Cafe Quentin … ‘more Parisian than a real Parisian cafe’. Photograph: John Brunton
The Belgian capital may be famous for its beers and "moules frites", but there are a lot more exciting venues to discover than pubs and bistrots. This is a cool designer city and nowhere is this more evident than its neighbourhood cafes, hip locales where the interior design is as eye-catching as the bohemian clientele. While you can always order a coffee (served with a tasty Speculoos ginger biscuit) or a foaming glass of Vedette, the favourite local brew, these cafes are also good for mojitos and margaritas, and many have in-house DJs later at night. One word of warning – Brussels may think it is the capital of Europe but the Belgians haven’t followed the EC anti-smoking directives, so smokers stay inside here apart from a very few exceptions.
The terminally trendy Sainte-Catherine quarter is slowly spreading all the way down rue Antoine Dansaert until it reaches the Brussels-Charleroi Canal, a once run-down neighbourhood that is being totally done-up. The latest hot spot to open is the designer Cafe Modele, once a sleazy old corner bar. Decor is simple, using old album covers and faded photographs of Marrakesh, and the emphasis here is on healthy living – it is one of the rare spots that is no smoking, and there’s a big choice of vegetarian dishes, salads and great natural yogurts at breakfast. On Friday and Saturday nights, the bar gets taken over by DJs.
• 208 rue Antoine Dansaert
Cafe Belga sits on the ground floor of the landmark Flagey Building, known to locals as the Paquebot as it resembles a huge cruise ship. Built in the 1930s to house Belgium‘s first radio station, it was abandoned for years before being transformed into a cutting-edge venue for cinema, performing arts and concerts. The vast art deco Cafe Belga is a meeting place for artists and actors, serving simple snacks, a serious selection of beers and some excellent cocktails.
• Place Eugene Flagey
Travellers arriving or departing from the Eurostar terminal at the Gare du Midi used to have no reason to hang around, until the opening last month of the revolutionary Midi Station. What was once almost a no-man’s land, now boasts one of the hottest new spots in town – a futuristic locale created by the architect and interior designer Antoine Pinto, Belgium’s answer to Philippe Starck. There is a vast modern brasserie, but also a cocktail bar, a comfortable lounge bar for chilling out, live music and DJs later in the night, as well as a totally over-the-top luxury cigar bar.
• Place Victor Horta 26
To say that the Roskam is discreet would be an understatement – a tiny sign outside, dark windows that you can hardly see into, and a thick smoky haze that hits you the moment you walk through the door. Decor is equally understated, but don’t be deceived as this is quite simply a brilliant bar that is packed out from the moment it opens at 6pm through to 2am. The secret is a mix of friendly barmen who shake great cocktails, low prices if you don’t mind drinking beer, a surprising selection of wines and excellent music without an intrusive DJ.
• 9 rue de Flandre
A funky neighbourhood rendez-vous, the Vershueren looks out over Saint-Gilles’s main square, which every morning is filled with a colourful street market. This is multi-ethnic Brussels – far away from the faceless offices of the European Community quarter – with a lively mix of Spanish and Portuguese immigrants, North Africans and Eastern Europeans. This beautiful art deco cafe has a huge selection of Belgian beers, great homemade soups at lunchtime, and check out the back wall, which is filled with bright slats representing every football team in Belgium. Locals used to gather here to listen to scores over the radio, and there is still no ugly flat screen TV showing Sky that ruins so many places like this.
• 13 Parvis de Saint-Gilles
Although you’re only a stone’s throw from the ultra-touristy Manneken Pis statue, The Saint-Jacques quarter is one of Brussels’ up-and-coming districts, a cosmopolitan mix of designer B&Bs, hip bars and restaurants and a very lively gay scene. The Soleil is a popular meeting point for everyone – originally a turn-of-the-century gent’s outfitters, whose intricate art deco interiors have been left totally untouched. If you can’t get a seat at the Soleil, as is often the case, check out the equally cool Fonteinas Bar right opposite – they also serve lots of healthy vegetarian food.
• 86 rue du Marche au Charbon
Chez Doudou les Tambours Sacres
For a real surprise, one night explore the exotic Matonge neighbourhood of Brussels. The area is named after a part of the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, and is home to dozens of African bars and clubs. Rue Longue Vie is pedestrian only, and at weekends, when the weather is fine it turns into an impromptu street party. Les Tambours Sacres has a friendly atmosphere presided over by the genial patron, Doudou. Open from the early evening to the very early hours of the morning, the bar is always packed, with dancing in the backroom to a mix of High Life music and more recent African pop. Drinks are cheap, with a glass of wine costing only a couple of euros, and the house special is a lethal rum punch.
• 14 rue Longue Vie
This lively cafe and wine bar attracts a seriously fashionable clientele, as it is located right in the heart of Le Chatelain, one of Brussel’s most chic neighbourhoods. Looking more Parisian than a real Parisian cafe, the emphasis at Quentin is on natural and bio wines, with a large selection of bottles served by the glass. Best time to come is early evening on a Wednesday, when the adjoining Place du Chatelain is transformed into a huge food market – crowds throng outside all the surrounding bars, feasting off plates of oysters, charcuterie and bottles of chilled rose and white wine.
• 7 rue du Page
Mer de Nord
The Mer du Nord is not exactly a cafe, but a stop-off here should be obligatory for everyone visiting Brussels. The Mer du Nord is actually a fishmongers, but over the last few years it has set up a pavement bar which serves glasses of crisp chilled white wine and champagne, delicious bowls of fish soup, shucked oysters and a tapas-like selection of scallops, tuna, swordfish and plump prawns cooked fresh à la plancha right in front of you. Expect to rub shoulders with a colourful mix of sharply-dressed businessmen, fashion designers and the obligatory Eurocrats, with at least 10 languages being spoken at the same time.
• Place Sainte-Catherine
John Brunton, The Guardian, 29.04.09