N.B. This piece has been updated to reflect a subsequent visit to Ghent in January 2019.
Ghent and I, in truth, didn’t get off to the best of starts. On my first full day there, it rained: not light, manageable drizzle but nasty, hard rain, the sort that pelts and punishes you, angled to ghost in under any brolly, however well you positioned it (not that any brolly lasted long before being turned inside out by the wind). And it was cold: properly cold, four degrees cold. I had packed for the temperatures my phone had predicted, and it turned out that my phone had made a mistake. By mid afternoon I’d decided that I’d also made a mistake coming to this godforsaken place, a point I made repeatedly to my other half as we shivered back in our apartment. I always went on holiday somewhere warm this time of year, I told her – Granada last year, Malaga the year before – so what on earth was I thinking? She did her best to humour me, but mainly I think she was trying to decide whether to wring out her trainers.
Fortunately for all concerned, the rain wore itself out. That evening was clear and crisp, the following morning was bright and sunny and dry and I got to spend the rest of my holiday realising just how wrong I’d been about Ghent (and apologising for my undignified strop the day before). I’d never been to Belgium before, so I had no idea what to expect beyond my dim memories of In Bruges, so I was anticipating chocolate-boxy medieval architecture, cosy snug bars selling eye-wateringly strong beer, chocolate and waffles and frites and church towers.
Ghent had all of those things, but what I really liked was that it also had a proper buzz about it, a real meeting point between the old and the new. So yes, there was all that history and grandeur but also there was verve and vitality, interesting food, design, loads of street art, the whole shebang. I quite fell in love with the city during my time there, and not long after I came home I took full advantage of Eurostar’s festive sale and bought tickets to return nice and early in 2019.
I don’t normally write pieces about my travels, because it’s nice to visit somewhere new and eat uncritically (or as uncritically as I can, anyway) for a change. But I’ve had a few requests over the years and as it happens I quite regretted not writing my gastronomic guide to Granada last year, or Bologna and Porto this year. So, for the first time ever on the blog, this is my pick of the places to eat and drink in Ghent. I hope it makes you slightly want to go to Ghent, or at least want to go on a city break, or at the very least I hope it makes you slightly peckish.
I should also acknowledge in advance that I too benefited from recommendations – from regular reader Steve, who has been to Ghent many times and gave me plenty of tips of where to go for dinner, and from Katie who happened to be visiting Ghent with work not long before I did and road-tested some of Steve’s recommendations. Some of the credit for this piece is rightfully theirs – although of course if it’s rubbish the blame is mine alone.
Where to eat
I only ever really have breakfast on holiday, and even then that usually consists of a full English if I’m away in this country and the closest thing I can find to pain au chocolat if I’m abroad (even the miniature ones they do in hotel breakfast buffets: I’m really not fussy). One of my happiest discoveries of Ghent was Himschoot, the impossibly pretty bakery a stone’s throw from the river. They sell a huge assortment of tempting delights, and I spent several mornings joining the queue and listening to the patter of the man running a cart just outside selling cuberdons, a conical sweet which happens to be a Belgian speciality.
The pain au chocolat at Himschoot, which were so good that they were all I ever bought there, came not only with beautiful dark chocolate inside but with rich chocolate icing on top, like a cronut before cronuts were ever A Thing. Standing outside, greedily scoffing one right out of the bag while planning where to go exploring next was a real daily highlight.
On the one occasion I did actually fancy brunch we wandered slightly further away from the centre, out in the direction of the university (although Ghent is compact enough that nowhere is exactly a schlep – and flat, which makes a pleasant change after many holidays in places like Porto and Granada which could be euphemistically described as a tad steep). We ended up in Pain Perdu, one of those effortlessly cool cafes mainland Europe seems to specialise in, all big windows and tasteful long communal tables where you can sit, chat, gesticulate and pretend you belong. I rather enjoyed the bacon and eggs – served in a bowl, which I found quite novel – although the big draw might well have been the basket of terrific bread. If only Reading had a place like this, I said, as usual.
My best lunch of the trip was, well, dinner at lunchtime. We went to Du Progres, a beautiful old-school brasserie on Korenmarkt, pretty much the tourist epicentre of Ghent and fortunately not named after Britain’s most irritating restaurant critic. Given the location, it ought to have been a way to part fools and their money (and in, say, London it probably would have been) but actually it was a cracking, rather grand place where I had chateaubriand so good I could have wept – all for something ridiculous like fifty Euros for two.
It was a a huge piece of superb beef, cooked as little as they could get away with and carved at the table into thick, luscious slices. The frites were everything I could have dreamed they would be, the mayonnaise game-changing. You got a choice of two different sauces, which basically meant that we had two lots of Bearnaise. There’s no other sauce for me really where steak is concerned: there is something about the combination of frites, Bearnaise and blood which always makes me feel like I could be in heaven. My other half had a big, complex, outrageously strong dark beer and I had a glass of red wine and we ate and grinned and relaxed: in a perfect world, every lunch might be like that. Even the salad was so beautifully dressed that I ate some of it, for crying out loud.
Dinners in Ghent were more of an eclectic bunch, but there still wasn’t a duff meal among them. On our first night we went to Otomat, probably the least typically Belgian venue of the trip. It was very much a hipster-pizza-by-numbers place, all exposed brick and faux school chairs (Franco-Belge Manca, you could say), but even so the food was quite lovely. The pizza dough is made with Belgian beer, a nice touch which I couldn’t remotely taste, and the toppings were interesting, if eccentric.
The menu is divided into “Otomat” – an anagram of tomato, something I didn’t notice straight away – and “Notomat”, or white pizzas. My favourite was a pizza with merguez sausage (called “Rock The Kasbah”, but let’s not hold it against them) which completely exceeded my expectations. When it arrived the big, ruddy cylinders of sausage made me worry that I’d accidentally ordered spam, but it turned out to be perfect: coarse, pungent and genuinely delicious.
That said, the real hit at Otomat was the “Butcher’s Dish”, an embarrassment of riches featuring ham, fennel salami, very mature cheese, houmous (which may have had a hint of cumin in it) and, best of all, stracciatella, the gooey, almost liquid cheese you tend to find at the heart of burrata. This dish was the very first thing I ate in Ghent, along with – just as importantly, if not more so – the first Belgian beer of the trip and it was hard to top as a way of knowing that you really were on holiday.
On our second night we went to Bodo, which felt much more like a restaurant for locals than for tourists (and was none the worse for it). It was another intimate, friendly place with beautiful service where you felt like you were in on the same secret as your fellow diners, but it also had a slightly more international bent and more of an emphasis on small plates. Of course, I may just be describing it that way because the two of us shared three starters. One of them, slow-cooked sweet, tender fennel with little blobs of goat’s curd, scattered with toasted seeds, was one of the most extraordinary things I ate on the entire trip.
Many of the other dishes were almost as good: a huge portion of panko-coated chicken with a rich curried sauce underneath, a deconstructed katsu, or a big slab of pink pork belly served with mustard and piccalilli (again, when it turned up I feared it was spam, but from the first mouthful all those worries evaporated). And then, to finish, a glass of white chocolate mascarpone topped with passion fruit couli, a dessert seemingly made of sunshine. I didn’t realise until much later that Michelin had given the place a Bib Gourmand, but based on the dinner I had I wasn’t at all surprised.
I promised myself I would eat proper Belgian food, because it can’t all be small plates and pizza, and the venue I chose for that was De Rechters, a very handsome restaurant looking out on Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. I never saw the Van Eyck altarpiece inside the Cathedral, but I spent a fair amount of time in the square outside either eating dinner or buying chocolate at the splendidly-named Chocolaterie Luc Van Hoorebeke, which probably tells you all you need to know about my priorities. I expected from the menu that De Rechters would be stuffy and old-school but actually the inside was more contemporary than classic, with slate-grey walls and bentwood chairs (the service was exemplary, too: friendly and properly welcoming).
But the food! I’d already been tipped off to try the appetiser of Comte cheese with local Tierenteyn mustard, and although I’ve never been a huge fan of mustard I can safely say that this completely converted me; a couple of days later I was in the very picturesque Tierenteyn shop picking up a jar to take home (the shop is easily found: it’s right next to Himschoot). Next time, I plan to get a considerably bigger jar of mustard. Or three.
The real lure, though, was the chance to try stoverij, the iconic Belgian stew of beef slow-cooked in dark beer. When it arrived it was yet another heavenly gastronomic experience in a long line of heavenly gastronomic experiences. The table bore all the burn marks of every little cast-iron casserole they’d ever set down in front of a hungry, grateful diner but even so there was something magical about my first time, as if the restaurant had never cooked it for anybody else before.
The sauce was rich and deep, simultaneously savoury and sweet but with the tiniest kick of mustard. The beef was yielding, every bit as perfect as the chateaubriand had been but completely different in terms of texture and give. And, of course, there was a bottomless supply of frites to either dip in more mayo or soak in that sauce. It might have been the hefty kick of the Westmalle Dubbel I was drinking, but this felt like a bucket list dish and a half.
Picking somewhere for my final meal in Ghent was especially tricky – how do you top all of that? – but fortunately, help was at hand. Steve, my man in the know, had told me about a place called Eetkaffee De Lieve in Patershol, the medieval heart of Ghent. He went there every time he was in the city, he said, and checking out the place’s Instagram feed I could see why – bread baked every day, a constantly changing menu and really beautiful (and beautifully photographed) dishes. I went with high expectations, and it surpassed every single one.
All the food I had was simply magnificent: first, a wonderful disc of earthy, sweet black pudding, soft inside and caramelised outside, accompanied by a sweet apple compote. I’ve always loved black pudding, but this was up there with the best I’ve ever had anywhere. Then there was confit chicken with shallots, wild mushrooms and the kind of sticky jus which perfects any plate. And finally, I had a tarte tatin with wondrous, glossy ice cream, dark speckles of vanilla in every spoonful. The service, as in so many restaurants in Ghent, was welcoming, proud and infectiously joyful and – as in so many restaurants in Ghent – I felt like I had found my happy place. I sat on the banquette, looking out on another dark, clean, contemporary dining room full of hip urban types, and I raised a glass to Steve and his excellent advice.
I returned to Ghent in January 2019, and had a stupendous meal at a restaurant which really needs to be added to this piece. It was Michelin-starred Oak, and my food there ranked up with the best meals I’ve had anywhere. The welcome was perfect, service was silky-smooth, the room was comfortable and cosy without any sterility or stuffiness and the tasting menu was a series of wonders. From the beautiful amuse bouches to begin with (including a stunning charred leek dish) to barbecued pigeon with a deep beetroot cracker and red fruits, right through to a terrific granita strewn with punchy microherbs, it didn’t put a foot wrong. Truth be told, it made all the Michelin-starred meals I’ve had in the UK feel like a poor imitation.
Where to drink
I love a Belgian beer, although my tastes run more to lighter stuff like a kriek or a framboise. So I may not be the best guide for these things: no doubt there are all kinds of dreary beer spods who can steer you much better in Ghent than I could. They would probably direct you to places like Trollkelder and Rock Circus which pride themselves on doing a gazillion different obscure beers in a big laminated pamphlet, and they’d probably try to catch them all like Pokemon, but that really wasn’t for me. I did go to De Dulle Griet, a big old pub with rather eccentric decor which apparently has the biggest selection in all of Ghent, and I thought it was okay but I didn’t find myself drawn to going back. Maybe if they’d done more food than just pate and plastic-wrapped crispbreads I might have found it easier to get on board.
I did absolutely love Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, right next to the river, with its cosy upstairs room and its decor which slightly made me think “90s student party”: it wasn’t a million miles from the old Bar Iguana, to be honest. I very much enjoyed the extensive list of beers (bottled and on draft) and, of course lots of different fruit beers for me to try with almost no shame at all – although they always set them down in front of my other half instead of me, which is both sweet and very misguided. I was sorry only to go there the once during my trip, and almost as disappointed not to visit ‘t Dreupelkot, the jenever bar next door. There’s always next time.
Another regret was waiting until my final night to discover ‘T Einde Der Beschaving (which apparently translates as “The End Of Civilisation”: at last, a Brexit-themed pub!) on a square next to Gravensteen castle. It was a slightly dreich evening – a shame, because the courtyard outside would have been a lovely place to drink in more clement circumstances – but it was a lovely, snug place and the barman was friendly and welcoming and seemed genuinely delighted to have customers. A very nice older lady at the bar sauntered over, asked us many questions about the motherland and, at the end of the evening, offered us her email address for tips if or when (when, as it turns out) we came back to Ghent. It was that kind of place, and it might not have been the fanciest pub in the world but I liked it a great deal.
The main reason so few of those places got the time they might have deserved, though, was Café Gitane. Oh, how I adored that place: in the space of my time in Ghent it easily made it onto my list of my favourite bars in all the world, rubbing shoulders with exalted company like Paris’ Le Barav, Liverpool’s Petit Café Du Coin and Granada’s Taberna La Tana. It was as French as it was Belgian, actually, with cosy, dimly lit tables, blood-red banquettes and a black and white tiled floor. The beer list was big enough to satisfy my other half and had the sweet and drinkable Ter Dolen Kriek on it for me. The music was jazz just modern enough to still be enjoyable and some of the clientele, especially the lady at the bar one night who decided to start singing completely out of nowhere, were brilliantly bonkers. It was a charcuterie plate away from perfection, but every time I went there I was already so well-fed that none of that mattered a jot.
“I wish there was a bar like this in Reading”, said my other half. “A good beer list, table service, good music and no wankers.”
I nodded sagely, deciding that our home town could really do with an excellent Belgian beer café, or more specifically just Gitane. It might well be one of my first stops when I return.
No section on drinks would be complete without also briefly mentioning coffee. I tried a few places in the city but my absolute standout favourite, a stone’s throw from Gitane, was Barista Zuivelbrug, one of two branches in Ghent. I’m normally a latte drinker, but the combination of Barista’s excellent coffee and Belgian chocolate made their mocha an absolute revelation and I enjoyed it so much I didn’t even care how much it would appal the purists. They also did nice-looking pastries and lunches, but of course I was usually a pain au chocolat to the good by then.
What to do
Well, if you’ve made it this far then you’ve probably figured out that my main idea of things to do on holiday fits into the previous two headings. But I will say that Ghent is a wonderful place just to wander and take in, especially if you enjoy architecture, photography, combining the two or just plain people-watching. I did visit the Design Museum – the blurb says that it “makes you aware of the great impact design has on your daily life”, but it mainly made me aware that, as an experience, the Design Museum in London is much better, err, designed (nice building, though). I didn’t go in the cathedral, but like I said I did buy some very appealing chocolate from the shop next door. I know, I know, I’m an appalling tourist. Next time I shall go to the Museum of Contemporary Art (the wonderfully-named S.M.A.K.) and generally try a little harder.
The thing I really, really enjoyed in Ghent, though, was the street art. There’s loads of it, seemingly everywhere. On one of our first days exploring the city we crossed the river and wandered up some side streets, turned a corner and just found this staring right back at us.
Further research revealed that Ghent is in fact famous for its street art, all over the city, and indeed some of its artists. So we downloaded the street art map from the Visit Ghent website and went on a truly enjoyable odyssey round the city, hopping from location to location. Some were small, subtle pieces, and some were jaw-dropping: the whole side of a building transformed into a massive, vivid canvas. The trip took us out into the docklands, another part of Ghent I’d like to see more of, and incredible industrial buildings, glass bricks and converted warehouses, hip-looking cafes on street corners. Every single dot on that map offered something new, many offered something stunning, and I could quite happy have whiled away another afternoon seeking out the whole lot. The picture below of rabbits by Ghent native ROA was probably my favourite find, and if I thought it looked familiar it was probably because I’ve also seen his work in London.
Where to stay
I really lucked out by booking Snooz Ap, an apartment very close to the centre and just round the corner from Graffiti Alley, another street art hotspot in Ghent. It was muted, tasteful, spacious and warm with a huge comfy bed like a cloud and a walk-in wet room to die for. It even had brilliant catering facilities, which I imagine would have come in very handy for a fundamentally very different kind of guest to me, and fridges and cupboards for room snacks (please tell me I’m not the only person who gets room snacks on holiday). I got my room through booking.com, although you can also book direct through their website.
Well, there you go, that’s Ghent in a nutshell. Normal service will be resumed next week with a review of a Reading restaurant, and I’ll try my best not to bore on about how everything is better on the continent (I still remember coming back from my holiday in Bologna earlier in the year and realising, to my horror, that I’d become one of Those People). But in summary I loved the place, far more than I ever expected to, and I can’t wait to go back. I left with a heavy heart and took a train to Rotterdam, a very different city with its amazing, hypermodern architecture, Brutalist buildings, colossal indoor street markets, cutting-edge craft breweries and stunning small plates restaurants. But that’s another story.