Passing recipes from generation to generation, that’s the part of Belgian culture Chef Bart Vandaele finds most inspiring for his flagship Belga Café. With its beautiful patio leading into the eatery along historic Barrack’s Row on Capitol Hill, at the heart of Washington DC’s original Belgian restaurant is a menu steeped in a kind of tradition that endures.
The character, practice and culture of Belgian cuisine runs deep for the Vandaele family—in fact, it was the ethos behind the restaurants of his grandparents and parents, including his chef father, which led Chef Bart to decide at the age of 11 or 12 that he wanted to be a chef. It was this passion for expressing Belgian tradition practically fed from a young age, that established his formal journey as restaurateur after studying culinary arts for restaurant and hotel management in Brugge.
When it came to developing the menu for the restaurant, Chef Bart shared, “For Belgians, food comes natural; you love the food, you live in the country and you eat it, but when we came to the U.S. I really wanted to highlight Belgian food, to share it, and for people to understand what it was because in DC there wasn’t any.”
Diners at Belga Café will find recognizable and traditional dishes that people in Belgium grow up with. Dishes that are common in the sidewalk cafes of Belgium’s capitol Brussels—food that is cherished and continues from family to family. “If you have a husband or wife that can cook very well in Belgium, you’re lucky—some say, next to being a doctor having someone in the family that does is important in Belgian culture because it’s used to bring people together.”
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Following his studies in Brugge, Chef Bart worked for renown Belgian restaurants and served under well-respected chefs. After arriving in America in 1997 he became executive chef for the European Union’s head diplomat to the United States, then for the Dutch Embassy before the opening of Belga Café nearly fifteen years ago. A master of traditional Belgian cuisine, he has appeared on Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’, and earned the moniker ‘the Belgian guy’ for putting Belgian food on the map in Washington, DC.
Chef told us because food is a conduit in Belgium, it’s why even though there was similar food such as several French restaurants and even Belgian beer when he arrived in DC, the capital needed a café like Belga, because culturally, the traces of the cuisine needed more tender love and care, essentially the Belgian touch. That’s why patrons will note that the restaurant isn’t a French-Belgian restaurant or even a European restaurant, but truly Belgian at its heart.
Situated around the pillar of politics in America, Capitol Hill, Chef Bart chose a unique structure—a decision not to get into Belgian politics through the restaurant’s menu. So, you won’t find geographical specialties mentioned or sectioned off. “It’s simply a Belgian restaurant—dishes close to my heart, my favorites—not based on regions like Flanders or cities like Waterloo. Although, you will find the pronunciation of the café’s dishes in French or how they’re known to be called in their place of origin, whether also Flemish or Dutch, and translated in English,” he explained. To us, that seems to translate into a place for everyone simply using recipes of love.
Bricks are also culturally important in Belgian culture. “For me, as the Belgian saying goes, I was a boy born with a brick in his stomach.” Literally, there’s a Belgian folk saying, Een baksteen in de maag which means bricks are essentially an anchor. For example, chef told us when you buy a house in Belgium it’s usually made of brick and it stays in the family because it’s home, and it means home. The restaurant is built with lots of bricks. In fact, the interior was laid brick-by-brick, a process that seemed for Chef Bart a natural path, a destiny. On the design of the restaurant, he explained, “[You] really stand behind your country more-so when you’re outside of it, you cherish and focus on things about it that when you’re there you simply take for granted.”
While his second restaurant, B Too, is more contemporary, Belga Café features down-home cooking, he tells us. “I call it down to earth because literally it’s food that’s very closely connected to your backyard in Belgium. It’s your chickens or rabbits, or if you’re close to the sea, it’s mussels and scallops, and root vegetables, those are essential. It’s really about the cabbage, that Brussel sprout, and the potato—the potato for example is really big, there’s no meal without the potato.”
He likens local Belgian cuisine to a friend in your backyard who waits on you to comfort you and that you gather with, that, he said, is real local food. “It’s like, [the food] simmers, and outside it’s raining and cold and you’re out working a bit, and then you come around the table to that steamy pot of mussels or that great chocolate mousse on Sunday’s from grandma because she has this amazing, enduring recipe. Those recipes that you gather around are what make up Belgian culture.”
Beyond the wonderful food, guests will find the cues of a Belgian beer garden in a vast selection of over 100 beers offered at Belga. From popular brews like pilsners, to white beers, red, brown, golden, and Belgian ales, Saisons, to even innovative beer cocktails, and more, the selection is quite extensive. Little details like serving the beer in the correct glasses is traditional, whether served against the façade of the brick wall of the bar or to people drinking outside on the terrace on a beautiful day.
There’s a beautiful patio outside Belga that beacons to the famed sidewalk cafes in Brussels. “When we opened, it wasn’t common to have sidewalk seating and it’s something I’m very proud of. I wanted to have a sidewalk café because that’s Belgium, that’s Brussels. At the restaurant, you can just sit and watch the world pass by,” chef shared.
Sensory cues like steaming Belgian music, an open kitchen with the light but warm and inviting scent of steamed mussels and fries welcome you in for a warm meal. You’ll see on the walls subtle homage to Belgium from simple décor like the colors or the letter ‘B’ on the wall, to interesting features like the crown molding around a central chandelier that came from an old Belgian castle. A saxophone sits behind the bar because it was a Belgian who invented it.
Whether inside or outside, the café is collectively and proudly Belgian. Simply by walking by it you’ll be invited in because there’s a simmering pot of tradition and warmth waiting for you. Like a friend waiting at a sidewalk café in Brussels for you to pull up a chair and sit with them for a while, Belga Café represents everything there is to love about Belgium.
Patrons to Belga Café can come for lunch, dinner, as well as brunch on weekends. The restaurant also offers daily two course prix-fixe lunch specials, a Tuesday Mussels special which includes crunchy fries for just $16.95, as well as half-priced happy hour on cocktails wines, draft beers, and small plates on weekdays from 2:30pm to 6:30pm and Sunday’s from 4:00pm to close.