Neo-canteens and trendy eating houses

When it comes to a true sense of togetherness, Brussels is definitely the place to be. It has always been a welcoming and cosmopolitan city, open to the world and to its many visitors. By the early 1990s, these are precisely the values that drive Alain Coumont when he opens his first Le Pain Quotidien on Rue Antoine Dansaert in the very heart of the city.

For 24 years now, people have been queuing up to sit down — generally with total strangers — at the huge communal table of reclaimed wood and savour the simplicity of good food and good company. This communal table is indeed the centrepiece of all Le Pain Quotidien outlets all over the world, in countries as different as the United States, Japan, Brazil, India or Turkey, to name just of few.

Ten years later, in 2001, it is up to another innovative concept to see the light of day: Exki opening its first outlet at Porte de Namur. Here too you eat fast but healthy food with as many organic and local products as possibly can and particular focus on ethically and ecologically sourced salads and soups which gained the brand its reputation. Exki is currently established in five countries but remains closely tied to the capital city.

These two iconic brands have paved the way and literally set the trend. As a result, you can now enjoy this healthy and fresh dining packed full of flavours almost everywhere in Brussels. A common concern shared by all these so-called neo-canteens is the determination to offer premium quality food at an affordable price in a warm and homely environment. Moreover, many of these eateries favour organic and locally produced ingredients and are generally fervent followers of the slow food movement.

We name just a few — the list is long and by no means exhaustive — and to start with, two places that firmly uphold the principle so dear to Le Pain Quotidien of joining others at social friendly dining tables:

Les Filles - Plaisirs Culinaires : although their story started a few years ago, the “girls” only recently relocated in the fashionable Dansaert district. At large wooden tables, they invite guests to communal family-style dining and serve a single fair-price lunch/dinner menu at midday and in the evening. The place oozes with love and passion for food, and urges you to (re)discover great tasting seasonal food. Simply put, a must visit!

Le Garage à Manger : when he is not touring around the numerous Brussels markets with his trendy food truck El Camion, Joël Geismar officiates with unmitigated pleasure in the kitchen of an incredibly luminous and exceptionally tasty Garage à Manger. In a matter of months, the establishment has become a very popular rendezvous, and deservedly so.

Much like Les Filles, Garage à Manger proposes a short menu with savoury dishes prepared on the spot, allowing you to enjoy it fully and preventing it from going to waste as well as offering prices that are little short of a miracle.

Mer du Nord/Noordzee : once a very well-kept secret, now one of the city’s best-known fish shops turned street food outlet on the edge of Place Sainte-Catherine, Mer du Nord/Noordzee is all the rage and just opened two fish-bars in the heart of the European district and  in the Marolles. Here you share the typically Brussels sense of togetherness standing at a table on the pavement to eat a nifty selection of first-class, as fresh as it gets, fishy snacks such as razor-shells cooked “à la plancha” right in front of you, whelks, prawn croquettes... or whatever grabs your fancy.

God Save The Cream : as everyone knows by now, unless of course you have spent the last twenty years stuck on board a submarine – whether yellow or not – British cuisine has come on leaps and bounds. The very pleasant God Save The Cream is a shining example of the best products England has to offer... on Belgian soil. You cannot but fall in love with the cosy place once lured inside by its promise of “serious coffee/sincere food/truly homemade”.

Chez Josy : organic canteens are popping up like mushrooms all over the capital and so much the better. And there is no denying that Chez Josy is one of those diners you can only warmly recommend. Another fine example is Henri & Agnès that recently set shop in the Schuman neighbourhood.

These modern, often organic, always hip and trendy canteens are in plentiful supply in the city centre but also in other parts of town, for instance the Châtelain district. On your wanderings through Brussels, you might get lucky enough to come across and have a fabulous lunch or dinner at Jour de Fête, Ici, Delicatessen, Yeti, or Charlotte Ses Tartines.

Real burgers lovers shall rather go to the two Manhattn’s, Green Mango, Burger Republic or les Super Filles du Tram bij among others. Numerous delicious foodie places are dedicated to world cuisine such as Mo Mo and its Tibetan dumplings, noodle or ramen bars such as Kokuban, Au Bon Bol, Yamato, Menma or Umamìdo. Or the trail-blazing but still topical tiny little Italian Vini Divini where the chef cooks on the stove at the bar and which just opened its “negozio”: in a nutshell, a Lilliputian place where divine Italian wines and cuisine perfectly complement each other.

Atypical, unique and unexpected to say the least, Cook & Book located in the south of Brussels welcomes both bookworms and food-lovers in nine different cleverly linked shops, each with its own atmosphere and matching lunch/dinner space. Not surprisingly ranked in the top 20 of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, the store is a real crowd-puller, well worth a visit.

Let us also mention, since there is not a dearth of canteen-like eating spots in Brussels, eateries that focus on one main, or even single, product such as JAT (bagels and coffee bar), Bia Mara (fish & chips) or both addresses of Pistolet Original.

Pistolet Original is a new deli focusing on the genuine good old “pistolet”, a round crunchy bun that is so typically iconic of Brussels. Pistolet Original resolutely strikes a nostalgic chord revisiting the emblematic stuffed “pistolets” of the old days with la crème de la crème of Belgian products all locally sourced such as home-made chicken curry, meat delicatessen from butcher Dierendonck or hand-peeled grey shrimps. This is what we call love at first bite!