Bringing your appetite to Belgium is as important as your passport and luggage, as the French-Flemish country has a mouth-watering collection of foods to try while enjoying the unique culture and landmarks. From sumptuous stews and French fries (don’t call them that, though) to the world-famous chocolates, this Western European country is the most delicious destination for visitors. Belgium’s many delectable dishes and treats are sure to leave you wishing you had a few more days on your itinerary. Here’s a foodie’s guide to help you start your tasty journey to Belgium.
The Belgian Staples
It’s debatable who actually first created French fries, but there’s no question that the Belgians have taken them to an art form and that they’ve earned their spot as a national culinary staple. There are also a wide variety of different dishes that use fries—usually with mayonnaise—as more of a co-equal part of the meal than as a side item. French fries with steak or mussels steamed in white wine are two of the classics that you’ll find on menus all over the country, but you’ll also find fries accompanying a wide variety of other dishes as well. Even if you’re not someone who typically goes for fries (called frites in French-speaking areas or frieten elsewhere), not trying them before leaving Belgium is a culinary sin.
Another item you’ll see in many restaurants is grey shrimp, particularly when you’re in Brussels. Though there is a range of quality you can expect, many of the best restaurants (like Les Petits Oignons) will serve them in a croquette that fries up the shrimp in breadcrumbs. Other restaurants will serve them stuffed inside tomatoes with mayonnaise and lemon juice, a combination locally called tomaat-garnalen. More than just a tasty part of your typical Belgian menu, grey shrimp dishes are a timeless Flemish cuisine and they’re plucked from the North Sea by fishermen on horseback—a unique tradition that has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural contribution to the nation.
And if you’ve worked up an appetite seeing the sights, it’s hard to top a delicious Flemish stew to wrap up your day. Stews like Carbonnade à la flamande start with beef soaked in beer along with chunks of bread that are typically coated in mustard and other seasonings. There are many other versions of stew as well, including dishes like waterzooi that have been served in the Flanders region of northern Belgium since at least the Middle Ages. Also in the hearty department, Flemish meatballs are internationally known and come in a wide variety of forms, though most start with either beef or pork smothered in a rich, butter-heavy sauce and are typically topped with either a fruit-based molasses or classics like a cherry sauce. Variations can be found in restaurants all over, giving you plenty of opportunities to try one of the Belgian favorites.
Other popular dishes worth checking out.
As much as any other country in Europe, Belgium is a great country to get a little adventurous with your taste buds as well. An easy dish to try that is anguilles au vert (eel in green sauce), which is considered a delicacy throughout the country but especially so in Dendermonde and Antwerp along the Scheldt River. Combining a host of herbs with freshwater eel, anguilles au vert can be found fully prepared (but uncooked) in plenty of fish shops for anyone who wants to stay in and cook a Belgian classic, although many of the top restaurants in the country also offer a version of eel in green sauce as well.
If you think that Belgium is only about meat-based dishes and sweets, another bona fide classic is stoemp, a casserole that combines pureed (or mashed) potatoes with vegetables like carrots, peas, onions, and leeks. Although it first proliferated in rural Belgium, today it is found in restaurants both chic and casual, cementing its reputation as one of the must-try dishes for any visitor. A similar dish called stamppot is also a popular option in much of Belgium and into The Netherlands as well.
How to do the other classics.
Similar to fries, many visitors want to make sure that they at least try a Belgian waffle, but here you’re going to want to be a little bit careful. Although you can pick up a waffle at countless places—particularly in the tourist hubs of Brussels—you can also find better options if you know where to look. When in the Belgian capital, you will likely find long lines at little food stands like Vitalgaufre, but guests typically walk away very pleased thanks to an amazing combination of variations on the renowned Belgian delicacy. While many places will offer to pile on the toppings, most locals tend to keep it simple with a single topping (e.g. cherries) in order to actually taste the waffle itself. Visitors can also choose between two different types of waffles: the sweeter Liege waffle or a more traditional version.
A similar principle also holds when you’re looking for chocolates in Belgium, especially in chocolate havens like Bruges or Brussels. The main tourist centers, like Bruges’ Katelijnestraat, have astounding collections of chocolates and pralines, although locals tend to avoid the marked-up prices that cater to visitors. The same goes for the chocolatiers around Grand Place in Brussels, where you can find a wealth of outstanding chocolate houses that are family owned and operated. If you just want to pick up a few chocolates and don’t feel like actually going to one of the famous locations like Godiva or Neuhaus (both in central Brussels), visitors will be pleasantly surprised by the high quality and inventory right in your standard grocery store.
For those with a sweet tooth who want to try something other than world-class chocolates, tarte au riz (also called rijsttaart) is a flan stuffed with rice pudding that is particularly popular in East Belgium. A combination of Dutch and Belgian tradition, rijsttaart traces its origin to Verviers near Liege but can be found in plenty of bakeries and restaurants throughout the rest of the country as well.
Where to find everything.
Whether its ease of transport or just to take in the wonderful sights, Brussels is a natural focal point for many travelers to Belgium and an ideal place to find the very best Belgian foods and delicacies. It also offers a tremendous range of culinary experiences, from Michelin-rated standouts like La Truffe Noire to all sorts of highly-rated food stands and more casual restaurants that don’t require a reservation or fashionable attire. Like some of the top restaurants in Brussels, La Truffe Noire actually is only open after 7 p.m. most nights, but it also is open for a brief lunch window a few days a week as well.
Although checking out the beautiful Grand Place at the heart of the city is a must, foodies will want to move around a bit in order to avoid the classic tourist traps and sample some of the best foods in the city. For a totally unique experience, Le Chalet Robinson is literally on a tiny island in the Uccle neighborhood right inside Bois de la Cambre—about 20 minutes by car south of the city’s historical city center. Trying as many traditional Belgian foods as possible is always a great idea, although Brussels is also a truly international city that has a host of great restaurants featuring food from around the world.
Similar to Brussels, both Bruges and Ghent have plenty of great food options but also will require moving away from the areas that cater more to visitors than locals. Bruges’ Pro Deo is a great place to try some of the Belgian staples mentioned above while vegan-friendly De Plaats offers an amazing blend of modern takes on the classics. In Ghent, the renowned Karel de Stoute offers modern versions of the most popular Belgian dishes and diners can enjoy a three, five, or seven-course experience while tasting some of the finest wines available in the city. For those looking for a little culinary creativity and a hip environment featuring a renowned chef, Roots is a must-try that is consistently rated as one of the very best restaurants in Ghent.
The terrific traditions of Belgium are also certainly not limited just to its main cities either, as some of the very best dining experiences can be found in relatively unknown towns and villages, making it a great idea to head off the beaten path if you’re putting together an extended holiday. With a host of exciting food options that are sure to make an impression on any foodie, Belgium is simply one of the great places to expand your pallet while enjoying the many culinary treasures. By the time you get back home, you might even be inspired to make a few of your favorite dishes on your own in order to rekindle the experience.