Café Vlissinghe, Brugge

Blekersstraat 2, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Every town deserves at least one historic place in which nothing ever seems to change. Being able to link aspects of our own lives to the past (as futile as that endeavour may seem at times) helps to provide our own existence with a sense of place and purpose, in the knowledge that we have retained and respected at least some things of value along the way, and by frequenting these places we contribute to their survival.

Café Vlissinghe takes this idea and extends it beyond all usual historical parameters, and the news gets better still – it’s a pub! Even in Brugge, a place not short of preserved architecture and institutions, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most evocative links to their past, the business traceable for centuries and thankfully keen to preserve the format for centuries to come. Once you have a good thing you don’t easily let that go.

The earliest record of the pub dates back to 1515, extraordinary in and of itself and it claims to have been running continuously from then until the present. This earns Vlissinghe a place on the list of oldest companies in the world. The look of the place may be redolent of a late Medieval inn, however it appears some of the appearance was lovingly and coherently retrofitted in the mid-1800s (an era steeped in fascination and nostalgia for all things Medieval), with the installation of contemporaneous artworks and paintings and furniture that are consistent with the period. It’s all very brown, black, tarred, burnt caramel and crusty textures. Precisely the sort of thing you want with an old pub.

Vlissinghe is located mercifully outside of the main tourist drag, down a typical Brugge alley: cobbled street, whitewashed walls, ancient brickwork, and a bicycle propped up outside that’s so old you wonder whether it’s become an ornament (until a man in a flat cap emerges from the door, tucks his newspaper under his coat and rides off on it). It must be no more than 50 metres long, but the amble down the lane, with the pub entrance coming closer with your every stride has become somewhat of a ritual for me, just long enough to build a sense of anticipation for what’s to come…

Vlissinghe’s gothic lettering is painted above the entrance, so dive straight in and turn left and head down a long corridor entrance with a series of side rooms. This may lead you to believe it is a large venue, but the pub itself is really just a central room, up a couple of steps at the end. You will note it is appointed with large, sturdy, venerable furniture, cushioned with studded leather upholstery, warped floorboards that creak underfoot, faded oil paintings hung on the wall which you have to swivel to and fro between the sheen of the lighting to properly discern, and an impressive and unusual centrepiece: a cast iron steam heater kicking out warmth into the room, most welcome on those days when the cold is piercing and the wind is rushing down the North Sea through the canals and arteries off Zeebrugge.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There is a pub dog, for good measure who is unobtrusive and content with its existence, pottering around, sniffing and having naps.

The main room overlooks a garden and terrace area used as a bowling green in the summer and has outhouse toilets, which gives the place a friendly and ad hoc feel. These toilets are modern, which I will concede is the one part of a pub which should keep up with the times (though, rather incongruously, they also ‘have’ an APP!)

The kitchen is in an adjoining building and focuses on winter fuel – soups, toasties, meat and cheese platters, miscellaneous bar snacks, which are all done Belgian-style, reliably homespun, the purpose being to warm you up and soak up the drinking. Service is friendly (occasionally disorganised and a little slow, which comes with the territory) and the prices are par for the course, with a few cheaper options.

Nevertheless, there are other things going on here than a pocket sized ethnographic museum, Café Vlissinghe stocks a local beer, the delicious tripel Fort Lapin brewed in a garage five minutes up the road by a new brewer. As this is part-fermented in the bottle and unfiltered, as you pour in the last part of the bottle you will note the colour change from bright amber to a cloudy, yeasty colour! Even with this beer choice, you get the sense of sentimentality and heritage at wanting to promote a city project, even with the hundreds of other Belgian beers they could have chosen to sell. The total range of beers available is modest (most Belgian cafés feel obliged to offer at least 60 bottles and 8-10 taps these days, which does showcase their extraordinary brewing very well, but is often unnecessary) but it is well chosen, with at least one of each main style, and with local options.

The main appeal of frequenting Vlissinghe is the sheer sense of relaxation. Whether it is 11.30 in the morning or last thing at night, I doubt anything about the feel of the pub changes hugely. Hunker down for an afternoon of supremely enjoyable beer drinking, hearty soups and toast, or head down in the evening and sit amongst the throng, frozen- in-time but warmed through with merriment and the satisfaction of your own quiet contribution to keeping the whole thing going. Cheers!

À la Mort Subite, Bruxelles

alamortsubite
Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

There is sometimes a premium to be paid on a special occasion, so on my annual visit to A La Mort Subite I breathe in deeply and dive more deeply still into my wallet, on account of the luxurious overall experience of visiting this splendid Bruxelles bar.

Distinctly Parisien in format, this opulent faded-grandeur art nouveau venue (translation: At The Sudden Death) is one of Brussels and Belgiums most famous bars, so no surprises or left-field picks from me this time. A la Mort Subite might count as a brown café for the bench seating up the sides of the long room, if it wasn’t for the lack of brown elsewhere. Cream walls and pillars, the elegant ornamental décor stacked with studded crenullations, mirror panels and a stately, out of time design. You have a venue somewhere in between a café and a salon, originally built as a place for socialites to be seen in, yet, being Belgian, still focused predominantly on beer. The décor has such an authentic and preserved quality (no change since 1928, save for the occasional running repair) so it’s difficult to think of too many other places that are alike.

Mort Subite supplies the draft beer, and this brewery serves fruit beers and lambic effect rather than the real wild yeast sour lambics McCoy. They are still rich in flavour and sweetness, and a tad sour, but lacking any sort of dryness and depth that might indicate the traditional lambic brewing process. A small serving of their kriek for example, which would be a good choice, will set you back five euros on its own. Some of the other options are fairly astronomical considering the price one can drink for elsewhere in excellent surroundings. Mort Subite beer may as well be drunk here as much as anywhere on the globe. With this being Brussels you can expect a small food menu with cheese, charcuterie options and the usual pub food like croque monsieur to help your beer go down (as if anyone should need help finishing a Belgian beer!)

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The bar clearly feel they are unique to set such a high price, and annoyingly, they are right. An afternoon drink in A la Mort Subite can feel rather like a drink in a grand café, nice enough in itself, but the bar character starts to come alive in the early evening time as the crowd changes, and you can suddenly start to absorb some of the atmosphere and understand the underlying reasons for the endurance of this place. A special bleary eyed feel starts to develop, the sharp lines and corners blurring into the cream colours, like dropping into a dreamworld. That’ll also be the strong beer…

The grandeur and glamour of socialising in the inter-war era is yet to be recreated around Europe on any identifiable level, save for the odd outstanding example, partly because of the lack of venues who have committed to investing the kind of money to pull it off well, and also because the eventual crowd it attracts tend to have little to no appreciation of their surroundings anyway.

Service is almost classically continental, with wide stomached balding René type characters smoothly dissecting the venue with assurance and steady hands under the drinks trays. They are immaculately professional and patient considering conveyor belt of foreign tourists and the format of table service requiring more work than is strictly necessary. These characters add further to the sense of intransigent and reliability that lend a place a certain charm, that A la Mort Subite certainly possesses.

Although the evening and night crowd appeals to a few nostalgic locals who insist bars like these used to be abundant, a large volume tourists of venture in during the daytime, and because of the heritage of the place, often an aged crowd at that. The only sudden death that occurs in this bar is from pneumonia and cardiac arrest, I suspect.

Changing the venue in anyway seems to be verboten, and I wouldn’t approve major adjustments either ,however it seems to me there is nothing to stop the place rejigging the drinks choices and doing some marketing from the outside, as this venue is not designed for middle aged obese American sat in Burghaus jackets, it is designed for the young, the stylish and the vibrant. The way to really bring back the good old days isn’t just to leave the décor and service meticulously unchanged and hope for the best. The good old days were good because they were vital, vibrant and inhabited a nascent social scene. The place could do more in that regard by hosting more events, perhaps some understated live music, and so on.

In order for A La Mort Subite to take the next step, they need to be brave enough to recapture the zeitgeist in a way that doesn’t upset the period features, rather than settling for being a museum.

A La Mort Subite is a preserved remnant of a particular era and a great opportunity for anyone with a real passion in the rich and diverse history of socialising, beer drinking and recreational culture to step out of the every day experience and soak in the special character of the place. There are scarcely grander or more historical venues to recline and get merry with some astoundingly good beer. It may be so well known as to be passé, and it isn’t the pinnacle itself of pub going, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best bars in Europe.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 4/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

t’Brugse Beertje, Brugge

tbrugsebeertje

t’Brugse Beertje, Kemelstraat 5, 8000 Brugge, Belgium

The alchemy of what constitutes a good pub is worthy of considerable study, and partly why this site was created.  The Little Bruges Bear is an excellent place to begin.

While there are so very many hundreds of bars and pubs across Europe missing essential ingredients, scrambling in the dark in their search to attract patrons, despite having a reliable formula almost laid out for them, this pub serves to illustrate how simple the task is.

t’Brugse Beertje is a cosy communal venue with the dimensions and confines of a snug brown café/pub decorated with wood panelled walls and adorned well selected and stylish bar ephemera. There is a choice of simple wooden seating or slightly more comfortable bench seating if you’re lucky enough to swoop in and claim it. Ask to peruse their enormous menu of Belgian beer, presented in the form of an almanac that takes a good 20 minutes to look through properly and consider a selection of typical Belgian snack options (gouda, biscuits, meat platters, croque monsieur etc) to go with. Just thinking about this while writing is salivating.

Hanging above the bar is a gleaming selection of the various beer glasses each tailored to their specific beer, every single flavour journey mapped out by their brewers right down to the way the beer sits in a glass, tempered to the point of maximising every single potential for an improvement of the experience, telling of a country utterly obsessed with the art of brewing and the pleasure of drinking. There will be a beer for you in this pub, or I’m afraid there is no beer for you.

Service is efficient and attentive, while the prices are 20-30 cents higher than other nearby places, but not punishingly so. This can be offset by choosing a rare beer you’re unlikely to get anywhere else (my suggestion would be to try an Oud Bruin/Flemish Red style, which apart from Rodenbach are less commonly exported to the UK, while curiously, the style hasn’t yet caught on as a craft brewing style despite the proliferation of red ales and sours).

BrugsBeertje_tcm13-9835

The enormous popularity of the place has unfortunately driven locals away apart from a few quiet months in the New Year before Easter. Normally it would earn a mark down for that, as it’s important for a pub to have an original community element, but the place must be given a free pass. The ideal would be for it to contain a healthy mixture of both locals and a few tourists, but the world has taken over Bruges in the last 10 years. In lieu of local life, the shining qualities of the pub, that seem to epitomise everything good about traditional beer drinking in Belgium, compensate adequately.

The pub opens at 5pm and by 5.30 nearly every seat is taken. After that it’s a case of waiting politely at the door and taking your chance to swoop to a seat. Once seated, it’s unlikely you’ll see a reason to leave any time soon. It’s a rare example of a place where I would actually wait for 10-15 minutes to be seated.

The main room has a terrific atmosphere, watching folk come and go, but if that’s not available, the backroom has a lovely down-to-earth feel, like a rambler’s pub full of strangers thrown together in the tangle of a boozy evening. This compensates well for the lack of local characters. Only the matter of being on holiday, in Bruges of all places could distract a visitor from staying there all night, returning at opening time the next day and doing the same. It is the best pub in Bruges and there’s no doubt that this is pub going at its very best.

  • A: Quality and/or choice of drinks – 10/10
  • B: Style and Decor – 10/10
  • C: Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • D: Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • E: Value for Money – 6/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10