Tips for Eating Well in Belgium from DC’s Chef Bart Vandaele of Belga Café

If you’re planning a visit to Belgium, take these tips from Chef Bart Vandaele of DC’s Belga Café. A native of Belgium whose worked under renown chefs in Belgium, and served as executive chef for European dignitaries in the U.S. capital, Chef Bart is a master of Belgian cuisine. In fact, after opening his flagship restaurant nearly fifteen years ago he became known as ‘the Belgian guy’ for putting Belgian food on the map in the area.

Belgian ingredients are literally based on down-to-earth cooking, Chef Bart shares and why he implements this down-home cooking at his restaurant. “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.”

Brussels Sprouts at Belga Cafe | Facebook

It was during our recent #MezzeTravel Twitter chat, Chef Bart shared among the best things about Belgian culture expressed through food is that Belgium is the land of the good life. Food is Belgian culture, a type of friendship, with warmth, a feast, and way of life.

During the chat, he also shared that Belgian food can be characterized regionally, for example, in the northern coastal region of Flanders food is centered around the fish and mussels, and in the South, the region of Wallonia it’s about the hams, wild game, and essentially winter fare that are a must-try. Popular things to eat in the capital city of Brussels include traditional street foods and down-to-earth classics like mussels, carbonades or stews, frites or fries, and of course, famed Belgian waffles.

Moule Frites, Mussels and Fries at Belga Cafe | Facebook

When it comes to Belgium’s classic dishes, ingredients are like a circle of life and presentation is just a part of it, he believes. “[The food] is like a fashion and things are coming back, and that’s why you have tradition to reference. If the dish doesn’t endure it’s a fluke; if it doesn’t become tradition then it’s not really part of the culture. Real tradition lives in the books from the 1970s, for example, and things will come back if they’re truly part of the culture. A time is coming when people will come back to tradition, the values of food.”

If you’re wondering how to discern a truly Belgian food experience, Chef Bart advises that qualities of Belgian cuisine start with the culture and look at tradition. It is in that same vein that he develops his own menu for his restaurants, Belga Café and even the more contemporary B Too. He says it’s important to maintain definitive characteristics while keeping the dish relevant to modern times.

“You look at classic recipes, and if they have endured they’re there to be referenced, restudied, redone,” so that the main ingredients are essentially drawn forward generation after generation. If it wasn’t for the creative process of bringing forth tradition, he wouldn’t be a chef.

Belgian-style Shrimp, with butter and garlic at Belga Cafe | Facebook

But, if you’re out wondering the popular streets of Brussels where countless tantalizing menus and even tourist-catching photographs on signs vie for your attention, don’t get too caught up in the fleeting visuals. Like it is at Belga Café, to eat well in Belgium is, “really about the food and the love that was put into it, not about the fringes and décor on the plate—that comes and goes,” Chef Bart shares.

“It’s the meat and potatoes, that love in it, that stew you make, that people eat over-and-over again. That’s tried and true tradition really. You can tweak, to make [a dish] lighter in summer or heavier in the winter, but the recipe itself because of its tradition will endure.” He means that though inspiration is found to innovate Belgian dishes, there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed for classic recipes to remain, and to maintain their warmth and heart.

Braised lamb with papparadelle pasta at Belga Cafe | Facebook

At Belga Café, for example, DC-area patrons will find traditional dishes like Brussels sprouts deep fried and prepared with bacon and topped with gobs of yogurt sauce, as well as steak tartare that’s prepared classically and served with cornichons, capers, but rather than just onions and raw egg yolk, Chef Bart’s version features fried onions and a fried quail egg.

Among Chef Bart’s favorite Belgian food and drink include, Een pintje or a little pint of beer like Stella Artois, Duvel or Brugse Zot, fries from a sidewalk friet stall, shrimp croquettes, and the Flemish dish Waterzooi, a stew dish made traditionally with fish or more commonly now, chicken. For the sweet-tooth Chef Bart enjoys famed Belgian chocolate and the Liège waffle, Belgium’s tiny, traditional and rich caramelized sugar loaded treat.

Belgian Beef Tartar at Belga Cafe | Facebook

If you’re near DC, stop into Belga Café to try some common dishes from the sidewalk café of Brussels like traveler-favorite Moules Frites, mussels and fries, but also very quintessential Belgian dishes like Pappardelle Met Gesmoorde Lams Shouder, a plate of braised lamb shoulder with pappardelle pasta and herb butter, tomatoes and a red wine sauce, as well as Vlaamse Stiverij Met Frieten, a Flemish beef stew with Corsendonk Brune sauces, Belgian fires, mayonnaise, and braised red cabbage.

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Chef Bart Vandaele Shares 6 Ways to Experience Belgium Like a Belgian

When it comes to experiencing Belgium, Chef Bart Vandaele of Washington DC’s original Belgian restaurant knows a thing or two. He grew up in Belgium before moving to the U.S. twenty years ago. Known as a master of Belgian cuisine, he specializes in Belgian food and beer, having cooked for European dignitaries in Embassy row and even appeared on Bravo TV’s Top Chef.

Today, Chef Bar is at the helm of several DC restaurants, including Belga Café his flagship Belgian eatery in DC, alone the restaurant features a vast collection of over 100 beers on the menu which we wrote about here. In a recent interview and #Mezzetravel Twitter chat with Chef Bart, we asked him what were among his favorite things to see and do in Belgium and what travelers could take away about Belgian people and culture.

If you’re planning a trip to Belgium soon, here are six ways Chef Bart recommends travelers experience the country like a Belgian.

1. Pay attention to the details of local life.

For Chef Bart Vandaele, the best thing to do in Belgium for him is revisiting things he’s seen and was familiar with growing up in Belgium. Take, for example, the highest point in Belgium Signal de Botrangewhich he’s seen countless times. “Sure, you’ve been there on a trip as a school kids, but it’s different each time—or, to just drive around through the town you grew up in or that your friend grew up in, and then think to yourself ‘Hey, that street wasn’t there, or this changed, or not,’ that’s how I like to experience Belgium,” he shared.

 2. Don’t be in too much of a hurry.

When it comes to things to see and do, one of the things Chef Bart encourages travel enthusiasts to do is to simply sit. It’s one of his favorite pastimes in Belgium. “Visiting too much is never good. Taking the time to sit at the table and talk to people—sitting at a sidewalk café and just watching people or talking to the people who sit next to you and observing. Belgians are really focused on nothing and a lot at the same time,” he laughs.

 3. Rent a bike.

“Belgium is small, it’s fun. It’s not like you have a long journey to go most anywhere, and you can literally go from café to café, and see people passing by with their bikes,” he shared.

4. It’s normal if you don’t have a favorite city.

What Belgian city is Chef Bart’s favorite? He can’t pick just one, but Antwerp, Ghent and Brugge are among his favorites for wonderful reasons. Located in the most northern Belgian region of Flanders, Antwerp is his favorite Belgian city for its shopping and museums, and Ghent for its food, and simply strolling around. Brugge is a favorite for its pleasant outdoor dining, and of course Belgium’s capital city Brussels is on his list for its rich history and delicious and famous waffles.

5. Extravagance can be a way of life.

For people who travel and like to take souvenirs, we asked Chef Bart what spirit about the Belgian people should travel enthusiasts take with them. His answer: happy people with a love for Belgian food and beer.

Essentially, taking back with you a bit of the Burgundian lifestyle. Burgundy is a region in France but the phrase has its meaning in Dutch (that requires a history lesson), but it simply translates to a flare for ‘enjoyment of life, good food, and extravagant spectacle.’ To us, this means Belgians like to have the best time life can give.

6. Maintain a fun-loving spirit.

In the capital city, Brussels, for example the people have a fun rebellious spirit, one personified in Brussels famous Manneken Pis. Take this small bronze statue near town hall of the “little pee man,” in Flemish, which has a varied story of origin. Not just famous with tourists, the people of Brussels simply adore it and celebrate the statue as part of annual festivities—even replacing the water stream with beer on occasion!

Chef Bart tells us that, locals from Brussels are also especially proud of its sprouts, and that a stop in the capital city isn’t complete without a visit to the Atomium, which boasts a restaurant at the top of its fifth sphere. Quite the extravagant building.

What’s certain, I think, is if you’re planning a trip to Belgium you’ll have a really good time. You’ll surely find the culture of Belgium to be rich and beautiful, a wonderful place to travel, easily experienced through its easy-going people, and you’ll easily carry a lot about Belgium back home with you.

Capitol Hill’s Belga Café Offers DC the Warmth, Tradition and Sidewalk Cafes of Brussels

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.

Chef Bart Vandaele, Belga Cafe | FacebookWhen 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.”

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.

Diners at Belga Cafe | Facebook

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.

Moules Frites or Mussels and Fries at Belga Cafe | Facebook

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.”

Belga Cafe Washington DC Belgian Food
Warm and savory Belgian dishes are served at Belga Cafe | Facebook

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.

Belga Cafe Washington DC
Belga Cafe features an outdoor patio | Facebook

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.

Belga Cafe Washington DC Belgian food
Belga Cafe features an extensive wine and beer menu, over 100 beers | Facebook

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.

Try These DC Prix-Fixe Meals for a Taste of Four European Countries

When it comes to dining in Washington, DC, you’ll find a city filled with history and culture among a wide range of international options. In a city that’s the seat of embassies from around the world, it should be no surprise that these 6 prix-fixe options can offer a small taste of Europe, including Belgium, France, Italy and Russia. Here’s your chance to opt for a unique meal and enjoyable lunch or dinner in the The District, where you can take a European tour through these multi-course meals.

Belgium / Chef Bart Vandaele makes Tuesday’s fun with steaming hot pot of moules frites for just $16.95 at lunch or dinner. Or for $20 add a beer and truly enjoy your experience at DC’s original Belgian restaurant, Belga Cafe.

Belga Cafe | Source: Twitter
Belga Cafe | Source: Twitter

Italy / Grab a friend or date to join the family table of Chef Fabio Trabocchi’s restaurarant Casa Luca for a 3-course Italian dinner on Sundays from 5:00-6:30pm. Be a part of the familia for just $75 for two and dine on caesar salad and lasagna along with a bottle of wine and bomboloni (italian donut) for dessert.

Casa Luca DC Italian Food
Casa Luca | Source: Twitter

Italy / In the continued spirit of ‘Sundays are for family,’ Fiola’s hosts a 4 Course dinner at their tables on Sunday’s, as well. From 5:00pm to 6:30pm you and your loved ones can enjoy four plates of Italian food along with a wine, while listening to live jazz music for $95 per person.

fiola-dc-italian-food
Fiola’s | Source: Twitter

Italy / While you might also witness one of Ristorante Piccolo’s famous first dates and proposals, you’ll love to dine on its $13 prix fixe lunch menu. Its Pappa Al Pomodoro, a Tuscan tomato soup is a featured first course. The restaurant also offers a 3-course dinner special on Mondays through Thursdays from 4:30pm to 6:30pm, which includes a choice of three appetizers, seven entrees, with dessert for $22 per person.

ristorante-piccolo-dc-italian-food
Ristorante Piccolo | Source: Twitter

Russia / Gourmet diners can join Russian restaurant Mari Vanna for its unlimited caviar bar on Thursdays starting at 5pm. For $29 per guest, you can enjoy a buffet of red caviar, assorted salads, stuffed and plain Blinis (thin buckwheat pancake-like cakes), as well as condiments and preserves. The restaurant is also famous for its infused vodkas and treats every buffet guest to a complementary shot. Plus, all black caviar is $10 off for those who want to upgrade their palate. 

mari-vanna-authentic-russan-food-in-dc
Mari Vanna | Source: Twitter

France / Thinking of catching a dinner and movie tonight? With the Angelica Theatre nearby to French-Mediterranean restaurant Requin helmed by Chef’s Mike Isabella and Jen Caroll, be sure to check out the restaurant’s $28 3-course prix fixe dinner menu available from 5:00pm to 6:30pm on Mondays through Thursdays. You’re dinner includes for each guest the choice of one spread or dip, a small plate as second course, and then one dessert. Note that the special requires full table participation. 

Requin | Source: Twitter
Requin | Source: Twitter

Try These 8 Shareable European Plates for a Meal with Friends

The ultimate lunch or night out with friends isn’t complete unless there’s food to be passed around—after all, sharing is caring. When friends go out for food or drinks in Europe, you’ll find that many times multiple dishes with individual portions are ordered and dining is communal.

Going out for dinner and drinks isn’t just about the food, but about bringing friends together, and international cuisines are known to be most shareable. In fact, European restaurants are known for a great social atmosphere and offer lots of options to make a mix-and-match out of dinner or incorporating small, unique shareable dishes as part of the experience.

Explore a new cuisine in your city, and add interest to your next night out with friends by considering a restaurant offering one of these eight plates ideal for sharing.

Dish out Spanish Paella

An ideal dish for sharing in Spain, this pan holds plenty of rice topped with abundant seafood.

Bite into British Fish and Chips

The English love this fried battered dish, sometimes in beer and usually cod, with lots of fries.

Give a Go at French Escargots

These cooked snails are typically served in a delicious garlic butter sauce and parsley garnish.

Delight in Italian Calamari

A whole plate of sliced squid turned crispy rings of tender goodness with a wedge of lemon.

Relish in Belgian Moules Frites

Steaming hot mussels with a side of crunchy fries and mayo keeps hearts warm in Belgium.

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#moulesfrites #stmartinderé #summersancerre

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Snack on Dutch Fries

These are a late night street food often served with mayo fritesaus, a fun staple in The Netherlands. 

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Belgian fries #bruges #belgium #frites #fries #mayonnaise

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Grab a Greek Spanakopitakia

You’ll love these popular bite-size spinach and feta cheese pies wrapped in crunchy filo dough.

Pop in a couple Belarus Latkes

Try just one of these crispy potato pancakes and you’ll know why it’s the country’s national dish.

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ladies night. facepalm.” (CC BY 2.0) by  aaronisnotcool