A hidden gem – a gourmet guide to Antwerp - Belgium

Where to stay

A-Stay Close to Central Station, the self-check-in and check-out small, modern hotel scores well for value, location and facilities such as flat screen TV as standard. Doubles from £76. Pelikaanstraat 86, 00 32 3 535 3553,

Botanic Sanctuary A stunning, opulent hotel in a 15th-century former monastery attached to the Botanic Garden. Spa, swimming pool, hammam and every discreet luxury imaginable is here. Its four restaurants include top-notch Hertog Jan and Bar Bulot. Doubles from £248. Leopoldstraat 26, 00 32 3 269 0000,

Hotel August The former Augustinian convent – located in the leafy Groen Kwartier neighbourhood – has been beautifully converted to a cool, minimalist hotel and contemporary sanctuary with spa and wellness centre. Doubles from £145. Jules Bordetstraat 5, 00 32 3 500 8080,

Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel In a prime location opposite the magnificent Central Station with tram, bus and metro stops on the doorstep, its modern styling will suit both family and business travellers. There’s a fitness centre, pool and spa. Doubles from £125. Koningin Astridplein 7, 00 32 3 203 1234,

Sapphire House The 16th-century building has been converted into a sharp, edgy modern hotel. The two restaurants run by two-Michelin-star chef Bart De Pooter serve only plant-based food. Doubles from £177. Lange Nieuwstraat 20-24, 00 32 3 201 0370,

Travel Information

Framing the River Scheldt, in Belgium’s northern Flanders region, Antwerp is one of the world’s largest port cities. The official languages are Dutch, French and German. Time is one hour ahead of GMT and currency is the euro. Travel from the UK to Antwerp takes upwards of three hours.

There are no direct flights to Antwerp from the UK, but British Airways offer daily flights from Heathrow to Brussels, a 30-minute train ride away.
Eurostar will also transport you in two hours from London St Pancras to Brussels, where you switch to any local service.

Visit Antwerpen is the local tourism board, with information to help you plan your visit.
Visit Flanders is your guide to the region’s must-visits.

Where to eat

Prices are for a three-course meal for two, including wine, unless otherwise stated

Album Owners Joris and Toon run a friendly, neighbourhood bistro that doubles as a sourdough bakery. Exposed brick walls and white marble tables are the setting for on-trend dishes with Asian and Scandi slants. From £90. Vlaamsekaai 6, 00 32 3 334 8859,

Bar Bulot Chef Gert De Mangeleer has created a crisp, stylish brasserie in a verdant setting. The immaculate cooking is fresh and accomplished: think revitalised classics such as grilled veal tongue with Madeira sauce or monkfish meunière. He also runs the tiny, super-exclusive Hertog Jan in the same complex, open 10 days a month, with a pricy set menu. Bar Bulot, from £140. Lange Gasthuisstraat 41, 00 32 3 369 2596,

Beni Falafel Although Beni himself is no longer is behind the counter, Harris Malkoc keeps standards high with freshly fried, perfectly spiced falafel, creamy hummus and dips to rival any in Tel Aviv. Pitta bread remains hot and puffy by the ingenious use of flat irons. Kosher. Platters from £7.50. Lange Leemstraat 188, 00 32 3 218 8211,

Bistrot du Nord This small, intimate restaurant is everyone’s dream of a perfect bistro. The terroir-based cuisine of Michelin-starred Michaël Rewers displays sharply-focused simplicity in dishes such as poached cod with white asparagus, grey shrimps and tarragon – old-school but not old-fashioned. From £140. Lange Dijkstraat 36, 00 32 3 233 4549,

Hoffy’s The famous kosher restaurant and deli is an institution led by the three Hoffman brothers, who have elevated Jewish cuisine into a class of its own. Go with an elasticated waistband and select from a wide selection of beautifully presented dishes, both familiar and lesser known. From £102. Lange Kievitstraat 52, 00 32 3 234 3535,

Instroom Academy Sophisticated and colourful multicultural dishes change regularly at this unique social project located in the Docklands. From £80. Droogdokkenweg 4, 00 32 493 267412,

InVINcible Although there are a few tables, most customers perch at the counter facing the open kitchen. Covid led chef Kenny Burssens to install hatch-like windows through which he theatrically pops his head to serve superb steaks and sea bass in salt. An impressive list puts the vin into InVINcible. From £98. Haarstraat 9, 00 32 3 231 3207,

Nage Natural wine and suave seasonal cooking are served up in a minimalist setting at this historic brick house. Talented Koen Lenaerts works hard – homemade charcuterie, smoked butter, seven-week aged beef. Five-course set menu from £58pp; wine flight from £33pp. Reyndersstraat 17, 00 32 456 32 20 72,

The Butcher’s Son Part of the De Koninck brewery visitor’s centre, this relaxed restaurant is located directly above The Butcher’s Store, one of the best butchers in Belgium. Bert Jan Michielsen’s dishes include definitive eel with green herbs and vol-au-vent with sweetbreads. Expansive wine list. From £154. Boomgaardstraat 1, 00 32 3 230 1638.

Veranda Davy Schellemans serves a fashionable seasonal set menu of complex, colourful dishes in the understated post-industrial setting of his popular restaurant in the old meat district, with natural wines. Five-course tasting menu from £57pp, excluding wine. Lange Lobroekstraat 34, 00 32 3 218 5595,

Victor Victor Avonds worked in Paris and London before opening her own restaurant in a quiet square behind the cathedral serving small, funky dishes. Buttermilk fried chicken is a winner. From £110. Sint Paulusplaats 25, 00 32 3 294 64 66,

Food Glossary

Flemish almond puff pastry biscuits with a marzipan filling
Antwerpse handjes
Buttery, hand-shaped biscuits that refer to the city’s original myth. Created in 1934 by Jewish confectioner Jos Hakker in a competition to find a culinary emblem for the city, their shape and composition are now patent-protected
Brusselse wafels
Brussels-style waffles topped with icing sugar and/or whipped cream. They are bigger, lighter and crispier than Belgium’s other famous Liège waffles
Dame blanche
Vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce
Traditional split pea soup with smoked sausage – filling and warming for colder days
Twice-fried chips from fresh (never frozen) potatoes are a national symbol and particularly popular eaten from paper cones sold from street stalls. Fatter than French fries, they are usually ready-salted and topped with a dollop of mayo, although you could choose curry ketchup or pickle sauce if you prefer
Grey shrimp croquettes. Caught in the North Sea, the tiny shrimps are immediately sieved, cooked and cooled on board the cutter ships. A small number are still harvested by fishermen on draft horses with chains and nets
Mussels and fries are arguably the unofficial national dish of Belgium, with the former cooked in many different ways, such as marinière or in garlic cream
Noordzee vissoep
North Sea fish soup – tangy and hearty
Paling in’t groen
Eels in a thick green herb sauce. One of the most popular Flemish regional dishes, it takes skill and practice to preventthe emerald coating turning khaki
Pancakes with jam, sugar, apple syrup, bacon, cheese – whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong
Raisin bread with cinnamon is a much-loved, sweet yeast bread that is as good toasted as fresh
Buttery potato and buttermilk mash usually served along with a soft-boiled egg
Vlaamse stoverij
Flemish beef stew cooked in beer
A creamy, rich soup/stew made with either chicken or fish
Belgian endives, often served wrapped up in ham alongside a cheesy béchamel sauce

Food and Travel Review

A is for Antwerp. And for art, adventure, affluence, aspiration and absurdity, and those succulent spears of chubby white asparagus or ‘white gold’. A is also for Anvers, both the old name of the city and the eponymous fragrant liqueur invented in 1863. Regarded by some as a miracle cure and beloved of chefs and mixologists, Elixir d’Anvers combines 32 herbs and spices with a deceptively high alcohol content. Mixed with ginger and bubbles, it is, as they say in Flemish-Dutch, lip-smackingly lekker (yummy).

One of the great trading ports of Europe, the pearl-grey tones of the North Sea are the setting for a dazzling historic trade in diamonds, incomparable works by Rubens, Van Dyck and Jan Brueghel the Elder, and slender gabled Flemish houses banded with leaded matchbox windows to maximise the clear light.

The Brabant gothic cathedral and irregular space of the main square, Grote Markt, are at the core of a charmingly confused cobweb of medieval alleys, squares and passages. Trams squeeze down narrow cobbled streets overseen by gilt spires and polychromatic statues of the Virgin Mary. One minute you’re in a secret garden; the next, navigating your way betwixt buses, bicycles and scooters, elegant shoppers and shuffling tourist groups waiting to Instagram the city’s famed Brabo Fountain.

A mythical foundation story, the bronze statue depicts the Roman Brabo cutting off the hand of threatening giant Antigoon, thereby saving the city. Subsequently ‘little hands’ took on iconic status, made into biscuits, chocolates, stone replicas, logos and inspiring casts on the walls of the striking MAS museum (around £850 to have your hand memorialised). The symbolism also captures a streak of unexpected playfulness in the city’s psyche: look up and spot the ghostly rooftop figure in the white dinner jacket; look down to find Hobbit-like art in boot-scrapers outside old town houses.

The 16th-century ‘Golden Age’ was a time of fire and plague and violence but it also saw innovation in printing, religious and social freedoms and the world’s first stock exchange. Antwerp became an international city, a place of immense trade and business, where fortunes where made and lost, rules were broken and new ideas took hold. The population was cosmopolitan, both irreverent and public-spirited. Markets revolved around trade in spices, silver and gold, cloth, fish, grain, coffee beans – and bananas. In its glory days, Antwerp was at the heart of the global economy.

Art nouveau houses, the enchanting wooden escalators of St Anna’s Tunnel under the River Scheldt, and the grandiose 1905 Central Station, with its high-domed hall, iron and glass canopy and turreted viaduct, spin the dial of history to another era of prosperity. Yet, despite its historic treasures and gezellig (cosy) wood-panelled bars, the city marches to a lively contemporary beat, particularly in food, fashion and design. In a sense, it always has done, with its stubborn independence of spirit. Dramatic modern architecture amid baroque gems and sturdy bourgeois streets endows the compact city with the self-assured feel and outlook of a much larger one.

It has many resources on which to draw: fertile agricultural land close to the city provides endives, kohlrabi, celeriac and salsify and, of course, potatoes. Think Belgium, think frietjes. There is rich dairy produce to be had – luscious butter and cheeses such as toine from East Flanders, and Old Groendal, a crunchy Gouda-style that has even been sent into space by special astronaut request. Flanders also has a strong tradition of cattle rearing: steaks are on the immense side of gargantuan, and offal – brains, sweetbreads, tongue – is treated with respect. And the catch may be diminished, but the City of Fish hasn’t lost its taste for it, whether fresh or smoked. Creamy grey shrimp croquettes, traditionally caught by shrimpers with nets on draft horses, are at their finest in the low-key elegance of the Bistrot du Nord. At The Butcher’s Son, despite the name, eel is a top choice, either served with a luminous, emerald green herb sauce or with Japanese influenced lacquering. In the Old Town every table top sports a pot of mussels, but the smart way is to eat them in a foil packet as at Nage, accented with seaweed and buttermilk sauce.

Food, design and style are natural partners here. The city’s reputation for architectural and technological advances dates back to the revolutionary printing presses of the 16th century and continues with avant-garde fashion ateliers fostered by the impact of the Antwerp Six on international couture in the Eighties. In a comparable way, with both cutting-edge sophistication and an egalitarian, unpretentious attitude, contemporary young chefs are leading the challenge to establish the city as the nation’s gastronomic capital.

Antwerp is a city that loves to eat and drink: the reputation of wines such as Aldeneyck from Flanders is enhancing the profile of the world’s smallest wine producer, but the consumption of beer is in the city’s DNA. In an irresistibly absurd image worthy of the surreal land of Magritte, Ronnie Vermeulen, president of the Antwerp Moustache Club, happily quips through his facial thickets, ‘People always ask how I can drink my beer, but I just strain it through my ‘tache, then drink it a second time!’

Thirst-quenching beer became the brew of choice centuries ago in a city famous for drinking, as it provided an alternative to polluted water. City records in the mid-16th century mention at least 376 pubs, and brewers of the time were producing millions of litres. There are probably at least that number today, if not more, but no one seems to have got round to counting them.

The quintessential beer of Antwerp is from De Koninck, a brewery that dates back to 1833, although the family firm was taken over by the Duvel conglomerate. The visitor’s centre has spawned a clutch of small artisan producers: The Bakery sees queues down the street for Sunday-morning, oven-fresh sourdoughs, baguettes and beer bread; there are cheese and beer tastings at affineur par excellence Van Tricht; vibrant chocolates from Jitsk include a beer-flavoured option particularly popular in their shop in Japan.

The beer most identified with the city is De Koninck’s refreshing amber Bolleke beer, invariably served in distinctive chalice-shaped glasses to enhance the large foam head. An integral part of Antwerp’s café culture, correct pouring is a carefully scrutinised art.

In fact, practically every style of beer has its own glass to match its unique aroma and characteristics. And, despite Bolleke’s dominance, there is a fast-growing range of craft beers and microbreweries. Ten years ago, enthusiasts Karen Follens and Johan Van Dyck followed a historic trail that led them to the original recipe for the city’s long-forgotten Seef beer. With the help of the yeast bank at the University of Louvain, and 1,000 crowd-funders, they set up the Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie and revived this cloudy style based on buckwheat and were vindicated when the beer – and its more recent siblings – was showered with acclaim. ‘We started from scratch,’ says Karen, ‘without the big budgets of the big brewers to do marketing or export. We’re just a little brewery that brews good beer that everyone seems to like.’

When not sinking beer, Antwerpeners are sipping coffee. Astonishingly, the city has the largest coffee bean warehouse in Europe. It’s an old association: in the 18th century local coffee roasters turned selected beans into their own secret blends, a practice hipster baristas still follow. The passion is self-evident and coffee shop competition is keen but friendly. As head roaster at Caffènation, Jeff Verellen is on a mission to promote transparency, quality and spread the word: ‘Our motto has always been “One Drug, One Nation, One Caffènation”. We have a simple ambition – to change the world of coffee and the people who make it.’

His beans are roasted at PAKT, a creative hub in the grounds of a restored 19th-century redbrick military hospital. Home to a number of start-up companies, with restaurants, cafés and farmers’ markets, the community has created a bewitching complex of rooftop greenhouses, overhead walkways, urban gardens and street art amid the crumbling buildings. It’s edgy, quirky, vibrant and representative of the green lifestyle that colours much of the city. In fact, the country’s ecological movement started here, an example of a historically free-thinking city that also saw Belgian’s first gay marriage.

Vegans are well catered for (although they must co-exist with those who have a continuing taste for horse meat), the pinnacle being the opening of Sapphire House, the first 100 per cent plant-based Marriott Hotel. At the other end of the scale, Icelab is a vegan ice-cream and waffle shop whose owner Hilde Gos studied at the Gelato University in Bologna to create her recipes. ‘It was a question of chemistry,’ she explains. ‘Plant-based ice cream reacts differently from normal ones. It’s been so popular – to eat an ice cream is such a simple joy that’s been denied to many. And this has also been a boon for Orthodox Jews and Indian Jains.’

Both these groups are connected to the city’s famous diamond trade, located in a warren of streets near Central Station. Whatever high finance goes on behind the closed doors of this rather drab quarter, the resident Jewish community welcomes visitors to share superb kosher cheesecake, blueberry yeast buns and pastries at Kleinblatt bakery, legendary hummus and falafels at Beni, and Yiddish heimishe food at Hoffy’s restaurant and deli. At the latter, Jewish laws and customs are explained as visitors enjoy stylishly presented classics. Everyone asks why there are no other branches, but as the Hoffman brothers explain good-humouredly, ‘Then it wouldn’t be Hoffy’s.’

History, however, is neither forgotten nor ignored, and the bittersweet connections to the Diamond Quarter still resonate among families and businesses: Henry Maneles of Kleinblatt tells the tale of the family’s wanderings between old and new worlds and the rediscovery of a cache of diamonds hidden from the Nazis that helped relaunch their abandoned business.

There were 176 different nationalities in the city at the last count, a disparate patchwork where, at the buzzing Saturday Market, you can eat anything from Moroccan pancakes drizzled with honey and orange-flower water to a steaming cup of boiled whelks and vegetables. New-season produce is eagerly anticipated, notably the short new potato season in early May; the rest of the time, you won’t be short-changed, however, as starchy, older potatoes are used for the ubiquitous cones of frietjes topped with mayo and served from handcarts or over the counter.

Globalism underpins the admirable Instroom Academy in the port of Antwerp, where Michelin-starred chef Seppe Nobels has launched a social project to create a modern fusion kitchen run by refugees and immigrants. The deeply moving stories behind the cooks and serving staff unfold as your meal progresses: dishes from their homelands are given a green twist, a Flemish accent and high-end panache. It’s a remarkable experience in a modern Renaissance metropolis.

Words by Clarissa Hyman. Photography by Mark Parren Taylor. They travelled to Antwerp courtesy of Visit Antwerp.

This feature was taken from the October 2022 issue of Food and Travel. To subscribe today, click here.

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