Brussels, Belgium, has been shaking off a bad rap for the past decade as the Continental redoubt of the well-heeled and slightly stuffy; a resolutely bourgeois town, suffering from a dearth of...well, vitality. There have always been hushed, pricey restaurants aplenty, swathed in stiff white table linens (with squadrons of stiff waiters to match); ditto comically expensive shops for well-groomed but terminally conservative diplos and Eurocrats.
No longer: Brussels has embraced a culture of fashion-forward, streetwise cool that’s giving its neighbor Antwerp a run for its money. Just head north of Old Town, down the hill toward the Bourse, and then cross Boulevard Anspach. You’re in the once-rough, now thoroughly chic Dansaert neighborhood. Named for its main artery, Rue Antoine Dansaert, it roughly comprises Place St.-Géry to the southwest (a super-cool bar at every turn) and Place Ste.-Catherine to the east (stylish boîtes and seafood bistros; a sweet outdoor food and flower market).
The place to rest your head, if you’re keen to be at the center of the action, is the 13-room Hotel Café Pacific (57 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/213-0080; doubles from $170, including breakfast). The prevailing aesthetic is blanched austerity: light oak floors, white-dressed beds, and biscuit-colored linens hanging in the windows. So far, so Flemish; but a couple of the rooms harbor cheery raspberry-red interiors or quotations whimsically stenciled onto the walls. Downstairs, Café Pacific is known for its top-notch café crèmes; it’s also where guests get to take their delicious breakfasts.
Step outside the hotel and you’re surrounded by Rue Antoine Dansaert’s pioneering clothing and accessories boutiques that collectively lend Brussels its new appeal. The progenitor of the street’s cachet is Stijl (74 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/512-0313), where owner Sonia Noël has been stocking her sprawling, high-ceilinged space—gray walls; gray concrete floor—with designs from Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Kris Van Assche, and the like for years. The prettiest shop interior belongs to a member of Belgium’s new fashion generation, Annemie Verbeke (64 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/511-2171), a Flanders native whose Dansaert store is housed in a massive early-20th-century house with aged mosaic floors, a curving staircase, and soaring ceilings. Verbeke’s deconstructed designs in drapey, sexy fabrics—a bit Dries Van Noten, a bit DvF—are the quiet stars of the show. For a sleek white emporium that showcases Belgium’s emerging talent, make your way to the end of Rue Antoine Dansaert and Glorybox (10 Rue Léon Lepage; 32-2/511-0488). A rotating cast of smaller labels, such as Monsieur Bul, mix with edgy clothing and accessories from Filles à Papa.
Understated chic is the neighborhood’s defining aesthetic, and Belgian jeweler Christa Reniers (196 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/510-0660), whose flagship has been on Antoine Dansaert since 1999, embodies it with her elegant designs, popular with local stylists and editors. Her signature Rainbow 8 rings (thin, hammered-gold stacking rings with tiny tourmalines and moonstones) form gorgeous constellations on the hand. For statement pieces in the manner of Marni and Lanvin—bold, outsize necklaces and cuffs in brass, enamel, and grosgrain—the place is Les Précieuses (83 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/503-2898), a treasure box where owner-designer Pili Collado also stocks Diptyque votives and one-off accessories; you could shop here with a blindfold on and still walk away with a perfect choice. Around the corner, on Rue des Chartreux, an outpost of Belgian sportswear brand Bellerose (11A Rue des Chartreux; 32-2/502-8953) sells its own Abercrombie & Fitch–like line for men and women as well as a vast selection of vintage clothes, books, and housewares (yes, that black-lacquered Bobbin bike against the wall is for sale).
With great shops come restaurants appealing to those who want to eat and drink well—in stylishly (and, for Brussels, refreshingly) dressed-down surroundings. Stalwarts on the street include Bonsoir Clara (22 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/502-0990; lunch for two $35), a boho space serving an haute menu of Continental standards turned on their heads (goose-liver pâté is paired with vanilla, pears, and dates). Just a few doors up is L’Archiduc (6 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/512-0652; drinks for two $20), a circa-1937, speakeasy-style bar (just ring the bell for entry) that’s an Art Deco fantasy of slender columns and curvaceous fauteuils, with a dimly lit mezzanine for intimate tête-à-têtes. One of Brussels, Belgium’s loveliest afternoon (or evening, or morning) teas is on offer at AM Sweet (4 Rue des Chartreux; 32-2/513-5131; tea for two $8), a diminutive, two-story salon de thé and confiserie around the corner on Chartreux. It’s the neighborhood favorite for lesser-known artisanal chocolates (including those of local cult producer Laurent Gerbaud), delicate pastries, and obscure teas from all corners of the globe.
But Dansaert’s secret weapon is its unexpected wealth of Asian restaurants. Rue Dansaert itself is abutted on one side by Brussels’s version of Chinatown and, on the other, by Rue Jules van Praet, which is lined with Thai and Vietnamese joints serving authentic food at rock-bottom prices. Green curry at pan–Southeast Asian Lune de Miel (15 Rue Jules Van Praet; 32-2/513-9181; lunch for two $30) and shredded pork at Thiên-Long (12 Rue Van Artevelde; 32-2/511-3480; lunch for two $25) are musts. Whatever cuisine you choose, it’s de rigueur to end your evening at one of three irrevocably hip, endlessly packed bars flanking the Place St.-Géry: Zebra Bar (35 Place St.-Géry; 32-2/511-0901; drinks for two $10), with its metal-clad interiors and wide terrace for people-watching; Le Roi des Belges (35 Rue Jules Van Praet; 32-2/503-4300; drinks for two $10), which has Chimay on tap and views onto the square; or Mappa Mundo (2-6 Rue du Pont de la Carpe; 32-2/513-5116; drinks for two $10), all dark-wood rafters and low lighting, but with a stealth Latin spirit in the form of the city’s best caipirinha and a thumping samba-remix sound track. Mappa Mundo is thoroughly Flemish, but with a taste of the great wide world—the essence of Dansaert, in other words. Even the Eurocrats are loosening their Hermès ties and lining up at the bar.
Maria Shollenbarger is the deputy editor of How to Spend It at the Financial Times.