A Little Slice of Belgian Heaven on Capitol Hill
If you’re looking for a great place for brunch on the Hill, you can do no better than Belga on 8th Street. Set up in 2004 by award-winning Belgian Chef Bart Vandaele, it’s always been a top quality restaurant, and they’ve had a great setup for this covid times, with tables lining the sidewalk, heaters, and little greenhouse-like hugs housing some of the tables.
What is Belgian food?
The Belgians are famous among other things, for their chocolate, their beer, and their waffles. They should also be famous for their fries, or frites, but because of the misnomer in the US, those are assumed to be French in origin. There are various theories as to how the name French fries came about — one of which is that American soldiers assumed they were in France when they tasted them, and took the name home, when in fact they were in Belgium.
Belgian frites, typically served in newspaper cones and eaten with mayonnaise, are both a national pastime and a source of national pride, though, and rightly so. And the ones served at Belga are among the very best of the bunch — they come out crunchy, on the darker side of golden, and piping hot, as God intended. The secret is the double frying: the first time cooks them through, and the second gives them the crunch and colour.
a typical cone of Belgian friesImage by Alex Segre, purchased for editorial use from Shutterstock
Belgium is a tiny country nestled at the crossroads of Europe, and has borders with France, Luxemboug, Germany, and the Netherlands. It’s a quirky place, not least because it’s made up of three distinct communities — the German speaking minority, and the French (Walloon) and Dutch (Flemish) parts of the country and Brussels, in the middle and officially bilingual. But wherever you are in the country, people are proud of their excellent food culture, whether that’s a great cheese plate or a Flemish stew — the vlaamse stoverij met frietjes at Belga, cooked in Leffe beer and accompanied with endive salad is delicious. Or, of course, mussles, which come in a variety of sauces at Belga and are exquisite. The platonic ideal of typical Belgian dinner there, if you’re hungry enough, is a small appetiser of mussles, followed by steak-frites and red wine, and some kind of chocolatey dessert. And the chocolate they use is the real thing.
What to Eat at Belga
The meals you’ll see at Belga are mostly from the Flemish half of the country, and the names of dishes are in Flemish. True to their roots, they have an extensive beer menu (and cocktails too, though I’ve been disappointed before when I tried to order a kir, which is a typical pre-dinner drink in Belgium, and had to explain what I meant).
True to the Michelin-starred training of the fonding chef, food at Belga is always outstanding. My staple for brunch is green eggs, which come with bacon and English muffins — both of which are a concession to American tastes, but I’ll take it! I order a side of frites, of course, too. On my most recent visit, my brunch partner ordered the eggs benedict — eitjes & gerookte zalm — which came with asparagus and looked creamy and delicious. For dessert, we shared the banana nutella crepe. It was delicious, and just the right amount to round off our meal, but it’s not susbtantial. It’s artfully cut into four mini crepe rolls and it looks pretty, but it did make me feel as if I wasn’t getting quite enough crepe for my buck.
Service can be variable, and this was true pre-pandemic too. Here in DC, if you’re in a hurry to get on with your day, I recommend sitting as near the doors as possible if you’re dining outside, so that you won’t be forgotten. But arguably the sometimes slower pace makes for a more authentic Belgian experience. In Belgium, where a meal can and usually does take an entire evening and there isn’t the American tipping culture, waiters are harder to track down but tend to leave you alone for the duration of your meal, letting you linger as long as you’d like. And, as normal life resumes, I can think of few place I’d rather linger than over the delicious food and drink of Belga.