Belgian chefs may be influenced by the French, but they add their own special touches. Native specialties in Wallonia include jambon d'Ardenne (ham from the hills and valleys of the Ardennes) and savory boudin de Liège (a succulent sausage mixed with herbs). Almost every menu lists tomates aux crevettes (tomatoes stuffed with tiny, delicately sweet North Sea shrimps and light, homemade mayonnaise), which is filling enough for a light lunch and delicious as an appetizer. A special treat awaits visitors in May and June in the form of Belgian asparagus, and from October to March there's endive, which is known in Belgium as witloof (white leaf).
Belgian cuisine is based on the country's own regional traditions and produce, such as asparagus, chicory (endive), and the humble Brussels sprout. A tradition in Brussels is to cook with local beers like gueuze and faro. In addition, look for great steaming pots of Zeeland mussels, which have a fanatical local following. Most places serve both a plat du jour/dagschotel (plate of the day) and a good-value two- or three-course menu.
Flanders has added its own ingredients to the mix of Belgian cuisine. The Flemish share the Dutch fondness for raw herring, generally eaten with equally raw onions, while sole à l'Ostendaise (sole in a white-wine sauce) and the small, gray North Sea shrimps are firm favorites. River fish used to be the main ingredient of the Flemish souplike stew called waterzooï, but today's rivers being polluted, chicken is now a more familiar ingredient.
If you're basically a potatoes person, you're in good company, for Belgians dote on their steak-frites, available at virtually every restaurant -- even when not listed on the menu. These are twice-fried potatoes, as light as the proverbial feather. They're sold in paper cones on many street corners and (in my opinion) are best when topped with homemade mayonnaise, though you may prefer curry or even your usual ketchup. Frites will accompany almost anything you order in a restaurant.
Seafood anywhere in Belgium is fresh and delicious. Moules (mussels) are a specialty in Brussels, where you find a concentration of restaurants along Petite rue des Bouchers that feature them in just about every guise you can imagine. (Ironically, Belgian mussels actually come from Zeeland in Holland and may, in fact, be the only Dutch products Belgians will admit to being any good.) Homard (lobster) comes in a range of dishes. Don't miss the heavenly Belgian creation called écrevisses à la liègeoise (crayfish in a rich butter, cream, and white-wine sauce). Eel, often "swimming" in a grass-green sauce, is popular in both Flanders (where it's called paling in 't groen) and Wallonia (anguilles au vert).
No matter where you eat, you should know that service will be professional but not necessarily speedy. Belgians don't just dine; they savor each course -- if you're in a hurry, you're better off heading for a street vendor or an imported fast-food establishment.
Belgian chocolates are the world champs; they're so lethally addictive they ought to be sold with a government health warning. Those made by Chocolatier Mary, Wittamer, Nihoul, Neuhaus, and Leonidas ought to do the trick. Buy them loose, in bags weighing from 100 grams to boxes of 2 kilograms or more. Take a prepared box, or simply point to those you want, or ask the assistant for a mixture. Made with real cream, they do not keep well -- but you weren't planning on keeping them for long anyway, were you?
Beer & Gin
What to drink with all those tasty dishes? Why, beer, of course! Belgium is justly famous for its brewing tradition, and this tiny country has more than 100 breweries producing around 450 different brews. Some are pilsners, like Stella Artois, Jupiler, Maes, Primus, and Eupener. The majority, however, are local beers, specialties of a region, city, town, or village; some are made by monks. Each beer has a distinct, and often beautiful, glass, which is why you can instantly tell what everyone is drinking in a Belgian bar. Needless to say, with so many choices it may take quite a bit of sampling to find a favorite. Among names to look for are Duvel, Chimay, Hoegaarden, De Koninck, and Kwak; and Faro, Kriek, and Lambiek from the area around Brussels.
Then there are the heavenly tasting beers brewed by Trappist monks. There are six Trappist breweries in the land: Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Sint-Benedictus of Achel, Westmalle, and Westvleteren.
For a digestif, you might try a gin, in Flanders known as jenever (or, colloquially, as witteke), and in Wallonia known as genièvre (colloquially as pèkèt). This stiff grain-spirit is often served in glasses little bigger than a thimble. Belgium's 70 jenever distilleries produce some 270 varieties, some flavored with juniper, coriander, or other herbs and spices. Among notable brands are Filliers Oude Graanjenever, De Poldenaar Oude Antwerpsche, Heinrich Pèkèt de la Piconette, Sint-Pol, and van Damme. Jenever in a stone bottle makes an ideal gift.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.