food classics that are inevitable. The Belgians are said to have invented “French” fries. They’re known around the world for their beers. And Belgian chocolate is a source of national pride. Here’s how to avoid the tourist traps, get the real stuff where the locals get it and eat like a professional tourist!
Even though we’re used to hearing the words “Belgian waffle” together, in Belgium, there is no such thing. Two cities—Brussels and Liège—have their own specific versions that are sold side by side. A Brussels waffle is quite thick, has extremely light, fluffy dough on the inside and a crispy thin crust on the outside; a Liège waffle, on the other hand, is thicker, denser and crunchier.
In Brussels, the old town is where the tourists hang out. On almost each corner you can find a waffle stand, most of them advertising 1-euro waffles. Don’t be fooled—they are terrible!
Close to the Manneken Pis, a French waffle chain called Waffle Factory has the best—and most expensive—waffles in the old town. It’s a bit of a “McDonald’s for waffles”, and the atmosphere in the restaurant leaves much to be desired, but the waffles are some of the best around. The Brussels waffle with melted Belgian chocolate is simple and delicious.
Waffle Factory Rue du Lombard 30, 1000 Ville de Bruxelles, Belgium
Moules-frites is advertised everywhere in the old town, and it’s truly one of the most iconic dishes in Brussels and all of Belgium. Be aware, though, that mussels go through seasons. They’re in season between July and March, and at their best in September and October.
The technique to eat this dish is quite simple: take a mussel, eat the flesh, then use the shell to pinch the meat out of the subsequent mussels. Finally, rip the shell in two, and use the half-shell as a scoop to taste the broth. Or… just eat with your fingers…
Don’t eat the mussels that aren’t open!
Le Zinneke Place de la Patrie 26, 1030 Schaerbeek, Belgium
They’re probably the most famous Belgian dish in the world. Fries aren’t French, despite their name in English. In this part of the planet, they’re eaten in a paper cone, slathered in one of the dozen-or-so sauces available at fries stands.
However in Brussels, fries are a bit of a tourist trap. Ten years ago, it was quite difficult to find a stand in the old part of town. Today, there are many different options, but none have serious merit. None will blow your mind, so to speak.
To get the real deal, you have to leave the centre of town. South of the old town, in the neighborhood of Ixelles, is Frit Flagey—a real Belgian fries stand. The fries are crispy and crunchy, served hot to order, with the classic selection of sauces—from mayonnaise to tartare to piri-piri and even sauce riche! Warning: there will be a long line of customers waiting in front of the stand.
Frit Flagey Place Eugène Flagey, 1050 Ixelles, Belgium
It seems unfair to talk about Belgian beer in a short article like this one when books upon books have been written on the subject. However, what can’t be said here will be unveiled at Delirium Café, the Guinness world record holder for the most beers for sale on-premises, to the tune of 2004 beers available back in the year 2004.
At Delirium Café, the bartenders are like beer sommeliers. Evenings get extremely busy, but if you are a beer connaisseur and would like to discover new brews and chat about the subject with people who know their craft, you now know where to go!
The Delirium Café is located on a dead-end street that hosts a whole series of bars, all owned by the same group. There’s an absinthe bar, a rum bar, a vodka bar, and a tequila bar…
Delirium Café Impasse de la Fidélité 4A, 1000 Ville de Bruxelles, Belgium
Carbonnade flamande is, simply put, a beer stew. Have you ever had “boeuf bourguignon”? A carbonnade is the same, but cooked in Belgian beer instead of Burgundy wine. It’s a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs dish that’s ideal when Brussels turns rainy.
The restaurant Au Vieux Bruxelles is a great place to enjoy a carbonnade flamande and all the other Belgian food classics. An institution that opened in 1882 and has barely changed since, it’s like a trip back in time!
Restaurant Au Vieux Bruxelles Rue Saint-Boniface 35, 1050 Ville de Bruxelles, Belgium
This is probably the least well-known dish on this list of classic Belgian foods. Eel with green sauce (anguille au vert in French) is a stew made with the eel still on the bone in a sauce of different herbs, including thyme, sage, parsley, etc. Traditionally, it has been a peasant’s dish.
But Brussels doesn’t only have regular restaurants that serve honest Belgian food with a side of fries. There are many upscale restaurants that are worth shelling out for, and Bistro Margaux, with its Michelin star, is one that should not be missed.
Their version of anguille au vert includes a boneless eel with crispy skin, a delicious espuma of green herbs, shaved radishes, a few refreshing bits of butterhead lettuce and a kohlrabi sauce.
Bistro Margaux Dorpsplein 3, 1700, Belgium
Note: Bistro Margaux has closed its doors and was replaced by Brasserie Julie.
Because of Belgium’s troubled colonial past, for a long time Belgians had an unlimited supply of cocoa beans available from the Congo, their colony in Africa. As a result, Brussels’ chocolatiers became some of the world’s most renowned. To this day, tourists flock to the European capital to taste Belgian chocolates. In the tourist area around the Manneken Pis, the famous Belgian chocolate companies—including Godiva, Leonidas and Neuhaus—have opened stores catering to the travellers passing by.
However, there is more to Belgian chocolate than the multinational companies. Smaller, more artisanal confectioners offer a wider variety of sweets and sell their products all over town. Laurent Gerbaud Chocolatier is one of them. Candied ginger on dark chocolate? Why not!
Laurent Gerbaud Chocolatier Rue Ravenstein 2D, 1000 Brussels, Belgium
Brussels, and Belgium as a whole, is obviously influenced by its close neighbours—France, Germany and the Netherlands. However, its cuisine is absolutely unique. Don’t get fooled by the tourist traps, great treats await you just off the beaten path!