A Brussels landmark as soon as its doors opened eight years ago, the iconic Café Belga has become the social hub that transformed a neighbourhood. It was just a matter of time until this local institution made it in our pages and the Breakthrough theme was simply the perfect fit.

Photography Merel ‘t Hart

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Located on Place Flagey, right beneath the cultural centre Le Flagey, its huge corner windowed façade and even bigger terrace have made the café impossible to miss. Calling it a local institution would be an understatement, and few would dispute the idea that Café Belga singlehandedly managed to put the Flagey district back on the map. “There was clearly a political and communal will to renovate the area and its urban space. So I guess it seemed like the perfect timing to invest in it,” explains François, who’s been managing the café for the past seven years. Created by Frédéric Nicolay (who else?), it bears the characteristic attention to detail familiar from other favourites like Tavernier, the Zebra or the Walvis; warm wooden interior with a carefully studied ancient/authentic feel, stylish design, counter service, pleasant tunes, free gigs, healthy snacks, and outdoor seating.

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Undoubtedly the biggest and busiest, the Belga’s terrace located on the Place Sainte-Croix / Heilig Kruisplein and facing one of the Ixelles ponds is ideal to enjoy some rare UV rays while people watching. Regulars will pack onto the terrace at any cost, even if it means venturing out in nearly polar temperatures or sitting on the floor when all the chairs are occupied. Who ever said having a drink was meant to be relaxing? During peak hours, it’s a battle. Get ready to queue and fight for a table; if you manage to make it, the sense of victory will be a reward in itself. Fortunately, the staff is very helpful, with more barmen than there are bar women . “Being a huge and busy place, the work gets physically intense. I’d love to have more women on the staff, but it’s hard finding girls who are able to keep up.”

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Open from 8am, Café Belga take on multiple identities over the course of the day. Early birds flock in for a quick coffee before work, others chose to begin the day with a satisfying breakfast or attempt to cure a hangover with one of the heavenly fresh juices. Come lunchtime, you can bring yourself up to date with the day’s newspapers while eating one of the salads served in a trademark glass. Catch up with a friend over a cup of tea in the early afternoon before hitting that first beer during the after-work slot, when the place gets flooded with students, creatives working in the area (global advertising agency Publicis has its offices above) and Schuman’s Eurocrats.

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Depending on the day of the week, you can discover a great jazz band, dance the night away during wild DJ sets or even be lucky enough to catch the exclusive showcase of some special guest: in 2008, Moby performed a 45-minute acoustic gig for free and at his own request, the only condition being that there would be no publicity. Brussels word of mouth was efficient enough to deliver an insane crowd squeezed into the café, rapidly filled beyond capacity, and spilling on to the square and streets of the area.

Moby’s acoustic rendition of Natural Blues in Café Belga

[youtube width=”567″ height=”420″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ul4uz9vtzo&feature=related

We Are All Made of Stars and Slipping Away

[youtube width=”567″ height=”420″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGRsqJSRarw&feature=PlayList&p=327A90B177503E99&playnext_from=PL&playnext=1&index=31

During the summer, the terrace morphs into an open-air theatre, screening movies within the Brussels Film Festival programme. At closing time, generally around 2 or 3am, the peckish ones, knackered on Belga cocktails of vodka, Canada Dry and violet syrup crawl to the square’s legendary fritkot (an institution in itself) conveniently located right across the street.

From a Belgian perspective, it’s a miracle that a place with no indoor smoking or table service has thrived so long after its novelty factor has worn off. The smoking ban has not had a negative effect on the business, thanks to the heated terrace and provision of blankets: if anything the café has managed to attract a wider and more family-friendly clientele as a result. As for the counter service, it was first initiated at Nicolay’s Saint-Géry cafés, and shook the clients’ habits. Although widely accepted now, the concept is still not the most popular, but François remains convinced it is a necessity. “People may not be very pleased about standing at the bar to order, but considering the size of the place, they’d have to wait five times longer if we were to bring drinks and food to their table. The situation would become unmanageable and prices would inevitably rise.” However, some still find it hard to stomach, the main argument being “why should I pay twice as much for a beer as I would in a supermarket if I have to get it myself anyways?” Fair enough. But at the end of the day, you’re not paying for your actual drink. You’re forking out to gorge on the café’s atmosphere, watch the people, and be part of the institution.

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Opened on June 18th in 2002, Café Belga was a revolution in the quiet Place Flagey / Flageyplein. A few decades back this was a lively neighbourhood with local businesses, activities and a village-like intimacy. The central esplanade was home to a weekly street market, the annual Bouglione circus, a Portuguese party, parades, and neighbourhood parties. However it all died out, thanks, among other things, to intrusive and apparently endless road works. “I was extremely excited and immediately drawn to the place,” reminisces Elleni, who has been living on the square for the past 25 years. “It was magnificent and very new. The café offered a lot of concerts, jam sessions, but also attracted a very bobo and fauxhemian crowd. It doesn’t really bother me per se, but has truly changed the atmosphere and the identity of the neighbourhood. It feels weird thinking I live somewhere that’s now become hip.”

Besides upping Flagey’s cool factor and directly contributing to its considerable property boom, Café Belga has catalysed a boom of trendy bars like Bar du Marché, Nexx, Le Tigre, Irish pub De Valera’s, or artsy Café Murmure. One has to hand it to Mr Nicolay. The man has always been a visionary with an unmatched talent for revamping the city’s neglected and seedy areas with his bars and restaurants. Just look at his latest ventures like the Bar du Matin, opened less than two years ago on Place Albert / Albertplein in Forest / Vorst, or the Café Modèle, bordering the canal in Molenbeek. It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that these distressed areas are well on their way to become the capital’s next hot spots.

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Café Belga
Place Eugène Flageyplein
1050 Brussels
Tel: +32 (0) 2 640 35 08

Everyday from 8am to 2am except Fridays & Saturdays from 8am to 3am
Kitchen open from 9am to 4pm