Insider: A Guide to Brussels
Published: June 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
The Belgian capital,revealed by the people who know
If it's Brussels it must be…boring?Retire that joke. The Belgian capital is making a grab for the 21st century with a new energy that suddenly has other European cities wondering how their own pulling power measures up. One source of the excitement is fashion—while no one was looking, Belgium has become a style force to rival France. The café scene, meanwhile, has never buzzed louder. Most appealing of all, the capital retains its intimacy: almost everything of interest, from museums to crucial stops on the Continental shopping circuit, is in the Old City. Here, four savvy insiders lead us to the best of Brussels, with a break for the world's greatest french fries.
Where to Stay
As the wife of Alan Blinken, the American ambassador to Belgium, Melinda Blinken fields calls each week from Americans of every stripe asking where to stay. Even the president turns to Melinda, which is why we asked her for a list of her favorites.
THE ART SCENE Each of the 101 rooms in the new ART HOTEL SIRU (1 Place Rogier; 32-2/203-3580, fax 32-2/203-3303; doubles from $73) contains a specially commissioned work by a different Belgian artist. In one, two pairs of legs walk a tightrope; in another a cupid bags his prey. Guests have the right to refuse a room if they don't like the art. On the other hand, it's not unusual for repeat customers to request the same room. Accommodations are small and a bit bare-bones, but pleasant.
In a spin on the Siru's format, the 208-room DORINT HOTEL (11—19 Blvd. Charlemagne; 32-2/231-0909, fax 32-2/230-3371; doubles from $210) showcases the work of European photographers. "Rooms here are sleek and design-conscious," says Blinken. Other pluses: one of Brussels's loveliest public parks, the Cinquantenaire, is a five-minute walk from the hotel, and at the front desk guests can help themselves to sheaves of photocopied stories from that day's New York Times.
THE HEIGHT OF CIVILITY For friends wanting something "intimate and vaguely Anglo," Blinken recommends the STANHOPE (9 Rue du Commerce; 32-2/506-9111, fax 32-2/512-1708; doubles from $78). The exterior is hung with lanterns and pansy-filled window boxes. Trompe l'oeil books with titles such as Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy line the elevator. The 50 rooms are decorated with pictures of horses, beckoning upholstery, and enough baby blue for a christening. Guests leave their shoes in a wicker tray to be shined—it's that kind of hotel.
SEND THE PRESIDENT RIGHT OVER Among mega-hotels geared to the executive traveler, it's a toss-up these days between the 269-room CONRAD INTERNATIONAL (71 Ave. Louise; 32-2/542-4242, fax 32-2/542-4200; doubles $378) and the 507-room SHERATON (3 Place Rogier; 32-2/224-3070, fax 32-2/224-3456; doubles $256). "Either would be suitable for the president, who obviously needs a whole floor," Blinken says. "The Sheraton has become a lot more contemporary and sophisticated thanks to a recent renovation." The Conrad is on Avenue Louise, which has "more boutiques and hair salons per square foot than anywhere else in Brussels."
OLD GUARD A grandiose white elephant, the HOTEL METROPOLE (31 Place de Brouckère; 32-2/217-2300, fax 32-2/218-0220; doubles from $297) is proud of being the only 19th-century hotel in Brussels still in business—but not proud enough to hold on to even an original coat hook. As part of an ongoing renovation, most of the 410 rooms have been redone in an agreeable if rather hard-edged way. Blinken likes jazz pianist Dr. Gabs, who plays at the hotel's bar, Le 19ème.
BEST LOCATION The point of staying at the JOLLY HOTEL SABLON (2 Rue Bodenbroeck; 32-2/512-8800, fax 32-2/512-6766; doubles $240) isn't any of the 208 rooms; yours will be comfortable enough, but you won't remember it five minutes after checking out. The point, according to Blinken, is that the hotel overlooks the most beautiful square in the city, the Place du Grand Sablon, itself the heart of a neighborhood that is to Brussels what St.-Germain-des-Prés is to Paris: the Only Place to Be. (Note: There are two Jolly Hotels; you don't want the one on Rue Adolph Max.)
Where to Eat
Pascal Devalkeneer, whose Bistro du Mail is Brussels's best and most stylish, is one of those young chefs for whom a weekend off is a marathon of meals chez la compétition. Here, he weighs in on everything from wine bars to waterzooi.
One of the nice things about Devalkeneer is that he heeds no higher calling than pleasing his customers at the BISTRO DU MAIL (81 Rue du Mail; 32-2/539-0697; dinner for two $73). Whether he's serving turbot with Italian white truffles and puréed potatoes or oxtail soup with celery and celery root, you never get the feeling he is chasing Michelin stars. Devalkeneer had a good teacher: he used to cook under Roger Souveryns, one of Belgium's five or so top chefs, known for his almost impossibly lush cuisine. (Souveryns's restaurant, Scholtesof, is 45 minutes outside Brussels in Steevort.)
The dining room at Bistro du Mail is stage-set Baroque, with sexy lighting, a brick-red wash that gives the walls a faux patina, and daily specials posted in a gilded frame under a brass picture light. As for Devalkeneer's clientele, the name of the game is count the Kelly bags.
THE OTHER MOST HAPPENING BISTRO Judging by how tough it is to secure a reservation, L'IDIOT DU VILLAGE (19 Rue Notre Seigneur; 32-2/502-5582; dinner for two $95) is the hottest restaurant in town. It's housed in a late-17th-century building on a narrow street that even Bruxellois are challenged to find, and it's where Devalkeneer sends customers when he is full (L'Idiot repays the compliment by sending its overflow to Mail). The fact that chef Alain Gascoin's cooking stands up to the jumble of ludic and clamorous bric-a-brac—vintage Coca-Cola posters, papier-mâché birds in cages—is a testimony to how terrific it is. "Alain has a talent for using classic ingredients in very un-classic combinations," says Devalkeneer. "I'll never forget his saddle of rabbit with raisins and nuts. I like his daring."
BURNISHED BRUSSELS The Bruxellois custom of presenting steamed mussels in individual casseroles was born at AUX ARMES DE BRUXELLES (13 Rue des Bouchers; 32-2/511-5598; dinner for two $75). According to Devalkeneer, it offers the city's quintessential brasserie experience. Founded in the early twenties, and regarded with the same sort of reverence as, say, New York's 21' Club, it serves some of the most authentic Belgian cooking in Brussels: eel in green sauce, lobster-and-endive étouffée, shrimp croquettes, and waterzooi (this traditional chicken stew is made here with poached turbot, potatoes, carrots, leeks, and cream—lots of cream). It's the only waterzooi I've ever eaten that wasn't flat and dull. Warning: Don't allow yourself to be steered into the dreary dining room to the left as you enter. It's for tourists. You want the original room, to the right, which has chairs by Victor Horta and potted palms atop florid Art Deco ceramic pedestals.
TAVERNE DU PASSAGE (30 Galerie de la Reine; 32-2/512-3731; dinner for two $95) is another Brussels icon from the twenties—"only slightly more relaxed," says Devalkeneer. Banquettes flank a 28-seat table that runs the length of the room, which is cooled by ceiling fans and freighted with potbellied brass-and-copper cachepots. The bumptious waiters wear David Niven mustaches and white jackets with gold-coin buttons, band collars, and gold-braid epaulets. The grandmotherly Bruxelloises who make the Taverne their canteen all look like Janet Flanner just back from the front.
The menu revolves around Belgian specialties, including steak tartare, known nationally as filet américain, which is prepared tableside. For a couple of weeks in late spring there is also fresh matjes herring from Holland, served raw with sliced onions and vinaigrette. But while perfectly good, the fare at Taverne is not as careful as that at Aux Armes.
HIP HANGOUT With a romantic and twinkling nighttime view of leafy Place du Grand Sablon, LOLA (33 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2/514-2460; dinner for two $68) draws a preening fashion-and-art crowd. Devalkeneer says it's one of those places you go to as much for the atmosphere (streamlined and uncluttered) as for the food (smoked-salmon and goat-cheese rolls, herb-crusted saddle of lamb, duck with cabbage and caramelized onions).
THE PERFECT LUNCH LE WINE BAR (9 Rue des Pigeons; 32-2/511-4493; lunch for two $68) is "where I always go when I'm running errands in the Sablon," says Devalkeneer. "It's convenient, not too expensive, and great-looking, and the regional French cooking is marvelous: duck confit from the southwest, Baeckeoffe"—a stew of lamb, pork, beef, potatoes, and leeks—"from Alsace."
Housed in three 16th-century vaulted cellars faced in Spanish brick, the bar-restaurant is appointed with gilded architectural ornaments and old, beautifully misshapen handblown bottles. Wine enthusiasts love it for offering such hard-to-find appellations as Côtes de Gascogne and Coteaux du Lyonnais by the glass.
LE PAIN QUOTIDIEN (16 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/510-0976; lunch for two $11) now has outposts all over Brussels, as well as in Antwerp, Ghent, Brugge, Liège, and even New York, but the experience of eating at the prototype cannot be duplicated. It was here that the idea was born to combine a bakery with an informal restaurant where strangers are tossed together at a single, huge, rustic wood table. "Bring a newspaper," says Devalkeneer, "order an open-faced sandwich and a bowl of soup, and catch the rhythm of daily life in Brussels."
With just six bar stools and a couple of tables for two in a place the size of a walk-in closet, THE OYSTER BAR (25 Passage du Nord; 32-2/217-4552; lunch for two $27) serves up the same opportunity—plus what is possibly the best (and best-priced) shellfish in town. There's foie gras and smoked salmon, too.
COOL TEA In a town thin on tea salons, Devalkeneer is thankful for THE LUNCH COMPANY (16 Rue de Namur; 32-2/502-0976; tea for two $6), which steers clear of any strangling tearoom coziness. Rather, it is wide-open, unfussy, even kind of robust. Furnishing just the right measure of charm are mismatched blue-and-white china, walls the color of clotted cream, and a small, quiet garden. Toasted sandwiches—cheddar and chutney, Brie and walnut—are a delicious way to vault the distance between meals.
THE ULTIMATE FRIES "In an ideal world, french fries would always come from FRITERIE JOURDAN," says Devalkeneer of the stand that has been on Place Jourdan since 1952. "The oil is consistently fresh. When I come out of a nightclub at three a.m. with nothing in my stomach, this is where I head."
EVERY WHICH WAFFLE DANDOY (31 Rue au Beurre, 32-2/511-0326; and 14 Rue Charles Buis, 32-2/512-6588) is Devalkeneer's destination for waffles, both the caramelized Liège version, which many find almost painfully sugary, and the fatter, breadier Brussels variety, known to Americans as Belgian.
HEAVENLY CHOCOLATE In the chocolate races that are always taking place between confectionary houses in Belgium, Devalkeneer judges 33-year-old PIERRE MARCOLINI (39 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2/514-1206) to be the front-runner. "Pierre's ganaches, infused with everything from violet petals to allspice, are both balanced and powerful," says the chef. "Ten minutes after eating one, you can still taste the chocolate."
Where to Shop
Antwerp is the capital of Belgian fashion (design stars Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, and Dirk Bikkembergs all live and work there), but Brussels has Elvis Pompilio, our shopping guide. Stocky, perfectly bald, and with a dedicated gym-goer's body, he is that rare thing: a hat designer who looks like a wrestler. ELVIS POMPILIO (60 Rue du Midi; 32-2/511-1188), his giddy and surprisingly sprawling boutique, is the epicenter of everything hip and happening on the Brussels shop scene. Skip it and you risk being stripped of your charge cards by the shopping police. A few steps from Grand' Place, the city's nexus and main square, Pompilio's shop makes the point that hats aren't just for Hello! magazine types like Joan Collins and Yannick Noah—though both are customers. Hats are for you and me.
Not everything Pompilio designs is what it seems, and this, of course, is part of the fun. What lookslike a child's cable-knit sweater with a sewn-up mock turtleneck is actually a man's cap. The sleeves, knotted or rolled, form two earlike protuberances. Many of Pompilio's basics, such as his double-brimmed felt Diabolo, are supple and easy to take from day to night: "Just flick a brim or pop a crown."
The Brussels boutiquescape as drawn by the designer takes no pity on retail warhorses. A nice little shop where you can buy your grandmother a Belgian-lace-trimmed pouch for her tissues?You must be joking. Many of Pompilio's favorite boutiques are concentrated just north of his headquarters in downtown Brussels, a handsome district of Haussmann-style buildings where many of the city's artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and fashion designers make their homes and studios. Even if you never strayed from Rue Antoine Dansaert, the section's principal artery, there is enough good window-shopping to reward an entire afternoon. Stirred into the mix of fashionable boutiques are dry cleaners, florists, and food shops that give the area the feel of a real neighborhood.
FASHION FOR ALL
"The first thing people want to know about shopping in Brussels is where to find all the top Belgian designers," says Pompilio, who sends them to STIJL (74 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/512-0313). You know you're in a progressive boutique when John Smedley classic sea island knits are the wild card. For the typical Stijl customer, it's not enough that a shirt be a shirt; it also has to pose a challenge, if not a fight. A woman I saw at Stijl could have used an instruction book to show her how to wear an Ann Demeulemeester asymmetric top.
Not that everything at this his-and-hers boutique is calculated to frighten the horses. On a recent breeze-through, there were inside-out jeans that looked so right and reasonable you wondered why no one had thought of it before. They were by Martin Margiela, the controversial deconstructionist who now, in addition to having his own line, is chief designer for Hermès. On the same visit, Dries Van Noten's slinky rayon slip dresses were just the thing for Harlow wanna-bes. Stijl also carries what is thought of as the new wave (i.e., the wave after Demeulemeester and company) of Belgian designers: Raf Simons, Carine Lauwers, and Tony & Sandrine.
Stijl's sister boutique, KAT EN MUIS (32 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/514-3234), is a revelation. Who knew that some of the world's most fashion-forward children's wear is made in Belgium?When buying a gift for his grandnephew, Pompilio chooses from among collections by Van Noten, Pee-eep by Zorra, Claude Hontoir, Max et Lola, and Topo.
Just up the road, STIJL UNDERWEAR (47 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/514-2731) offers the last word in bras and jockey shorts. It also has ahead-of-the-curve beachwear, including the Niagara line of maillots by native daughter Harriet Van den Bosch, and bathing suits that make men look as if they've just stepped off the winner's platform of the 1936 Berlin Olympics—providing they have the bodies.
IDIZ BOGAM (76 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/512-1032) is a clothing store that dignifies its vintage goods by merchandising them as if they were this season's Galliano couture. "The presentation of everything, whether blue jeans or evening dresses, is soigné and luxe," says Pompilio.
RINGS FOR THE FINGERS,BELLS FOR THE TOES Pompilio champions jewelry designer Christa Reniers and women's shoe designer Nathalie Rousseau partly because, like him, they are the talent behind their names, not just the smiling promotional faces.
Stylistically, Pompilio situates Reniers "somewhere between Georg Jensen and Robert Lee Morris." That means sophisticated simplicity. The solid-silver rings, pendants, and cuff links at CHRISTA RENIERS (28 Place du Vieux Marché aux Grains; 32-2/514-1773) have an organic, tactile appeal. Also in silver are Reniers-designed refrigerator magnets and sculptural ribbed pencil cups.
In Rousseau's shop, NATHALIE R (71 Rue Antoine Dansaert; 32-2/511-6017), her signature platforms are displayed on chunky wooden pegs, an invitation for customers to handle the shoes.
THE FLEA MARKET AND KIN Pompilio's Brussels apartment is furnished with seriously inexpensive finds from the daily MAROLLES FLEA MARKET on Place du Jeu de Balle. Located in a wonderfully louche quarter of mangy dogs and working-class cafés, "Marolles is at least six times cheaper than Paris's Clignancourt market," says Pompilio. Since any betrayal of your tourist status will cause vendors to up their prices, he advises out-of-towners to dress down and say as little as possible, unless they speak excellent Belgian-inflected French. As at all flea markets, there's no telling who you might run into here. Wasn't that home furnishings designer and Belgian tastemaker Isabelle de Borchgrave hauling away a caned settee the other day?(It was.)
Fifteen minutes northeast by foot, in the Sablon district, two antiques shops, DEWINDT (77 Rue Lebeau; 32-2/513-3612) and MODERN STUDIO (11 Rue de la Paille; 32-2/513-6802), go narrow and deep into the furniture and objects of Pompilio's preferred design decades, the thirties through the seventies. "At Dewindt the pieces are more rigorously chosen and better displayed—and you pay for it," he says. "Studio is less chic, and cheaper." Also in the neighborhood are GALERIES DES MINIMES (23 Rue des Minimes; 32-2/511-2825), "a great source for antique chandeliers," and L'OBJET DU DéSIR (21 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2/512-4243), "a contemporary design shop with everything from Alessi bread baskets to Starck toothbrushes."
COMICS PLUS In Belgium, hardcover comic books are serious adult reading matter. Pompilio gets his episodic fix at DARAKAN (9 Rue du Midi; 32-2/512-2076), a shop he also relies on for the latest fashion and photography books.
TOYLAND Last on Pompilio's list,
but first in his heart, is GRASSHOPPER (39—43 Rue du Marché aux Herbes;
32-2/511-9622), a toy store selling an irresistible mohair replica of a 1931 Belgian teddy bear, handmade in a limited edition of 200 ($120 each). This is another shop where Pompilio indulges his grandnephew, right?"Oh no. All my friends know I collect toys. In the days before my birthday this place is jammed!"
What to See
Françoise Aubry is curator of the Musée Horta, which is devoted to the work of Victor Horta. She is also co-editor of the most comprehensive monograph on the architect, Horta: Art Nouveau to Modernism, recently published by Harry N. Abrams. But Aubry is not one of those scholarly types who never gets out. She knows the contents of the other major museums in Brussels as exhaustively as those of her own. Here, she details her favorite works in those institutions. Aubry also singles out well-loved architectural landmarks, including her own museum, that she says any trip to Brussels must include.
ART NOT TO MISS MUSÉE D'ART ANCIEN (3 Rue de la Régence; 32-2/508-3211).Portrait de Marguerite by Fernand Khnopff: "The artist was a
leading Symbolist whose chilly perfectionism shows the influence of the Viennese Secessionist movement. In 1887 he painted this portrait of his sister, his favorite model. Turned in on herself, as closed as the door she is pictured in front of, she is an inaccessible object of desire. This work says to me that Khnopff probably loved his subject a little too much."
Figure Tombale by Julien Dillens: "At the time this white marble statue of a despairing young woman was done, about 1885, sadness was traditionally expressed in a much more exteriorized, obvious way. The triumph of this work, by one of the greatest Belgian sculptors of the late nineteenth century, is that it conveys chagrin but not pathos. I was lucky enough to find a bronze cast of the head. It's what I wake up to every morning."
Le Grisou by Constantin Meunier: "I call this 1887 bronze the PietÀ of the Industrial Age. It depicts a mother grieving over the body of her miner son who was killed by an explosion in a coal gallery. He has been crucified by modern civilization, but the economic prosperity that came with mining is also what allowed artists and architects of the time to flourish."
MUSÉE ROYAL D'ART ET D'HISTOIRE (10 Parc du Cinquantenaire; 32-2/741-7215). Le Sphinx Mystérieux by Charles Van der Stappen: "At the turn of the century, as a way of promoting imports from the Congo, then a Belgian colony, King Leopold II commissioned Belgian sculptors to use African materials. These works were unveiled in an 1897 exhibition. Van der Stappen, a professor at the Academy of Beaux-Arts in Brussels, showed this incredibly extravagant ivory sphinx, which also incorporates bronze, silver, and onyx. Seams in the ivory are cleverly concealed behind a cuirass, which is embellished with poppies to symbolize sleep and forgetting."
Chandelier by Henry Van de Velde: "A contemporary of Horta's who abandoned painting for the applied arts, Van de Velde believed that ornament and line should be one, an idea reflected in this six-armed, silvered bronze fixture of 1898. A lot of what was being done at that time was overloaded with decoration. This work's importance lies in its extreme purity."
MUSÉE D'ANTOINE WIERTZ (62 Rue Vautier; 32-2/648-1718). La Belle Rosine by Antoine Wiertz: "Wiertz was a painter known for his moody and violent works. This 1847 oil, in the To be or not to be' style, shows a beautiful and quite fleshy artist's model confronting a grinning skeleton. But why is it grinning?It's mocking the model for thinking that she is anything more than an object in the eyes of the painter."
MUSÉE COMMUNAL D'IXELLES (71 Rue J. Van Volsem; 32-2/511-9084). Après la Prière du Soir by Xavier Mellery: "Like the lives of the four nuns Mellery depicts after their evening prayers, this circa-1910 Symbolist drawing has very little color. Their world is silent, chaste, closed. But they enjoy the gift of serenity, of absence of desire."
HORTA HIGHLIGHTS More than any other architect, Victor Horta made Brussels the European capital of Art Nouveau. In a career spanning the years from 1885 to 1946, he designed 110 buildings and monuments. The one considered his best from a purely architectural point of view is a house, the Hotel Van Eetvelde (4 Ave. Palmerston; 32-2/237-1111; by appointment). Meanwhile, he is thought to have reached the peak of his decorative powers at the Hotel Solvay (224 Ave. Louise; 32-2/647-3733; by appointment). But it is his own turn-of-the-century house and atelier, now collectively the MUSÉE HORTA (25 Rue Américaine; 32-2/537-1692), that are most often sifted for clues to his technique and style.
"There is nothing more interesting than what an architect chooses to build for himself," says Aubry. "Before Horta, houses were envelopes designed by architects and adorned by decorators. Here, Horta was responsible for everything, and it all achieves a cohesiveness that is very characteristic of Art Nouveau."
The dining room floor is a parquet of Hungarian oak outlined in American ash and laid like a rug within a marble mosaic surround. The wood and stone are separated by a fine band of copper. "That makes four different materials in the space of ten centimeters," notes the curator, "materials that sing together." On the room's walls and ceiling he used white glazed bricks, previously seen only in kitchens and bathrooms. According to Aubry, it is Horta's combination of materials—precious and industrial, hot and cold—that makes his house such a milestone.
TWO MORE ARCHITECTURAL STARS SERRES ROYALES (Ave. du Parc Royal; 32-2/551-2020). "In the 1870's King Leopold II commissioned these sumptuous greenhouses, still in use, in the enormous Parc de Laeken, home of the royal gardens. The structures are open only two weeks a year, from late April to early May, but just seeing them from the outside is worth it."
PALAIS STOCKLET (281 Ave. de Tervuren). "Built by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann between 1906 and 1911, this endures as one of the most beautiful private houses in the world, an essay in geometry and refinement of detail. The white marble façade reflects light but not shadow. Each plane is like a painting."