With more Michelin-star restaurants per capita than any other city in the world -- yes, even more than Paris -- Brussels doesn't have to take a back seat to anyplace else when it comes to food. The Bruxellois are passionate about eating, whether they're patronizing the gastronomic palaces around the Grand-Place, the ethnic eateries along narrow cobblestoned rue de Bouchers, or the humblest corner stand. Don't expect dazzling trendsetters -- Brussels is a deeply traditional culinary town -- but with traditions this flavorful, it can afford to be.
Eating well in Brussels doesn't have to mean booking a table at a hot restaurant-of-the-moment. It can also mean indulging in two of the most delectable street foods anywhere. Thick, square Belgian waffles, loaded with powdered sugar, are offered at waffle stands all over town; locals swear by the slightly sweeter Liege variety sold by the Belgaufra chain, with several city branches. Then there are Belgian frites, perhaps the world's best french fries, twice-fried for an intensely crunchy crust; the city is peppered with stands selling frites in paper cones, typically topped with mayonnaise (though many other sauces are offered as an extra). Generally you can carry your fries into nearby bars to accompany your drinks -- look for signs saying frites acceptés. Every local has his or her favorite, but one standout is Maison Antoine, on Place Jourdanplein close to the European Parliament.
Brussels's other great local dish is steamed mussels (mussels from Brussels -- it even rhymes!), served in huge bowls, typically in a white-wine-and-garlic broth. Huge, jam-packed Chez Léon (rue des Bouchers 18; tel. 32/2/511-14-15; www.chezleon.be) has been the city's top spot for mussels since 1893. Though it has spun off several branches, this noisy hall on rue de Bouchers, with its checkered paper tablecloths and open kitchen, still serves the most flavorful mussels -- fried, baked au gratin, steamed, even raw in season -- not to mention wonderfully crispy frites. Its closest rival is convivial wood-paneled Au Vieux Bruxelles (Rue St-Boniface 35; tel. 32/2/503-31-11; www.auvieuxbruxelles.com), dating from 1882, which presents a few more daring ways to serve mussels -- with curry sauce, for example, or with blue cheese. Both also serve a range of other traditional Belgian dishes, such as waterzooi (a rustic stew) or eels in green sauce.
Every visitor to Brussels should splurge on at least one evening at one of the city's top fine-dining spots. The one reservation you should make well ahead of your arrival is for dinner at Comme chez Soi (Place Rouppe 23; tel. 32/2/512-29-21; www.commechezsoi.be). It's not only a showpiece of Art Nouveau design (one of Brussels's architectural specialties), it also boasts one of Europe's most accomplished classic French kitchens. The menu changes often, but grilled guinea fowl with rosemary, lobster medallions with risotto, or cardamom-crusted rabbit with sweetbreads sausage are among the kind of inspired main courses to expect. Ask for a table in the kitchen, where you can watch master chef Pierre Wynants at work. Another classic French winner, Le Maison du Cygne (Grand-Place 9; tel. 32/2/511-82-44; www.lamaisonducygne.be), has an unbeatable location right on the Grand-Place, a postcard-perfect assemblage of gabled 16th-century guildhalls, Brussels's most famous architectural view. With its polished walnut walls, bronze wall sconces, and green velvet, Le Maison de Cygne has haute cuisine written all over it, and it more than lives up to the image, with superbly executed classics like roast pheasant, beef tournedos with duck liver, oysters in champagne, and salt-crusted sea bream.
While you're in the Grand-Place area, however, don't overlook the cozy brick-arched cellar restaurant 't Kelderke (Grand-Place 15; tel. 32/2/513-73-44). For hearty, distinctly Belgian cuisine -- bloedpens (blood sausage), stoemp (mashed potato and vegetable) with boudin (sausage), lapin à la gueuze (rabbit in Brussels beer), or robust carbonnades à la flamande (Flemish beef stew) -- it can't be beat; you'll see as many Bruxellois as tourists thronging its long wooden tables.
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