Derek Blyth is the former editor of The Bulletin and 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 October issue.
PALAIS DU MIDI
The city is working on an ambitious plan to create a Barcelona-style Ramblas along the once-grimy boulevards that run from Midi station to the centre. It’s still some way from completion, but the gloomy 19th century Palais du Midi shopping arcade has already been restored to create a row of 40 shops – from a hardware store to a Moroccan tea room – painted the bright primary colours of Parisian storefronts. The city’s next move is to get rid of the traffic on this stretch of the central boulevards.
Avenue de Stalingrad, Brussels
GALERIE VALERIE BACH
Gallery owner Valérie Bach has transformed a former 19th century skating rink into a striking contemporary art gallery. After the ice rink known as the Patinoire Royale closed down, the iron and glass building was used as a garage by a Bugatti dealer. Then it lay empty for many years, until Bach turned it into one of the city’s most beautiful contemporary art galleries. Worth a look if you are wandering in the neighbourhood.
Rue Veydt 15, St Gilles +32 (0)495 23 60 70, www.galerievaleriebach.com
The Scottish crowdfunded brewery Brewdog has just opened a gorgeous new bar opposite Central Station. It occupies a sleek modernist building where the Belgian national airline Sabena once had its check-in desk. The two-floor interior has been given a makeover in Brooklyn industrial style while the roof terrace provides a great spot to sit with a beer when the weather is fine. The bar has some 40 beers on tap, ranging from unique Scottish brews to the latest Brussels craft beers.
Putterie 20, Central Brussels www.brewdog.com
BALLS & GLORY
“Try my balls,” says a cheeky sign outside Ghent chef Wim Ballieu’s cool gourmet meatball restaurant. After a long search in downtown Brussels, he finally took over a section of the vast Café Flamingo, opposite the Flemish theatre. Here you can try handcrafted meatballs made using pork from Ballieu’s grandfather’s pig farm in West Flanders. They come in a white bun filled with stoemp (mashed potato and carrot), along with free jugs of water on the tables and a bowl of apples to munch.
Rue de Laeken 171, Central Brussels www.ballsnglory.be
This tiny noodle bar on two levels looks basic. But it serves outstanding Japanese food prepared by skilled chefs. The daily dishes chalked on a blackboard include ramen soup and gyoza. It is run by the same people as the long-established Samourai, which has been serving upmarket Japanese food since 1975.
Rue du Fossé aux Loups 28, Central Brussels www.samourairamen.be
At the end of the week, the last thing you want to do is to push a cart around a supermarket. Now you don’t have to worry about all that. You can simply order a complete meal kit for two (or more) at www.cirkle.be. The company delivers cardboard boxes containing absolutely everything you need to make a meal, right down to a paper bag containing one bay leaf. Recipes include Thai beef soup and a delicious beef stew with prunes. The vegetables come from local organic farms while the meat comes from Jack O’Shea. Plus they take away your old stuff for recycling. Perfect if you have people to stay but no time to shop.
MADOU METRO STATION
Four large paintings of local women went up in Madou metro station last month. Painted by Nora Theys, these striking portraits show women who live in the Madou neighbourhood. They were put up as part of an inspiring campaign by the women’s centre Amazone to make the metro a safe environment for women.
Madou metro, Schaerbeek
Not many people know that the screen actress Audrey Hepburn was born at Rue Keyenveld 48 in 1929. Despite its claim to fame, this was left to become a neglected back street that didn’t feel particularly safe at night. But now the commune has laid down smart new paving stones and put out huge plant pots on the street. It’s still not the most gorgeous street in town, but it’s a big improvement.
Rue Keyenveld 48, Ixelles
“Chez Max coiffeur pour hommes” it says on the restaurant’s home page. Men’s hairdresser? you wonder. But no, the name comes from a Serge Gainsbourg song. This friendly bistro on the route of tram 81 is a loving homage to the sexy France that Gainsbourg sang about. It has all the nostalgic symbols you could want – metal signs advertising Dubonnet, dishes chalked on a big blackboard, chunks of brown bread served on a wooden board. There is even a Normandy-born chef in the kitchen. But don’t ask him to cut your hair.
Rue Lesbroussart 118, Ixelles +32 (0)2 344 42 32, www.chezmaxrestaurant.be
This old café has retained the relaxed charm of old Brussels even if the neighbourhood is now very hip. The interior is decorated with metal beer signs, round mirrors and an old telephone booth. Here is a place where locals come to play cards or to hang out on the terrace on a Saturday afternoon drinking a glass of hoppy Papegaei beer from Diksmuide.
Rue de Flandre 108, Central Brussels +32 (0)2 512 13 82