These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Bruges has a number of seriously good chefs and its highly competitive restaurant scene, much frequented by locals, keeps prices keen (if relatively expensive by UK standards; expect to pay €50-€60/£45-£55 per head, or more, for a good-quality three-course meal with wine). The cooking is essentially French or Franco-Belgian in style, but often with ingenious twists and a bit of fusion. You should eat well in Bruges – if your budget is tight, look out for lunchtime set-menus at the best restaurants. And avoid the tourist-trap restaurants in and around the Markt and on ’t Zand.
Chef Bernard Bonte creates haute-cuisine dishes with disarmingly simple titles: asparagus and Zeebrugge brown shrimps, truffle linguine with beech mushrooms, molten chocolate cake with yogurt sorbet and caramel – names that say little of their inspired combinations of flavours and artful presentation. The restaurant, in a grand old townhouse, is stylish and spacious, with elegantly simple Swedish design and wooden floors – the perfect foil for the subtle complexity of the dishes served.
Contact: 00 32 50 34 83 43; restaurantbonteb.be
This restaurant is tiny (just 22 places) and is only open Monday to Friday, but it delivers an exceptional, eye-opening gastronomic experience. Chef Bruno Timperman has a passion for creative food, and it is thrillingly good, so book ahead. The name refers to the use of raw, natural ingredients – fresh, seasonal and ethically sourced – and the set menus of four or five courses (changed every month) involve inventive combinations, flavours and textures: expect scallops, langoustine, pheasant with wild berries, radicchio, kumquats, bergamot and pansies. The décor is retro, rural-industrial in an old, canal-side house.
This is a large bistro with a swagger and style that has made it popular with locals. It fills two relaxed, spacious, candlelit rooms with retro-style wooden chairs and tables, their white walls hung with mirrors and contemporary art. With Christophe Verbeyen at the helm, the open kitchen produces robust, good quality French-Belgian cuisine: North Sea fish soup with toast and rouille, home-made shrimp croquettes (always a test of a good Belgian kitchen), stoverij (beef stew) made with Leffe beer, steaks, and home-smoked salmon. The baked sweetbreads are particularly good. If you are not sensitive to the relatively high prices (starters from €17/£16, mains from €22/£20), it is a lovely place to eat.
Contact: 00 50 34 48 92; christophe-brugge.be
Kok au Vin
The attractive, Scandi-style décor of Kok au Vin creates a warm and relaxed backdrop for cooking that clearly reflects some serious thought and imagination. Skrei and linguine come with fennel and shiitake mushrooms, but it is the sprinkling of roasted fennels seeds that makes you sit up and take notice. The food is essentially French cuisine, including the signature coq au vin, but with chef Jürgen Aerts’s twists inspired by Belgian and international traditions. Hence the menu is divided into four themes: World, Classic, Creative and Healthy. The wine list is equally imaginative.
Here, at the back of the Hotel Montanus, in an attractive modern pavilion with glass sides, a ceiling hung with multiple globe lamps, sleek grey and orange chairs and crisp linen, you will find culinary perfection. It’s even better in summer, when tables are set out beneath parasols on the cobbled terrace in an extensive garden. The chef and owner, Jo Dezutter, works from his open kitchen, creating wonderful things with seasonal fare and surprising combinations: think gravadlax with asparagus sorbet, or fillet of pigeon with winter vegetables. You can also eat a sumptuous breakfast here, even if you are not staying at the hotel.
Contact: 00 32 50 35 44 00; denheerd.be
Best table: On the garden terrace in summer
The clue is in the name, and you are certain to make a clean white plate of it, scraping up every last morsel of chef Stefaan Timmerman’s delicately judged, seasonally-sensitive dishes. They are essentially Franco-Belgian with influences from beyond, and they include sashimi of seabass, North Sea brown shrimps, pork cheeks, and Angus beef – but it’s the subtle differences that make the experience. Food is served in a polished, lounge-like dining room with comfortable banquettes and modern upholstered chairs, surrounded by wood panelling and poster-size photo portraits of cinema stars – a refined and relaxed setting for elegant food that thoroughly deserves its Michelin Bib Gourmand status.
The Belgian Pigeon House
This tiny restaurant is crammed into the ground floor and 13th-century, brick-vaulted cellar of an old step-gabled mansion, all handsomely restored with an agreeable mixture of antique, retro and modern furnishings. It specialises in grilled meats and steaks, amongst which is the house speciality of grilled pigeon. But there is plenty more on the menu, such as duck rillettes, North Sea shrimps, and rabbit stewed in Bruges beer. This is straightforward, honest cooking, with touches of inventiveness, such as the addition of delicate Chinese artichokes to the sharing tapas platter of cheese and charcuterie.
Contact: 00 32 50 6616 90; belgianpigeonhouse.com
De Karmeliet was a much fêted three-star Michelin restaurant in Bruges that unfortunately closed in 2016. This is its bistro off-shoot, operated under the same management, and it brings all the high standards, attention to detail and quality of service of its illustrious sister at very reasonable prices (especially the weekday lunch set menu). It’s a relaxed, modern setting in two rooms overlooking a courtyard garden, both quite tightly packed with stylish furniture. The cooking is French in style, albeit with inspiration from other places, evident, for instance, in the roasted langoustines with a curry of sweet potato, chorizo and coriander.
Fishbar den Gouden Karpel
Den Gouden Karpel is a major family-run fish enterprise, with a fish shop and traiteur facing, appropriately enough, onto the 19th-century Vismarkt (fish market), and a respected fish restaurant on the other side, on the Huidevettersplein. The Fishbar is a small, simple and attractive café-like set-up where you can eat as lightly or fully as you desire. As you sample oysters, mussels, seafood salads and fish of the day, customers pop in and out of the shop for their fresh fish. It’s the perfect place for a delicious lunch of high-quality seafood and a glass or two of white wine. Note that the restaurant only accepts cash.
Contact: 00 32 50 33 33 89; dengoudenkarpel.be
Reservations: Walk-ins only
Le Lion Belge
Head on down the Langestraat for an utterly Belgian gastronomic experience. Le Lion Belge is built like a traditional bistro-café, with simple wooden tables and chairs and a long bar (you can eat there on bar-stools with a view of the busy open kitchen). The fare is Belgian through-and-through, with plenty of robust dishes, such as rundstoofvlees (beef stew), gehaktbroodje (meatloaf), and white and black sausage with mash and apple sauce. But you are also welcome to drop in just for a snack of soup, a croque monsieur, or spaghetti Bolognese (a classic Belgian café dish).