Brussels: Vive la Frite

Discover life’s simple pleasures in Belgium’s quirky capital

The Bruxellois like to joke that they queue for only two things: bread at the boulangerie in the morning and Maison Antoine’s frites in the afternoon. On a nippy November afternoon they were proved right as I joined a shivering queue of suited Eurocrats and garrulous Spanish tourists outside Maison Antoine’s attractive French style kiosk on the elegant Place Jourdain. A Coil of smoke was rising up from the roof sending an irresistible frying aroma wafting across the square. The wait was all too much for a couple of toddlers who started bawling in frustration. A silver haired lady behind the counter was doing her best to serve the crowds quickly but there was no time for customer service finesse. She was brisk and efficient to the point of being brusque but her cones of frites were works of art. I ordered a classic Grande Cornet with mayonnaise and with some deft finger work she rolled a paper cone, tossed in a small quantity of frites and seasoned them with salt.

“Is that all I get”, I thought to myself, disappointed at the meagre quantity but I needn’t have worried; this was just the first layer. She quickly rolled a second bigger layer of paper around the first, tossed in some more frites and seasoning and finally repeated the procedure a third time. The result was an elegant overflowing bouquet of golden frites topped with creamy mayonnaise. I sat down on a nearby bench and delved into the frites with a plastic fork. They were almost too hot to bear and but the balance between the crispy exterior and meltingly soft interior was perfect. If fast food heaven exists then I’d found it here in this unassuming corner of Brussels.

Along with frites, Brussels’ waffles are the city’s most popular street food. Wandering around the city centre you’re assailed by the heavenly aroma of hot waffles drifting out of fast food joints. You’ll find the greatest concentration of these around the Mannekin Pis where the essential tourist snapshot is one in which you bite grinning into a Brussels waffle in front of the world’s most famous street urchin at the exact angle that he appears to be peeing on your head. These soggy concoctions piled high with luridly coloured ice cream might make the perfect photo opportunity but bear little resemblance to the classic waffle that has a lineage dating back to the Middle Ages. Local Bruxellois swear that the best waffles can be found in ice cream vans which if you’re lucky, you’ll find parked in some of the city’s most scenic spots.

Following an enjoyable morning rummaging for hidden antique treasures in Place Jeu de Balle, Brussels’ most popular flea market, I wandered up the cobbled streets towards the Palais de Justice. This gigantic neo Classical white elephant rears its ungainly golden dome above the city and is loved and loathed in equal measure by the locals. The view from here down towards the Gothic spires and gables of Brussels’ Old Town is breathtaking but it was the sweet buttery aroma emanating from a humble sky blue ice cream van that most passers by were more interested in. In winter, ice cream vans sensibly abandon ice cream and concentrate on hot waffles which come in 2 varieties: Liege which are round, crunchy, sprinkled with sugar and can be eaten with your hands and Brussels which are rectangular, soft, topped with cream or caramel sauce and need to be eaten with a spoon. Through the window I watched the ice cream man carefully place 2 dollops of waffle batter onto an old blackened waffle grid iron, He’d just taken a fresh batch out which were still steaming on the counter. I ordered one topped with fresh whipped cream and took it over to the railings to enjoy the view. The slightly caramelized base formed delicious crunchy spindles while the soft buttery interior infused with melting cream was simply mouth watering. To the horror of some nearby calorie counting American tourists I went straight back to the van and ordered another.

That evening I strolled over to Aux Vieux Bons Temps ( The Good Old Days) one of Brussels most atmospheric estaminets. These are traditional bars filled with nostalgic nick nacks and some date back hundreds of years. Aux Vieux Bons Temps is tucked away down a narrow brick lane from which you enter through a stone gateway topped by a stone statue of a saint. You’d think you were entering a churchyard if it wasn’t for the cheery garlands of fairy lights draped around the bars entrance. Inside, softly lit, wood panelled alcoves with burgundy leather banquettes are the perfect place to sample Belgium’s wonderful beers. Officials from Brussels’ many international institutions love these bars and I was soon in deep conversation with a Finnish EU representative about the trials and tribulations of the EU debt crisis. After a few delightfully spicy amber Trappist ales we lightened up and hit on the more cheerful subject of King Crab Fishing in the Arctic Circle.

From the bar I ambled over to Place de la Chapelle where tucked away behind the Gothic buttresses of the church of Notre Dame lies another of Brussels’ favourite friteries. Mellowed by the beer, I began to enjoy another delicious cone of sizzling hot frites. I thought about the weight of European expectations lying heavily on the shoulders of Brussels. In an increasingly complex world simplicity is often the answer and whether it’s in a bag of frites or with some beers and good conversation, few cities in the world celebrate the simple things in life quite as well as Brussels.

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