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."