City guide: Bruges and Ghent

I was lucky enough to make it to Bruges in October 2022 and January 2023 so that section of this guide has now been expanded with plenty of other excellent venues.

Last week’s feature on al fresco dining got a fantastic response from you all, and is already, at the time of writing, the most popular piece I’ve published on the blog this year: thank you so much to everybody who read it, commented, recommended it and passed it on. And after the week we’ve had I have high hopes that it will come in handy for a while yet – in fact the weekend it came out I had dinner outside the Lyndhurst one night, Buon Appetito the next. So if reading it made you feel hungry I can assure you that writing it had much the same effect.

Anyway, by contrast this week it’s one of those pieces that’s a bit more niche, that will only interest a handful of you, so apologies in advance for that. But I had such an enjoyable week in Bruges and Ghent last month that I thought it was ripe for a piece, especially because my last guide to Ghent – the first city guide I ever wrote on the blog – is a creaking three and a half years old. Both cities are well worth visiting, both are gorgeous and ridiculously easy to reach by Eurostar and both offer a holiday unmarred by the flight chaos we might well see for the rest of the year.

Of the two I would say Bruges is smaller, quainter and (even) more beautiful, although it’s very touristy and decidedly sleepy of an evening once the coachloads of day trippers have moved on. Ghent is larger and more sprawling, with much more of a big city feel. Its historic parts are reminiscent of Bruges but it also has street art, a modern art gallery, a design museum and more of a craft beer scene outside the traditional Belgian pubs.

As a tourist, you could easily do Bruges in a long weekend, as a beer devotee you could explore it for a lifetime and never tire of the place. Having now made three trips in just over six months, I completely get its magic and understand why it’s captured the hearts of many people I know. If you aren’t nuts about beer, Ghent might keep you occupied longer. But they’re half an hour apart on the train, so you could easily (as I have) make a two centre holiday of both.

Oh, one other thing before I get started – this is only based on places I went to on this year’s visit. So my piece about Ghent from 2018/2019 is potentially still worth a read, it’s just that I can’t vouch for places like Brasserie Du Progres, Oak, Otomat and Barista (I bet they’re great, though). I can however guarantee that the pastries from Himschoot are as gorgeous as they ever were: they’ve even opened a few additional branches since I was there last.

Bruges

1. Bruut

Bruut is in a handsome building next to an absurdly beautiful bridge overlooking the canal, and inside it’s all rather convivial – leather chairs, fetching tiled floors and exposed light fittings. But there are a few al fresco tables by the side of the bridge with a gorgeous view, and that’s where I sat when I had lunch there, one of my meals of the year. Chef Bruno Timperman offers a no-choice, no-substitutions set menu for lunch or dinner and comes out to introduce and talk through many of the dishes himself. And put simply, the man is a wizard: I don’t normally talk about chefs in my blog but this is all very much in his image and it’s very much his show.

Nothing I ate was short of dazzling, and there were almost too many highlights to mention, but a steak tartare made simply with high-grade beef, salt and milk to draw out all the flavour was a tender, mineral miracle. A pre-lunch nibble of prawns, cooked whole and dusted with a vivid raspberry powder was like nothing I’ve ever eaten. And our dessert, cherries halved, hollowed and filled wih rose-coloured chocolate, topped with discs of elderflower jelly and sitting in a cherry gazpacho dotted with cherry balsamic, will live in my memory for a long time. My only regret is not taking up the wine pairing – although in my defence it was only lunchtime, and the beer list has some superb lambics on it which made for an excellent alternative.

I made a repeat visit in January 2023 for dinner and experienced the full whistles and bells experience, although with no booze because I was a little subpar. Not everything worked – a beautiful piece of cod wrapped in crispy nori and topped with caviar was submerged under an icky spooge of what Bruno called “plankton sauce” wasn’t quite my bag – but he served the most tender pigeon I’ve ever eaten, with a pigeon confit ragu wrapped up in a leaf on the side, an astonishing scallop with a Belgian take on XO sauce and a poached pear with yoghurt parfait which made some tried and tested staples seem fresh and new. If you eat one meal in Bruges, go here.

Bruut, Meestraat 9, Brugge
https://bistrobruut.be/en/

2. Assiette Blanche

More classic and formal and a little less cutting edge, Assiette Blanche has an attractive wood-panelled dining room and the meal I had there was top notch. They have a set menu or an a la carte (although you can sort of switch between the two) and the set, for dinner, starts at a reasonable forty-four Euros for three courses.

The dishes here are generous – robust but not clumsy, but certainly not a fiddly-plated exercise in nouvelle nonsense. I enjoyed the whole lot but my particular favourite was a monkfish saltimbocca, the flesh firm and pearlescent, the guanciale it was wrapped in providing salt and smoke. The whole thing was on a bed of prawns and fregola, cut through with a dressing sporting just the right amount of vinegar. A white chocolate and rhubarb dessert, complete with a sweet, sticky syrup that spoke of time well spent, wrapped things up with a perfect bow.

On a subsequent visit in October 2022 I tried the set lunch menu, which was both superb and excellent value. A supreme of chicken came with the most autumnal wild mushroom sauce, and if you try the Belgian dessert dame blanche – vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce – anywhere, this is the place to do it.

Assiette Blanche, Philipstockstraat 23, Brugge
https://www.assietteblanche.be/nl

3. Más

Más is only open some weekends, and is walk-ins only, although they very nicely take your number and ring you when they have some space, leaving you free to enjoy a beer somewhere (I had mine at De Garre, where the house triple is 11%: with hindsight not the most sensible choice).

It’s worth jumping through those hoops, because Más’ Mexican food is as delicious as it is incongruous, from beautiful cheesy quesadillas to pork belly skewers with salsa, from shrimp tacos to their excellent fried chicken. We ate up at the bar, and it was reminiscent of some of my happiest meals in more Mediterranean parts of Europe. They have cocktails on tap too, apparently, although I was a little too drunk to give them a try. They have a good range of beers from Brussels Beer Project, though, which went nicely.

Màs, Academiestraat 10, Brugge
https://www.instagram.com/mas.brugge/?hl=en

4. Amuni

You might think it’s a little meh to have pizza in Bruges, and you might be right. But I’m yet to find a very traditional restaurant in Bruges that really hit the spot: Gran Kaffee de Passage was a bit hit and miss, the interior better than the food (I’m reliably informed that I should try Brasserie Raymond next time). And you may want somewhere for a good lightish lunch that isn’t a moule frites place: if so, Amuni is for you. Just next to the Burg it’s a stylish space which does excellent pizza – although my favourite thing there was the vitello tonnato which we foolishly ordered to share. It’s far too good to share: make sure you order your own.

Amuni, Burg 9, Brugge
https://www.amuni.be

5. Kottee Kaffee

For an actual light lunch, instead of a pizza, I highly recommend the muted but chic Kottee Kaffee. It’s on Ezelstraat, a street with a scattering of tasteful boutiques, and it offers a menu which is sort of Le Pain Quotidien but independent. So there’s lots of lovely bread and salted farmhouse butter, cheeses and charcuterie but the menu offers lots of more brunchy stuff if that’s your bag. Very fetchingly put together, decent value and there’s good coffee too. But perhaps just as winning were the staff and the constant playlist of 90s music, most of which they enjoyed singing along to. We asked how long they’d been there and apparently they’ve been open less than a year. You’d never know.

Kottee Kaffee, Ezelstraat 68
https://kotteekaffee.com/en/

6. Vero Caffè

Bruges has lots of pretty patisseries where the priorities are the cakes and pastries and the coffee, though perfectly pleasant, plays second fiddle. I went to one on my final morning in the city and we waited ages to get served and even longer to get the bill: the pain au chocolat was good, but not that good. Far better, in a little square with some outside space, was Vero Caffè. It also sells excellent squidgy brownies, exactly as you would like them, so it gets my vote.

Vero Caffè, Sint-Jansplein 9, Brugge
https://www.facebook.com/VeroCaffeBrugge/

7. Cherry Picker

Come for the music, stay for the atmosphere! is the slogan of this record shop in the east of the city. Come for the music stay for the coffee, more like, because it served one of my favourite coffees in Bruges. I love places like this – it reminded me of Truck Records, out on Oxford’s Cowley Road – and I’d have happily whiled away longer sitting outside or inside with a good book. They do cocktails and beer too, although precisely how much they expect you to put away before they close at 6pm is anybody’s guess.

Cherry Picker, Langestraat 74, Brugge
https://www.cherrypicker.be

8. Coffeebar Adriaan

On my visit last October I became a regular visitor to Adriaan for the first coffee of the day and I became thoroughly attached to the place – it’s a tasteful, classy place, all muted mint green and comfy furniture, the antithesis of craft coffee places in the U.K. and abroad with their reliance on chipboard. The coffee is pretty good, the pastries are spot on and the service is friendly and speedy. Every city break needs a reliable coffee place like this, although you may find yourself channelling Rocky Balboa whenever you mention the place (or that might be just me).

Coffeebar Adrian, Adriaan Willaertstraat 7
https://coffeebaradriaan.be

9. Cafune

Cafune probably does the best coffee I had in Bruges, and is in a small and likeable spot two doors down from Màs, in a street which also boasts the fantastic and fascinating beer shop Bacchus Cornelius (top tip: head to the back room for the white whales of the Belgian beer world). They roast their own coffee – and very good it is too – and they have a small but comfy space inside, although I got quite attached, figuratively speaking, to their little bench outside.

Cafune, Academiestraat 8
https://www.instagram.com/cafunecoffee/

10. Café Rose Red

From hearing Zoë talk about Café Rose Red I was expecting to like it a lot, and I wasn’t disappointed. A rather attractive room, all red walls and roses hanging from the ceiling, it had a decent if not incredible beer list and an interesting range of options on tap. I’d heard good things about the food and so we ordered a few bits and pieces to graze on. The assorted cheese and charcuterie was surprisingly disappointing, but I think the trick is to go for dishes that the kitchen has cooked rather than simply dished up: the kibbeling – battered chunks of fish with a mild, soothing tartare sauce – was the equal of any similar dish I’ve had in Andalusia.

Café Rose Red, Cordoeanierstraat 16, Brugge
https://www.rosered.be/nl/

11. ’t Brugs Beertje

I probably would have liked Café Rose Red a lot more if I’d liked ’t Brugs Beertje a little less, but that was never going to happen. The Little Bear is arguably the Belgian watering hole elevated to its ultimate form, a little conspiratorial place with a great selection on tap and an eye-wateringly brilliant list of bottled beers, including many Belgian breweries I’d never heard of and a “vintage” section which gave you the chance to try dark beers and lambics which had been properly cared for across the best part of a decade. I had a Cuvée Delphine from 2013 by De Struise which had the kind of depth and complexity that haunts your imagination long after you’ve taken your final sip.

But more than the impressive selection, it just felt like the perfect place to stop, drink, eavesdrop, people-watch and potentially get into random conversations. The middle room complete with plaque to original Belgian beer spod Michael Jackson (not that one, a different one) was nice, but the front room was where you wanted to be, at a table with your favourite person, making inroads into that excellent list, in no hurry to be anywhere else. It reminded me of the Retreat in its previous incarnation under Bernie and Jane, when it stocked shedloads of Belgian beers – and always the right glasses to go with them – and it made me miss the Retreat of ten years ago, too.

But either way, whether you were there in a pair or, as on my last couple of visits, in a big raucous group of beer obsessives, all diving into the depths of the gigantic beer list, congratulating one another on their choices and swapping anecdotes and in jokes, it is for me the epicentre of Bruges, and absolutely not to be missed. It doesn’t have lock-ins per se, but I have no idea when it really closes. On one particularly beautiful evening there we settled up, well past midnight, put our coats on, stepped through the front door, looked back at the golden glow of the windows and thought what the fuck are we doing? We went back in for one last nightcap.

’t Bruges Beertje, Kemelstraat 5, Brugge
https://www.brugsbeertje.be/en/home-2/

12 De Kelk

De Kelk, on the other side of the road from Cherry Picker, is quite unlike the other beer places on this list. Although it does have an excellent range of Belgian beer, the list skews more to the wider craft scene with fascinating beers from breweries I’d never come across before. I tried a couple of beautiful DIPAs from Madrid’s Cerveceria Peninsula and Latvia’s Ārpus, and if I’d stayed longer there was plenty more to explore. The interior is cracking too – a far cry from Belgium’s more traditional pubs with a tiled floor, high leather stools and lighting that’s more speakeasy than boozer, with some random streetlights used to good effect. I also loved the bar snacks, which included some disgraceful keesballen and very creditable jamon serrano. I will definitely go back.

De Kelk. Langestraat 69, Brugge
http://www.dekelk.be

13. De Windmolen

De Windmolen, out past De Kelk at the edge of the city and a stone’s throw from the windmills from which it takes its name, isn’t a place for beer purists. It’s sort of part-pub, part day café and most days it closes at 8pm. The inside is pleasingly eccentric: when we went this month one table was taken up by a very competitive-looking card game. And the beer list skews to bottled triples, although they do have local Brugse Zot on tap and it never disappoints. But for me it’s a special place – especially when I visited in October, and could sit outside, coatless, while the back of my neck was gently baked by the completely unseasonal autumn sunshine. Worth a stop, even if only for the one.

De Windmolen, Carmersstraat 135, Brugge
(No website)

Ghent

1. De Superette

Tragically, Superette closed in late 2022.

Whenever I researched places to eat in Ghent, De Superette always came up but for some reason I’d never taken the plunge and booked a table there. And then on this visit I did and in the run up to going I looked on TripAdvisor (as you do) and had a bit of a wobble. Lots of people said it was overrated, or expensive, or small portions or suchlike.

Well, I overcame my fears and went and was rewarded with a superb meal which made me wonder what all the naysayers were carping about. It’s a bakery by day and pizza place by night, offering a really compact selection of pizzas and a little tasting menu of small plates to start you off. It was the kind of place you wanted to click your fingers and teleport back home, just round the corner from where you lived, and the clientele – a huge range of ages and types of groups – were all clearly having a marvellous time.

And the food was excellent. The small plates were clever, inventive and cracking value – glorious, just-cooked peas with guanciale, a moutabal brimming with smokiness, a clever gazpacho studded with pine nuts. And then the pizzas turned out to be some of the best I’ve had anywhere, all fluffy crust and supercharged clusters of ‘nduja. I left full, happy and determined to return. The table next to us, on the other hand, ordered two pizzas between five. Maybe it’s people like that who complain about small portions: if so, I have a really simple life hack they’re welcome to borrow.

De Superette, Guldenspoorstraat 29, Gent
http://www.de-superette.be

2. De Lieve

De Lieve featured in my previous guide to Ghent and I’ve eaten there on every single visit. Between my last visit and my latest, though, something happened: De Lieve was recognised by Michelin and awarded a Bib Gourmand, their badge of affordable high quality food. And the De Lieve I went to in 2019 was absolutely the kind of restaurant that gets a Bib Gourmand, but the De Lieve I went to last month feels like the kind of restaurant that’s aiming for a star, and that comes with pluses and minuses.

So it felt like the tables were that little bit closer together, the prices were that little bit sharper and the portions were that little bit smaller. The quality was still top notch, don’t get me wrong – my carpaccio of hamachi was a delicate, pretty, subtle dish, but by the time I finished it (a few seconds later) I was thinking about the bag of paprika Walkers Max back at the apartment and wondering if I’d be breaking into them in the not too distant future.

Fortunately balance was restored with a delicious Basque t-bone with rosemary gratin and a deeply pleasing jus, and a cracking tarte tatin completed an enjoyable, if pricey meal. It felt to me like bumping into a friend after a few years to find they’ve had very good, very expensive plastic surgery done. You know they look great, but in the back of your mind you think was that really necessary? Still, if you’ve never been it’s definitely worth considering on a visit to Ghent: I just miss the days when they had a puck of divine black pudding on the starters menu.

De Lieve, Sint-Margrietstraat 1, Gent
https://www.eetkaffee-delieve.be/nl

3. De Rechters

Still my favourite place for traditional Belgian food, De Rechters is a chic, contemporary-looking restaurant which is far better than it needs to be given its plum spot next to St Bavo’s Cathedral. On this occasion, for the first time, I got to sit outside in the sunshine and it made a good meal, if anything, even better. We drank Orval, and Zoë pointed out to me that her beer and mine were bottled on different days, which explained why mine was fizzier than hers: I love it when she goes full Raymond Babbitt about beer like that.

Never having had moules in Belgium – I know, such an oversight – I had some as a starter, cooked simply with thyme and they were plump and fragrant. But next time I’ll go the whole hog and have them as a main with garlic and cream, which for me is the only way really to eat moules, dipping your bread and frites into the sauce until you are truly replete.

The frites, incidentally, were a bit wan on this visit – which is a shame, because frites are something Belgium does better than practically anybody. But the stoverij, beer slow-cooked in beer until the whole thing is a symphony of dark brown, almost-sweet ambrosia, is worth the price of admission alone. You can get frites anywhere but beef like that requires patience and skill, both of which De Rechters has in abundance.

De Rechters, Sint-Baafsplein 23, Gent
https://derechters.be/nl/

4. STEK

On my holiday in Belgium I tried to learn from previous trips away and put a strict rule in place: one big meal a day. Maybe all of you already do this when you go on holiday, but sadly I’ve never been great at restraint and although it means I’ve eaten some amazing food it does make the post-holiday Monday comedown a downer of epic proportions. What do you mean I can’t have sherry at lunchtime and go to a restaurant? I’ll rail to nobody in particular. Make my own meals? Who does that?

On the plus side, it meant I could discover Ghent’s brunch scene, and that in turn meant a thoroughly worthwhile visit to STEK, an achingly cool cafe halfway between the centre and the modern art gallery. Inside it’s all plants – a lot of monsteras and plenty of other flora I wouldn’t recognise – and outside there’s a serene terrace, a proper secret garden with plenty of space where you feel nowhere near a big city. It reminded me a bit of the surprise you get when you walk through the Boston Tea Party on Bristol’s Park Street to find that massive garden out back or, closer to home, the bang-up job the Collective has done with its outside space.

Since I was embracing lunch and brunch I decided to go the whole hog and order the avo toast. Mine came with superbly crispy, curled, caramelised bacon, a fried egg with the yolk still runny, shoots and leaves and a little side salad and it was as pretty as its surroundings. It tasted phenomenal too, and the coffee wasn’t bad either. Maybe there are pluses to having a lighter lunch after all.

STEK, Nederkouter 129, Gent
https://www.stekgent.be

5. Take Five Espresso

My absolute favourite coffee place of the holiday was Take Five Espresso in the centre of Ghent. I never completely decided whether I preferred being inside, sat up at the big windows watching city life bustling by or outside in the sun (their seating is dead clever, making full use of the public benches on the street). What I did work out though was that their lattes were magnificent and that by the end of my trip it was hard to imagine being caffeinated anywhere else. It was the epitome of café chic and I enjoyed it a great deal. I never tried any of their food, but you can blame Kultur, the excellent bakery next door (and their pain au chocolat) for that.

Take Five Espresso, Voldersstraat 10, Gent
http://www.take-five-espressobar.be

6. Clouds In My Coffee

Clouds In My Coffee is one of the most stylish cafés I’ve seen in roughly a decade of going to Europe and seeking these places out. Quite aside from the Carly Simon reference, which manages not to be naff, the inside is truly gorgeous, like something out of Living Etc. From the street it looks small (and is surprisingly hard to find) but through the back is a wonderfully light, airy extension and beyond that another of those idyllic secret gardens that Ghent cafés seem to all have up their sleeves.

Did I want a coffee? Absolutely. Was my latte delicious? Of course it was. Did I look at the menu and wonder if it was too early for an Aperol Spritz? You bet I did. And did I feel like I was soaking up design tips for the duration of my visit? Yes, along with thinking Why doesn’t Reading have anywhere like this? The only drawback is that Clouds In My Coffee is the epitome of the best house on a bad street: Dampoort, where it lives, is an up and coming part of Ghent that, from my visit, has more upping and coming to do (the cafe’s website calls it a “multicolour fuse”, which I think is nicely poetic). The walk there from the tram stop involved walking through an Aldi car park and, for an awful moment, I thought I’d wandered through a wormhole in space and found myself on the outskirts of Basingstoke. Still worth a visit though, if only to go somewhere that fitted in about as much as I did.

Clouds In My Coffee, Dendermondsesteenweg 104, Gent
https://www.clouds9000.com/en/cafe-gallery

7. Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant

On my first visit to Ghent, at the tail end of autumn 2018, I rather liked Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, a tall building by the canal (aren’t they all?) with rooms across several floors: the room right at the top reminded me of mid-90s boho drinking culture in a way which somehow summoned up memories of Bar Iguana. But it wasn’t until I went back on a hot July afternoon that I really got what the fuss was about – sitting at a sunny table, overlooking the canal, surrounded by other afternoon revellers of all shapes and sizes it was an extremely agreeable place to while away a few hours and sink a tall, cold Brugse Zot on draft. We don’t have a word, really, for what time spent like that is like but I believe the Dutch describe it as gezellig.

Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, Groentenmarkt 9, Gent
https://www.facebook.com/Waterhuis-aan-de-Bierkant-171209319595287/

8. Gitane

I waxed lyrical about Gitane after previous visits to Ghent, and it’s still one of my favourite watering holes. But, like Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, it was a decidedly different experience on a hot and sunny day: everybody was chattering away at tables which fill the street outside and if you’re forced to sit in, as we were, it made for a slightly Marie Celeste moment.

No matter: it’s still a great place for a cosy drink, all wood panels and tiled floor, and if the list is less compendious than those at Ghent’s more feted bars and pubs it makes up for that with some really interesting choices from some of Belgium’s less established breweries. I had a cracking New England IPA from Brouwcompagnie Rolling Hills which married East Flanders and the Eastern Seaboard very harmoniously indeed.

Gitane, Meerseniersstraat 9, Gent
https://facebook.com/100054309860476/

9. Dulle Griet

The two other “proper” Belgian pubs in Ghent, both with compendious beer lists, are Trollkelder and Dulle Griet. Both are idiosyncratic to put it lightly – I had a drink sitting outside Trollkelder only slightly put off by the weird models of trolls eyeballing you through the window. I liked Dulle Griet better, although both are an experience and you should at least try a drink in one of them. It’s named after Mad Meg, a figure in Flemish folklore who led an army of women to storm the gates of hell. Whether that explains the decor and all the weird figurines hanging from the ceiling I have no idea (I wouldn’t want to do their dusting, put it that way) but it made for an interesting and characterful place to stop for an afternoon beer, especially as they had Westmalle Dubbel, a Trappist favourite of mine, on draft. Given that they boast over five hundred different beers on their list, you’d probably find something to enjoy here.

Dulle Griet, Vrijdagmarkt 50, Gent
http://www.dullegriet.be/en/

10. HAL 16

HAL 16 is a food hall and brewery out towards the docks, and is a perfect place to visit whether you like beer, food or ideally both. I think it used to just be the tap room for local brewery Dok Brewing, but there have been some changes and it now shares the space with three different food vendors: think Blue Collar, but even more cool. There’s also a branch of the excellent bakery Himschoot just round the corner, terrific coffee from the nearby OR Espresso Bar and a beer shop – De Hopduvel – which sells all the beer (and matching glasses) you could possibly want for your trip home.

I had already bought a Dok Brewing glass from a shop in Bruges by then, because I was already a fan. Dok does some truly lovely beer and there are something like thirty taps at HAL 16, with a mixture of beers brewed on the premises and fascinating stuff from breweries I’d never even heard of: the highlight of this visit was a stunningly dank DIPA from Virginia’s Aslin Beer Company. But the other reason to come here is for the food from RØK (they like their block capitals in this part of town) which smokes and grills meat, hispi cabbage and anything else they think might be good.

On a previous visit in 2019 I had a huge, smoked, blackened pork chop, fresh off the grill, which ducked under the velvet rope and went straight into my gastronomic hall of fame without passing GO or collecting £200. This time round it was all about the lamb neck, tender and moreish, scattered with salt and served with a puddle of aioli and a properly zingy salsa verde. We made the mistake of ordering pizza from another vendor first and then picked up the lamb dish from RØK just before their kitchen closed, but when I return – and I will return – I’m ordering everything on their menu, even if it leads to a Mr Creosote situation.

HAL16, Dok-Noord 4b, Gent
https://www.hal16.be

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Restaurant review: Bravas, Bristol

Last week I had my first holiday in eighteen months. Zoë hired a car and we headed to Bristol for a week of eating, drinking and relaxing, with a wedding conveniently plonked in the middle of our break. The feeling of being somewhere else, one I’ve previously had to conjure up by reading a novel, watching Call My Agent or eating in a restaurant, was even better experienced, in long last, in real life: I wish you could bottle it. Perching outside Small Street Espresso with a latte, watching a bunch of people who don’t live in my hometown going about their daily business was a little pleasure to savour, as was sitting in Left Handed Giant’s wonderful brewpub drinking glorious beer after glorious beer. 

This wasn’t a staycation, it was a holiday – but what it really was was heavenly. So it was enormous fun to amble round St Nick’s before settling down to a cracking lunch of American barbecue. Schlepping up Park Street, passing Bristol’s outpost of C.U.P. made me feel oddly proud of Reading. Walking down Park Street later, having saved just enough room for a Swoon gelato, was even better. Everywhere we went you could find excellent food, great coffee and brilliant indie shops in abundance. We spent an idyllic afternoon wandering round Bedminster, Zoë’s old hood, buying artisan chocolates and scented candles and looking at all the amazing street art. How I’ve missed buying poncey shit like artisan chocolate and scented candles. 

“It wasn’t like this when I lived here” said Zoë, and the thought crossed my mind that Bristol was far from Shangri-La when I lived there in the Eighties, back in the mists of time. Oxford is a lot better now than it was when I lived there in the early Nineties, come to think of it. Perhaps if I really wanted Reading to become a fantastic place to eat, drink and shop I shouldn’t bother filling out Reading UK’s latest pointless Surveymonkey questionnaire. Maybe I should just move somewhere else: that would fix it.  

Culturally, Bristol felt different too. Mask-wearing was commonplace, with many shops mandating it rather than using carefully chosen words like “expected” or “encouraged”.  As someone with a partner who proudly works in retail, I get especially cross that the great British public seems to think nothing of exposing those people to risk. One independent shop I saw had a sign up in the window: WE LOVE YOUR FACES BUT PLEASE WEAR A MASK, it said. Quite right too. 

But it wasn’t just the shops. The buses going past had signs saying that you had to mask up, a far cry from the fudge of Reading Buses. If Bristol did have mask deniers or anti-lockdown protesters they were where they belonged, namely out of sight.

Finding somewhere to eat on a Monday in Bristol can be quite a challenge, but we had a table booked at Bravas, a tapas restaurant just off the Whiteladies Road, which has always been one of my favourite places to eat in the city. I partly wanted to go back because I wanted to support the places I’ve always loved, to try and do my bit to help them survive. And clearly many of Bravas’ customers felt likewise: there was a chalkboard leaned against the front of the restaurant paying an emotional tribute to all the punters who had kept them afloat in the past eighteen months. I found it surprisingly moving, and I don’t even live there.

The council – more progressive, predictably, than their counterparts in Reading – had pedestrianised the whole of Cotham Hill, which meant that enterprising restaurants like Bravas had put up al fresco seating. This isn’t unique to Bristol, of course: Soho has been pedestrianised too, and I remember seeing pictures of Arbequina, a restaurant on Oxford’s Cowley Road, the pavement outside packed with extra tables. Is it that Reading just didn’t have any restaurants that could have benefited from a similar approach, or was it the usual failure of imagination by the powers that be?

In normal times I would have loved to sit inside at Bravas – the interior is conspiratorial, buzzy and surprisingly like being back in Spain – but all the things that make that room wonderful in normal times made me reluctant to eat there right now. Fortunately, after a short wait they managed to fix us up with a table outside, in a makeshift decked area (it was very pleasant, although you did feel slightly seasick every time climbed aboard, or disembarked).

Bravas’ menu was relatively small and perfectly formed, with a section of nibbles, cheese and charcuterie and then vegetable, seafood and meat tapas dishes – and some specials up on a board (I’m still sad I never managed to find room for the goat stew they were serving the day I visited). The way to approach a menu like this, I’ve always thought, is to work out all the dishes you absolutely to ensure you eat, divide them into groups and order each group one at a time, only ordering more when you’ve finished what’s in front of you.

So we did exactly that, and I made inroads into a fantastic G&T – made with local Psychopomp gin, olive and rosemary, a Bristolian take on Gin Mare – while we waited for our first dishes to turn up. Zoë was on a Negroni, which Bravas sweetens slightly with a dash of Pedro ximènez, because Zoë is more hardcore than I could ever hope to be.

The first thing we had fell slightly flat. Bristol is packed with excellent bakeries, and I expected Bravas’ bread to be more exciting, less dense and pedestrian. But the alioli it came with was pleasant enough, even if the golden colour slightly oversold it. Better were the jamon croquettes – others I’ve had have leaned heavily on the béchamel but these were sturdier and all the better for it. They were two pounds fifty each, or six for twelve pounds. Immediately after eating one I wished we’d ordered half a dozen, but that’s me all over. Manchego with rosemary was excellent too, especially with lozenges of membrillo to perk them up sweetly.

Things really got into gear with the selection of cured meats. I know all this is more about sourcing than cooking, but buying the right stuff is every bit as much a skill all good restaurants need. And this very much was the right stuff. The best of the bunch was a beautiful lomo, marbled with fat, more like coppa than the very lean lomo I’m used to in Andalusia. But the cecina was the equal of any bresaola I’ve tasted, and the salchichón was coarse and gorgeous. Best of all, it came with plump, sharp caperberries and sweet, tangy guindilla chillies to wrap in charcuterie and pop in your mouth. Better still, because of Zoë’s aversion to pickles I got to eat them all.

We’d ordered a tortilla and a dish with chickpeas and tuna belly, but there was obviously some kind of mix up, because instead we were brought two portions of the tortilla. They must have known something we didn’t, because having to share a single portion would only have caused trouble. It was one of the best I’ve had, soft but not gooey, sweet with potatoes and onions: few dishes can transfigure the everyday so completely.

The other vegetable dishes were disappointing by comparison. The eponymous bravas looked the part, and are a dish I’ve loved in the past – rather than cubes of fried potato, Bravas slices a whole potato lengthways and it looks very striking when brought to the table. But the texture was missing in action, the slices a little bit flabby and limp, lacking in the crispness that makes this dish so addictive. The bravas sauce with them was spot on, but the lack of fighting over the final slices of spud told its own sad story.

Worse still was the special, Isle of Wight tomatoes with rocket, capers and anchovies. Now, some of that is my mistake because I guess, in the cold light of day, when you look at that list of ingredients it sounds an awful lot like a salad. And a salad it was – heavy on the rocket, light on the tomatoes, the capers completely AWOL. And it wasn’t so much dressed as mulchy, sitting in a bowl with a little pool of what tasted like vinegar at the bottom. Given that we were in a tapas restaurant, and the tomatoes got top billing, I foolishly thought they would be the star of the show, as they would have been in Spain. More fool me, I suppose.

Things needed to improve, and fortunately they did with our last three dishes. Presa iberico turned up looking like a still life, served blushing in the middle, artfully dressed with charred rosemary and scattered with hefty salt crystals. And it was very good indeed, but it felt a little too little for too much at eight pounds fifty (although, to be fair, the following night we’d have a similar dish at Michelin-starred Paco Tapas that set you back twenty pounds). 

Cod a la plancha was more successful, a terrific piece of fish which flaked easily with a single artichoke on top, served with a gazpacho verde which felt a lot like a salsa verde to me. But half the fun of a piece of fish like this is a nicely crispy skin: our piece was missing half its skin, and what there was wasn’t crispy. Even so it was an enjoyable dish, although I couldn’t help wondering whether I should have ordered that goat stew after all. Finally, possibly the nicest dish of the meal: chicken chicharrones turned out to be nothing of the kind but just a superb plate of rugged, crunchy fried chicken, with a chilli alioli on top. I wish they’d brought us two of these by mistake instead, but that’s life.

Service was really stretched thin, and a little frazzled all afternoon. I felt for them, because it looked like they’d been badly hit by track and trace pings, to the extent where the chefs had to bring quite a few of the dishes to our table, and others. It was a real shame, and clearly not their fault – when you did get someone’s attention they were unfailingly lovely, but it could be difficult to flag someone down. I suspect we’d have drunk more if we’d been able to do that, but as it was we only managed another glass of wine each. The wine list, incidentally, was great, and both the wines we tried by the glass – a beautifully fresh chardonnay and gewurztraminer blend for Zoë, a robust, aromatic Rioja for me – were knockout.

The waiting staff were also particularly good towards the end of our meal when an elderly gentleman, dapper in overcoat and hat, wandered in from the Lebanese restaurant next door, took a seat at the table next to us, opened his polystyrene takeaway container and starting having at his kebab with a plastic fork. One of them came over and explained ever so nicely to him that the seating was reserved for customers of Bravas, and after they had some trouble getting this point across, patiently and politely, the intruder shambled off to munch on his lunch elsewhere: they earned every bit of our tip for that interaction alone. Our meal – all that tapas, a couple of cocktails and a couple of glasses of wine – came to ninety-two pounds fifty, not including service.

It’s tricky when you go to a restaurant you love and, by their high standards, they have an off day. I’ve enjoyed all my other meals at Bravas, objectively speaking, far more than this one. And yet this isn’t a normal time to weigh up restaurants, and Bravas seemed to be struggling with the pingdemic we are in, like so many hospitality businesses at the moment. 

Initially I was inclined to be more critical of the restaurant, but looking back I can’t help but remember the hotel we stayed in on our first night in Bristol. They’d given us a room up in the eaves where the bed was too big for the room it was in, so you could only really get into bed on one side. The other side, right next to the wall, had no bedside table and no lamp. The tiny TV was on a tiny chest of drawers in the corner which looked like it had been ransacked from an office closure. The 2019 version of me would have called reception and asked to see another room. It’s a life hack I learned from my ex-wife, who did it all the time.

But then I thought: I am away from home, on holiday, for the first time in a year and a half. I have a beautiful king-sized bed to spend the night in and a fantastic partner to share it with. There’s a huge claw-footed bath next door – I adore baths, more than I can say – and the sort of wet room and rainfall shower you could easily spend a long time in. I am fit and well, I’m double-jabbed and all things considered life could be an awful lot worse. And I never watch the TV in hotel rooms anyway. Really, who does?

So 2021 me stopped mithering about my hotel room, and in the same spirit 2021 me had a lovely afternoon at Bravas. It could have been even better, but I’ve spent eighteen months a long way from my best, and they had the decency to take me as they found me. The least I could do, under the circumstances, was return the favour. I dare say I’ll pay them a visit again next time I go to Bristol, and that day can’t come soon enough. In the meantime, I’ll work on being more grateful. It might make me a worse restaurant reviewer, but hopefully a marginally better person.

Bravas – 7.5
7 Cotham Hill, Redland, Bristol, BS6 6LD
0117 3296887

https://bravas.co.uk

City guide: Bologna

Bologna is the city where I ran out of superlatives.

I’m used to picking city breaks on food and drink alone, doing plenty of research, booking restaurants and planning exactly where I’ll eat. I love traipsing round a cathedral, I like a gallery and I don’t mind a museum, but the food’s the thing I really make a pilgrimage for. And many of the cities still on my to do list are famous for their gastronomy – Lyon, for example, or San Sebastián. Bologna is in the same league, I think, and is a truly extraordinary place to eat and drink.

It’s beautiful, too. Miles of porticoes run throughout the city – some grand, some tatty but all offering shade when it’s sunny and shelter when it’s raining. The colour palette is like nowhere else I’ve visited – all reds, burnt oranges and dusky pinks. It’s a ridiculously photogenic place, but not picture-perfect and not remotely interested in being so pristine. It has far too much incredible life to it for that.

Bologna has many nicknames – la rossa, the red one, because of its red rooftops and communist history. La dotta, the learned one, because of its university, older even than Oxford. But more importantly, it’s called la grassa, the fat one, because it’s widely thought to be the gastronomic capital of Italy.

It’s in Emilia Romagna, the province of northern Italy responsible for Parma ham, Parmesan and balsamic vinegar. Bologna is also the place for pasta, whether that’s tagliatelle (never spaghetti) with rich ragu or tortellini in broth. And then there’s the local cheese, the mortadella, the wine, the growing craft beer scene; I’ve never been anywhere where food felt quite so front and centre in daily life, or anywhere where it was quite so easy to eat well.

It’s a real challenge to describe it without lurching into hyperbole, but what else can you do when you’ve eaten so many of your desert island dishes on one holiday? The best gelato, the best pasta, the best coffee… you come home feeling a little like you’ve gone from Technicolor to monochrome.

It’s not – at the moment, at least – a huge tourist destination: Rome, Florence and Venice are all far more fêted. But I loved it so much when I went last year that I went again this summer, and I loved it so much when I went this summer that I’m going again before the end of the year. If you’re considering a trip, I hope this list gives you some inspiration. Of course, once I come back from my next visit I might just have to add to it.

Where to eat and drink

1. Drogheria Della Rosa

I visited Drogheria Della Rosa on both my visits to Bologna and loved it both times although, on paper, it’s the kind of restaurant that could give buttoned-up Brits a panic attack. It’s a converted pharmacy, although generally you sit outside in the street enjoying the food, the buzz and the people-watching. The proprietor still stops at your table and asks what you want and – this is the bit which I found unnerving the first time – there’s no printed menu, wine list or prices anywhere to be seen.

Anyway, you soon get past that and everything I had there was terrific, from the ubiquitous tagliatelle al ragu to a veal dish my friend Al and I still rhapsodise over two years later (it wasn’t on offer on my second visit, to my eternal disappointment).

When you ask for a dessert wine they just bring over a bottle of Marsala and some glasses and leave you to it, another experience which is more fun the second time when you have a good idea how much the bill is going to be. But perhaps the best thing about Drogheria Della Rosa was the dessert – one of the simplest and cleanest I’ve ever eaten, a shallow bowl of pure, fresh mascarpone topped with top-quality grated chocolate. I daydream about that from time to time. I was having far too much fun to remember the size of the bill either time, but with a bottle of wine I don’t think it was far north of fifty Euros.

Drogheria Della Rosa, Via Cartoleria 10

2. Osteria Bottega

Osteria Bottega was probably the best of the many old-school restaurants I’ve tried in Bologna. I felt less likely to run into a group of Americans at an adjacent table (and they only had one person on the wait staff who spoke English) but if anything that made the whole thing more of a treat. It’s a nice, tasteful, reasonably basic room but the food is what stayed with me about my visit.

I picked this restaurant after a writeup on Andy Hayler’s blog. He’s an idiosyncratic reviewer – I always feel like he’s auditing rather than reviewing a restaurant – but he indisputably knows his onions and Osteria Bottega didn’t let me down. We started with a plate of aged culatello which could have matched any jamon iberico in Spain, served with slices of apple (a revelation) and plenty of Parmesan, because Parmesan is in plentiful supply in Bologna.

They just leave the bowl at your table, in fact – so unlike the stinginess here in Blighty – which enables you to finally work out the answer to the question how much Parmesan is too much Parmesan? (not that I ever reached a conclusive view on that).

It comes in especially handy with the tagliatelle al ragu, which was the best I had in Bologna – so intensely savoury, so rich, over so soon. Hayler says it’s a mixture of beef and pork leg that’s been cooked over an open fire, and he is the kind of man to check that sort of thing. Either way, I thought it was magnificent. The rest of the meal, for me, was marred by veal envy – my dining companion committed the unpardonable sin of ordering better than I did – but my rabbit porchetta was still a beautiful thing, even if it didn’t quite live up to the promise of the juxtaposition of those two words.

Osteria Bottega, Via Santa Caterina 51

3. La Verace

Another tip from Andy Hayler, La Verace is right on the edge of the city centre, not far from MAMbo, the modern art gallery. The gallery, like so many modern art galleries I’ve experienced on my trips to European cities, puts the f into art and isn’t necessarily worth visiting. La Verace, on the other hand, is well worth a detour.

I came for the pizza and it truly was one of the finest I’ve had, with a perfect crust and a rich, almost fragrant tomato sauce. But actually, all the other dishes were even better – especially shedloads of tender squid served on a deep, earthy chickpea purée. I still occasionally go on – to anybody who will listen – about the oven roasted potatoes, salty and fatty with a slightly medicinal tinge of rosemary: one of the cheapest things I ate in Bologna and easily one of the most memorable.

Next time I’ll keep away from the pizzas and explore the rest of the menu: I suspect there are more works of art in it than you’ll find round the corner.

La Verace, Via Cairoli 10

4. Scacco Matto

It’s very difficult to have a bad meal in Bologna (I never managed it), and the majority of restaurants I ate in were brilliant and accomplished but resolutely unshowy. There’s an awful lot to be said for that, but if you do want to try something more cheffy and ambitious Scacco Matto is the place for you.

I went there after watching Rick Stein, on his Long Weekends programme, eating Scacco Matto’s plin, ravioli filled with sweet onion and Parmesan, glossy with butter and served with thick slices of wild mushroom and hazelnuts. I’ve ordered it on both my visits to Scacco Matto and it’s a death row dream of a dish, a dish with a half-life where you eventually keep eating half of what’s left, hoping you can somehow cheat the laws of the universe and make it last forever.

But other dishes are available, and they’re every bit as good. On my last visit I ate a single squid, scattered with peas and broad beans, resting on a thick slab of pork, in the same breathless rapture. I finished off with two beautifully rare tranches of tuna with ginger and mange tout, a dish with roots a long way from Emilia Romagna but somehow completely at home here.

When my friends and I all ordered the plin the waiter smiled and said “Rick Stein?” and I thought how nice it was to take someone else’s restaurant advice for a change. It’s hard to imagine a visit to Bologna where I didn’t eat at this restaurant – and if you want a pre or post-dinner drink Birra Cerqua, one of Bologna’s preeminent craft beer brewpubs, is two minutes down the road.

Scacco Matto, Via Brocaindosso 63

5. Sette Tavoli

I heard lots of recommendations for Sette Tavoli but, shamefully, the main reason I chose it was that it could be booked online (not all Bologna restaurants have embraced the Internet). It gets its name from only having seven tables inside, although on the day I ate there it was hot as balls (during mini heatwave at the end of June) so we were out on the portico, trying to look unruffled, John Lewis portable fans whirring away like billy-o.

It has an attractive, short a la carte menu or you can pick one of two tasting menus centred around meat or fish. We went for the latter, accompanied with a very cold and crisp local white wine, and it was a properly lovely meal.

I enjoyed the fish encrusted in pistachio, served with a sweet and crunchy fennel salad, a clever bit of cooking on a dish delivered with minimum fuss or fannying about. But my absolute favourite was smoked salmon with ultra-caramelised onions and spuma di patate – the texture of creme fraiche but the distilled taste of spud at its most elemental. Nothing especially Italian about it, but who cares? It was nothing short of a magic trick, and yet another dish (Bologna is packed with them) that we talked about for days.

Sette Tavoli, Via Cartoleria 15/2

6. Simoni

One of the best things in Bologna is the Quadrilatero, the grid of streets just off Piazza Maggiore full of stalls selling pasta, cheese, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. And, for me, one of the best things in the Quadrilatero is Simoni – if you get there early enough at lunchtime you can grab one of the tables outside, order a bottle of Lambrusco (the local wine which is red, chilled and therefore nothing like any Lambrusco you might have experienced at home) and make inroads into a menu full of cheese, charcuterie and bread. It truly is a happy place for me.

On a previous visit my friends and I demolished a selection of charcuterie and cheese – salami, Parma ham, a bunch of delicious cheeses whose names escape me and mortadella, the signature meat of Bologna which you have to try even if, like me, you have a vague suspicion of unreally-pink mystery meat. But on my most recent trip it was all about bread – first, squares of focaccia filled with beautiful scquacquerone, a gooey fresh local cheese a bit like the shapeless heart of burrata.

Even better was the porchetta panino, a beautiful thing stuffed with salty, fatty pork and studded with caperberries adding just enough acidity for contrast. Panini in the U.K. are just the way our awful coffee chains flog you a gooey, unremarkable toasted sandwich: having the real thing in Bologna was a true revelation. Either way, make sure you keep room for the tasting selection of Parmesan so you can try it aged for 18, 24 and 36 months: if nothing else, it will help you decide which kind to buy and cram into your suitcase on the way home.

Simoni, Via Pescherie Vecchie, 3/b

7. Cremeria Cavour

Pretty much any of the gelato you can eat in Bologna will ruin most U.K. ice cream for you for life (although I still have a soft spot for Jude’s salted caramel – available at Fidget & Bob and Nirvana Spa, fact fans). I made it a personal crusade to try as many places as I could: I loved Sorbetti Castiglione, just up the road from my Airbnb which did a fantastic gianduja gelato. I adored Il Gelatauro, where I managed to eat gelato and then follow it up with an affogato which was both enormous and itself 90% gelato – either a career best or a new low, depending on how you feel about gluttony.

But my favourite was the chi-chi Cremeria Cavour (which, confusingly, had changed its name since my first visit last year). Every single flavour I had was beautiful, from pistachio to fior di panna – pure cream, unadultered with vanilla or anything else. On my last visit I developed a serious addiction to their rum and chocolate gelato, one which can only be managed with further visits to Bologna. Sitting on a bench in Piazza Cavour eating gelato would, in most cities, be the standout gastronomic experience of a holiday but in Bologna, it has to settle for being first among equals.

Cremeria Cavour, Piazza Cavour 1D

8. Aroma

You’re not going to struggle for good coffee in Bologna, wherever you go. My weakness – which I was introduced to by my friend Al – is caffè al ginseng, which is hot, sweet, milky, comes out of a machine and would probably offend coffee purists everywhere.

Personally I often think the most fun you can have with a purist comes from irritating them. But if you are in the mood to try a more rarified coffee, head to Aroma. The interior is dark and, dare I say it, a tad dated, but the staff are fantastic and friendly, speak brilliant English and serve possibly the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. My friend Al sipped his espresso, gave a sigh which was 50% whispered prayer and 50% happy finish, and immediately ordered a latte so he could check whether it was as good. It was.

Aroma, Via Porta Nova 12/b

9. Camera A Sud

Pubs are wonderful things, but there is something about a properly great bar that is truly transcendental. I’m always on the lookout for them on the continent and some of my favourites – Ghent’s Gitane, Granada’s Potemkin, Porto’s Café Candelabro – are, to my mind, reason enough to visit their parent cities.

A truly great bar is a little scruffy and bohemian but never dirty. It has a hangdog charm that you simply can’t manufacture or fake, and we aficionados can always sniff out a fake (we get lots of practice in Britain, which so rarely gets bars right). It feels like a place you could nurse a coffee in the morning, enjoy lunch, drink before dinner or booze late into the night.

In Bologna, Camera A Sud was that bar. It was perfect for aperitivi, whether that was a perfectly cold beer, a glass of white or countless day-glo Aperol spritzes. The inside was scuzzy but uncalculated but sitting outside, as the shadows lengthened and people wandered past, was the perfect place to be.

Not only that, but the food was brilliant. Not a lot of cooking was involved, but the selection of salumi and mortadella wasn’t a million of miles from the quality at Simoni. The bruschetta – mozzarella and anchovy elevated by the genius addition of orange zest – was the kind of bar snack only a bar in Bologna would think of: I sent a picture to my friend Al and he recreated it at home the very next day.

The area around Camera A Sud is full of street art and intimidatingly fashionable, dishevelled people, beautifully boho and worth a wander, either with a camera or just with your eyes wide open. Just round the corner is another terrific-looking place called Caffè Rubik: I’ve made a note of it and I’ll try it next time, just in case it’s even closer to the Platonic ideal of the perfect bar.

Camera A Sud, Via Valdonica 5

10. Astral Beers

Both times I’ve visited Bologna I have been in the company of craft beer enthusiasts: Bologna is also at the centre of Italy’s burgeoning craft beer scene, and so there are plenty of places to try. More, in truth, than I have the stomach for, so I slightly lost interest in sitting on the pavement outside a place called Beer For Bunnies surrounded by the bearded and tattooed drinking something expensive and agricultural when I’d rather have been enjoying a really good glass of wine.

That said, some places were more my kind of thing. Birra Cerqua, which I mentioned earlier, was very nice indeed and Birra Baladin (which has a bar inside the Mercato Di Mezzo) makes some beautiful and unusual stuff. But my favourite was Astral Beers, not far from the famous towers, which felt a bit more grown up, a little less chin-strokingly post-rock and a lot more interested in being a bar where everybody could find something to enjoy.

The staff at Astral Beers have more than enough enthusiasm for their stuff to bridge any language gap, and I really liked all of the Italian beers I had there, whether they were more conventional Pilsners or some very striking sours. It has some tables outside but the inside feels more grown up than many craft beer places I’ve been to – which, like craft coffee places, can sometimes feel like a temple to chipboard. They also did some lovely, affordable and in some cases biodynamic wines.

I never ate there, but the dishes I watched arriving at other tables looked good enough to give me pre-dinner food envy. Happily, it only ever lasted as long as my walk to the next restaurant.

Astral Beers, Via Castiglione 13/B

11. Osteria Del Sole

Confusingly, Osteria Del Sole isn’t really an osteria and doesn’t do any food. What it is, quite magnificently, is Bologna’s most venerable bar and dangerously close to an Italian take on an old man pub. The wine by the glass is perfectly pleasant – it’s a good place to try Pignoletto, the local sparkling white – and the Menebrea by the bottle is also serviceable, but really the atmosphere is the thing here. There’s also a little courtyard, although it lacks the battered grandeur of the interior.

Every time I’ve been, confusingly, many of the tables have been reserved (something which would never catch on in a British pub), but you can usually find some space. It has to be done, if just the once, and makes for a nice early afternoon pit stop before returning to the bustle, sights and sounds of the Quadrilatero.

Osteria Del Sole, Vicolo Ranocchi 1/D

12. Mercato di Mezzo and Mercato delle Erbe

A bit of a cheat lumping both these markets in the same entry, but both are absolutely worth a visit.

Mercato di Mezzo, in the Quadrilatero, is more like Market Halls Victoria (or what Reading’s own Market House desperately wishes it was), an indoor market with food vendors along both sides and communal tables in the middle. Everything I’ve eaten from there has been brilliant, whether it’s pasta accompanied with a local beer from Baladin, a slice of pizza grabbed on the run to munch on the way through the streets or a caffè al ginseng and a croissant packed with indulgent pistachio cream first thing in the morning. Visit, if only to see how far Reading has to go to even attempt to recapture the buzz of such a place done well.

By contrast, the Mercato delle Erbe – on the splendidly named Via Ugo Bassi – has a conventional market at its heart selling all sorts of wonderful fruit, vegetables fish and what have you (I picked up some fantastic truffle sauce on my first visit) and then, around the edges, there are lots of little restaurants with their own seating. I enjoyed a fantastic range of bruschetta on one visit, on another I went to Polpette E Crescentine, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

There are also some lovely bars where you can sit with a pre-dinner spritz, wondering whether snaffling a square of pizza would ruin your appetite and, just as importantly, whether it would be worth it (on balance, probably not, but you usually work that out the hard way).

Finally, it wouldn’t be a holiday without a souvenir. I always make sure I head to Formaggeria Barbieri in the Mercato delle Erbe, where they are wonderfully helpful and will vacuum-pack you massive pieces of Parmesan for your flight home. I managed to bring back two and a half kilos on my last trip (twenty-four month aged for everyday grating and forty month aged for best) and they even gave me a snazzy red tote bag which I prize far more than I probably should.

Mercato di Mezzo, Via Clavature 12
Mercato delle Erbe, Via Ugo Bassi 25

City guide: Ghent

A newer guide to Ghent (and Bruges) can be found here.

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. (N.B. Bodo sadly closed in October 2021, although the owners also run a natural wine bar called The Wan & Only).

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.