Belgium was our dream vacation. It hadn’t always been. That dream began to develop somewhere around the time we discovered Gulden Draak. We fell in love with Belgian beer, to the extent that we very well may name a child after one. So, as we neared our fifth wedding anniversary (our quinquennial), having never really done the honeymoon thing, and without any beer-named-children to tow around, we gave ourselves nine days to visit our beer mecca and realize our dream.
And what a well-realized dream it was.
This trip also marked my first time off the continent. Kelly is a bit better-traveled than I am, and so this was nothing to her, but as we landed in Brussels, I sat there in awe of having just traversed an ocean. We left Denver at 11:45am on a Thursday, caught a connecting flight in Atlanta, and landed in Brussels Friday at 8am, eight time zones ahead of Denver. It would have behooved me to have gotten some amount of sleep during that half-day of flying, but instead I watched, among other things, the entire eleventh season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. From the airport, we took a train to the station nearest our hotel, to which we had read was a ten-minute walk. We proceeded to get lost in several opposing directions, and an hour later, after rolling our luggage through a half-mile market and back, we found our hotel. Check-in is typically at 3pm, but they graciously let us have our room at whatever time it was that we got there.
The NH Brussels Bloom is an art hotel in the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode neighborhood of Brussels, next door to Le Botanique, in the northeast corner of Central Brussels. The walls of each room have been painted by a different artist. Our room was seemingly less photogenic than the others, and so we didn’t take any photos of it. As a consolation please enjoy this photo of my wife in a hanging bubble chair in front of the mural in the hotel’s lobby.
I’ve been here before: just home from a life-changing vacation, wanting to relive it through writing. Last time, it turned into a sprawling, near-comprehensive telling of a four-day trip to Denver – a half-hour read that I am confident, nearly four years on, has only been completely read by myself. So this time, I’m going to try to compartmentalize it, to simultaneously make it more accessible and easier for you to recognize which posts to skip. This first post will focus on food.
Brussels is very much a food city. There is such an overwhelming number of street vendors and restaurants that I have to wonder how they all exist. We walked through multiple alleys filled with restaurants, one indiscernible from the next, that specialize in moules et frites (mussels and fries), the national dish of Belgium, completely empty, with barkers summoning us inside with the promise of a “table by the fire.”
We did not eat the national dish of Belgium, but we did eat a lot of frites. Like, at least once a day. Belgian frites are probably the best fries in the world. What sets them apart is that they are fried twice, often in beef fat. The frites are served in a cornet and a tiny fork to eat with. The friteries, typically walk-up food stands, also offer a variety of dipping sauces – aiolis, curried sauces, garlic sauces, samurai sauce, pickle sauce, bicky sauce. A lot of the time when we chose our sauce we didn’t know exactly what we were getting. But I think that is part of the experience, and I don’t believe we ordered the same dipping sauce twice.
There generally wasn’t much that put one friterie above the next. If we wanted some frites and we saw a place to get some, we’d stop there. Due to its location, the Friterie du Café Georgette, was where we got frites the most often. We also went to Manneken Frites, mostly because there is a place in Arvada with the same name. I’d say Georgette had the second best frites we tried, and the other five or so friteries we tried all kind of ran together.
The best frites I had in Belgium were at Bia Mara. We went there on our first night in Brussels, as well as on our last day. Bia Mara specializes in fish and chips. We aren’t exactly a seafood family, but we are a chips family. They do emphasize their use of fresh catches and have rotating types of fish they serve. I figured this would be a good place to branch out, as opposed to a landlocked mountain town or a port city uncomfortably close to Deepwater Horizon. Kelly went the chicken and chips route, and we were both really impressed by our meals.
There is limited seating at Bia Mara and we had to wait a half-hour for our table, which was on the patio just outside the entrance. At some point, a very drunk French-speaking man walked up to the entrance and asked the staff for some food. They disappeared long enough for him to turn his attention towards our table. It appeared as though he were about to sit down next to Kelly, but miscalculated, and in falling over took our table down with him. My reaction was to shout “Sir!” at him while grabbing the table, and the only casualty was Kelly’s glass of beer, a Vedett, of which she had just said she was going to order another. The man, I think, apologized in a slurred French, I told him that it was okay and that we were going to keep eating now, and Kelly got a free beer. All in all, not a bad first meal in Belgium.
We went back to Bia Mara for lunch on our last day. This time there was no wait and we got a table inside and had their lunch special, chicken tacos and chips. That was probably my favorite meal of the trip.
Let us now turn our attention to waffles.
Waffles (or gaufres) are the most ubiquitous food in Brussels. There are waffle restaurants, waffle stands, waffle vans. There was even a waffle van inside our hotel. There are a couple of blocks in the touristy area near the Grand Palace and Manneken Pis exclusively filled with chocolate shops, souvenir shops, and waffle stands. And this is for good reason. Belgian waffles are delicious.
With the first waffles we had, we went for extravagance. We found this waffle stand called Los Churros & Waffles. They, like every waffle stand, had a glass display of all the different varieties of waffle and toppings from which to choose. Kelly and I both got a waffle topped with chocolate syrup and sliced banana. It was served in a paper boat tray with a tiny fork that had serrations on one of the outside tines, the purpose being to help you cut your waffle. Unfortunately, this was just another utensil constructed with only the right-handed in mind. As a lefty, to cut with the serrations I had to point the fork away from me and in so doing proceeded to break two forks and cut zero pieces of my waffle. Kelly had no problem, and helpfully snapped this photo while I went to get my second knifork.
After breaking the second one, I opted to eat the waffle with my hands and got chocolate all over my face and hands in the process (photo not available).
Aside from Los Churros, we stuck with the finger-food-friendly on-the-go options like syrup and/or powdered sugar. This, too, was not without its obstacles. The first powdered sugar waffle Kelly got, a dude bumped into her (or vice versa, see Pt. 2: Beer), and some of the powdered sugar made its way from the waffle onto him. And then he, in what I perceived to be a very French manner, very exaggeratedly wiped at his jacket as he walked away.
We also found a donut place in Brussels, because of course we did. COCO Donuts, whose logo looks like donuts at various states of consumption, offers a very unique and very photographic variety of donuts. Each donut we ordered came on a donut-sized plate. We each ordered two donuts, which seemed to put the girl who was serving us off a little bit. “This is our lunch,” Kelly told her, as if that would make it better. Something COCO does particularly well is floral donuts. Kelly got a violet, cuberdon (a candy we sought out afterward), and lavender donut, and I got myself a rose donut. Both had petal sprinkled on them, and gave a flavor you don’t usually associate with something as heavy as a donut. It was really amazing, and one of those many things where I asked, why don’t they have this in America? Kelly took a lot of donut photos.
Some other food highlights were Baogo, a burger bar that uses steamed bao for the buns; Peck 47, a cafe that serves breakfast all day unless they run out of eggs, as well as a salad topped with a full layer of bacon; Cafe Caberdouche, a busy cafe with a funny name that serves “Croque Madames”: two grilled ham and cheese sandwiches with an over-hard egg on the side; and Balls & Glory, which specializes in giant meatballs and stoemp, and about which there are many signs and t-shirts telling you not to be a sissy and eat stoemp, which is literally mashed potatoes with gravy, with a few peas and carrots sprinkled in there.
Our only real venture into Fancy Belgian Food™ was at Le Fin de Siècle, a somewhat oversized cash-only restaurant whose menu is exclusively written on chalkboards on the wall. It was all very romantic.
The food was very good, what I suspect someone who knew what they were talking about would describe as classical. Kelly got the carbonnade (beef stew), and I had an sausage-stuffed endive dish.
There was one place we found, Tonton Garby, that we had read was a must-go. The sandwiches were supposed to be exceptional, but the real reason to go was for the experience. The owner wants to create a positive experience for each and every customer, spending five to ten minutes with each person, and making sure they walk away happy. Here’s a sign from his shop window:
The first day we tried to go to Tonton Garby, it was closed, and I wound up breaking two forks trying to eat a waffle instead. The second time we tried, there was a line out the door. This also happened to be the day that we were museum-hopping using the Brussels Card, and, in my opinion, didn’t have a very large window to break for lunch. We waited in line for about fifteen minutes. It moved a little, but then three people cut us in line, and we decided we’d try again some other time.
Later that day, museum-hopping over, we stopped in again and the place was empty. Uncle Garby had run out of bread but still had plenty of cheese. Kelly was eyeing one but he said not to choose that one, that he was going to take that one home and eat it himself and have a fresh order of it tomorrow. We talked cheese and life and got the authentic Tonton Garby experience, just without the sandwiches. We chose some cheese and walked away happy, having just interacted with the best person in Belgium. On the way back we stopped in a bakery (or patisserie) called Paul and got some brood, then stopped in a grocery store and got some prosciutto. And that was our dinner that night.
Our hotel was just south of a predominantly Turkish neighborhood, and so some of our closest food options were Turkish restaurants. The first place we tried was Snack Le Botanique. There are a lot of places called Snack ______ in Brussels. The word “snack” seems to indicate Turkish fast food. At Snack Le Botanique, there was a bit of a language barrier, and so we weren’t quite sure what we were ordering. We wound up with doner kebab, but in a tortilla, and also filled with frites.
For our last meal in Brussels, we set out to eat Turkish pizza, or pide. Pide is a flatbread similar to a pita, topped and baked in a stone oven. The result looks like a food canoe, but since we got ours to go and it had to fit in a square box, ours looked like this:
Our pide was topped with egg and chorizo, and it was delicious. There are a number of Turkish pizza options in the area, but we ended up at Pizzeria Nasreddin because it was the only a place within a two-block radius that took credit cards, and we were down to about seven euros at the time. We also got a second, more traditional pizza topped with gyros.
Another thing I set out to try in Brussels was Brussels sprouts, as well as to learn whether the locals simply call them “sprouts”. Curiously, in all of my research and for the entire trip, there was not one place I stumbled across that offered Brussels sprouts, although I did see this slogan in windows scattered throughout the city:
Tune in next time as I try to recollect the main event of our trip to Belgium: beer.