Of all the cities in all the world, with all the restaurants to choose from, I would just as soon eat at Aux Armes De Bruxelles on the Rue des Bouchers in Brussels than at any other restaurant. Check out armesdebruxelles.be for some great pix and a virtual tour.
Why? Well, I love bistros, brasseries, and cafés, no matter the country or food style. Humble trattorias, tavernas, and the like are my cup of tea. Great food, with none of the pomp and circumstance to distract me from my dining companions. If the food is good, count me in.
AADB is a nearly ninety-year-old restaurant that reeks of history. One room is laid out with window treatments and fancier napery and is nonsmoking. I prefer to eat in the black-and-white-tiled smoking room, but smoke-a-holics be cheered; no one really smokes in there. I like it because it’s the quintessential bistro room. Plattered foods roll out of the kitchen, and plates are divvied up by seventy-year-old waiters who know exactly what they are doing at all times. Crepes with Mandarine Napoleon are fired up left and right on rolling gerridons; big pots of steaming mussels and pommes frites are on every table. Terrines and pâtés are second to none. The fish is insanely fresh and prepared sautéed, steamed, or grilled. I had the grilled sole when I was there, and it was so good I went back the next night for more. Silver-haired tuxedoed A-list types are at one table, Ted Danson at another, four college kids at another sit on their backpacks. The oysters are phenomenal—I prefer the 000 grade Belons. One night when I tired of seafood, my waiter gave me a roasted petite filet with béarnaise and asperge Flemande on the side, and I almost cried when I ate the last bite. The lamb, from a family farm about thirty miles from the city, is grilled to order, carved tableside, and meltingly good. I always have the mussels with white wine and cream. Every time. I squeeze it in as a third or fourth course if I have to. Don’t skip the crepes, turned out of an ancient copper crepe pan. The custards come in 100-year-old glass cups. The wine list has been built for eighty years by the same family—so go figure, it’s deep. This is the type of place that as you leave the restaurant you say goodnight to the tables on either side of you.
If you told me Aux Armes De Bruxelles—or Benoit in Paris, the Red Capitol Club in Beijing, Trattoria Sostanza in Florence, or a handful of other hot spots around the globe—was the only restaurant I could ever eat in for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t complain. It was King Leopold’s favorite beer-and-oyster bar, and it could be yours too. Next time you’re on the continent, check it out.