Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling The 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels. He picks out ten of his favourite hidden secrets in every issue for The Brussels Times Magazine. These are the picks in the latest February issue.
You need to hunt it out. Hidden behind the trees in the Parc de Bruxelles, you can spot the entrance to an old air raid shelter built in 1939. Intended as a Belgian command centre, it was taken over by the German army in 1940 as a centre for tracing radio messages sent by the Resistance. Reinforced in the 1960s as a Cold War bunker, it was abandoned after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Go to the Bunker du Parc Royal’s Facebook page and you can see what lies below.
Behind Théâtre du Parc, Parc de Bruxelles Government district
Anis and Céline have created an intriguing concept store that resembles a cabinet of curiosities. The owners have roamed the world to find inspiring products by young designers, including a huge collection of terrariums from Paris. They have added unique personal touches, like workshops, Sunday brunch with opera singers and a little glass of mint tea as you wander around the store.
Exciting things are happening on Place Fernand Cocq as Ixelles commune pushes ahead with its car-free zone. The new bar Contrebande is run by a local cooperative of five young people who promote unique organic beers from small Brussels breweries. They will tempt you with brews from Brasserie de la Senne, En Stoemelings, l’Ermitage and No Science, along with tasty vegan and non-vegan food.
Place Fernand Cocq 6, Ixelles +32 (0)2 512 24 66
This beautiful new place to lunch occupies a vast corner house where the director of the military hospital once lived. The eating area is spread over three spacious rooms decorated in Brooklyn loft style with exposed brick walls, concrete floors and thick red curtains. There’s also a romantic conservatory and a little garden at the back.
Avenue Auguste Rodin 8, Ixelles +32 (0)2 203 00 14
It looks like a staff canteen, but L’Architecte is a place where some serious cooking is done. Located on the ground floor of the architecture school La Cambre, the interior was given a raw industrial look by the Brussels firm Lhoas & Lhoas. The setting is truly urban with big windows looking out on the vibrant life of Place Flagey. But the cooking is what matters here. The menu was put together by Damien Bouchéry, who has created fantastic dishes at affordable prices. It’s a pity they throw customers out into the cold at 10pm because the main door has to be locked. #typicalbrussels, you might say.
This cool Ixelles restaurant has added a fresh twist to the traditional Belgian roast chicken. It has the look of a roadside diner with big windows looking out on the street and stacks of logs at the front door. The relaxed mood attracts a young crowd who come for Mechelen coucou chicken roasted over a wood fire, generous bowls of frites and jam jars filled with apple sauce.
No secret door or hipster beards. Karoline and Harouna run a friendly, relaxed cocktail bar with a plain candlelit interior. It appeals to an international Brussels crowd with a range of cocktails including a few quirky inventions. We were bowled over by the vodka-based Under the Garden which is smoked in oak and then sealed with a potted plant (which you have to hand back).
A short hike up the Rue de Namur brings you to JAT’, a stylish coffee bar that opened in 2013. It has a random assortment of vintage armchairs, indie music and international magazines. The friendly team behind the bar serve good coffees, sandwiches and soups.
Rue de Namur 28, Sablon +32 (0)2 503 03 32, jat.cool
PAIN QUOTIDIEN LEPOUTRE
Where do you find a newspaper now that most Brussels newsagents have closed? The Pain Quotidien café-bakery on the corner of Avenue Lepoutre has come up with a solution. It now has a newsstand at the entrance where you can pick up a wide range of international newspapers along with style magazines and political journals.
This snug new café in the grounds of Rouge Cloître abbey makes the perfect spot to end a forest ramble. Located in an old stone house, the interior is furnished like a Swiss chalet, with pine tables, a wood stove and a toy cable car hanging from the roof. The friendly owners are committed to sustainable, ethical food from local producers. They offer organic soups, beers from Walloon breweries like Dupont and Silly, and cakes supplied by Les Tartes de Françoise.
Maison du Portier, Rue du Rouge-Cloître 2, Auderghem