The Coziness of a Belgian Cafe


There are lots of different kinds of Belgian drinking holes, and I don’t want my naive eyes to be overly influenced by the ones tourists typically visit. And yet that can be turned around, too; you can buy beer in a lot of places—corner stalls, haute restaurants, Irish pubs. I even saw beer for sale in the Antwerp Cathedral. But when we search for quintessence, we look for those more “typical” places that connect a country’s drinking culture back past its most immediate manifestation. Of course this can lapse into maudlin nostalgia when done wrong, but it can give a real sense of history and culture when on the mark.

Is Brussels’ La Fleur en Papier Doré typical? I am going to rely on Yvan de Baets, who took me there for dinner. He’s a fan of old-school places, and this is the one he chose. It was certainly like others I’ve seen, a diminutive place packed with details difficult to absorb in a single visit. I would like to think it’s typical—and I hope so, too, because it’s wonderful.

It’s a dark, atmospheric place, which seems typical if not mandatory. The walls were covered with stuff—not just pictures, but all manner of bric-a-brac. The floors were worn, the tables deeply grooved. People sat around tables in groups, men and women of all ages. One of the reasons Yvan chose the place was because it had stoemp, a traditional variety of mashed potato. Ours was served with sausage and a thick slab of bacon and a pot of sweetish gravy.

Of course, Yvan also chose the place for its beer—and I decided on a variety of oude kriek I’d never had. While only a small minority of Belgians typically drink these beers with their meals (now), they’re a major triumph of cuisine and are easily the pinnacle of traditional pairings in the beer world.

I’m about to board a plane for Vienna, and this memory visited me with a pang of mourning because these places do not exist anywhere in the United States, and I don’t know how long it will be until I visit one again.