There is a certain delight in finding a diamond in the rough, not least when it’s a brown café. Liège’s careworn and ramshackle districts provide plenty of rough – this is not a city that has enjoyed the most tasteful town planning, nor preservation of its heritage. There are quirky features and surprising beauty spots if you are determined to find them. Impasses, a giant staircase, quiet side streets, timber framed buildings sprinkled across the city, and upon arrival a dramatically different (if annoyingly distant) ultra-modern railway station.
This city is certainly not one to write-off, but on a grey weekend, the place seems overburdened with regret about its numerous ill-maintained architectural mistakes, not to mention the inevitable results that come from relatively pauce economic circumstances.
Wallonia is not the well-to-do side of Belgium these days, and hasn’t been for a long time. While it is breathtakingly beautiful in its rural areas and some small towns, a visit to its cities (the likes of Charleroi or Liège) is more than a tad reminiscent of the atmosphere you’ll find visiting dour towns in Northern France, especially in comparison to the well-financed Flemish cities of Ghent and Antwerp.
However, a reliable general rule is: the more hard-nosed a city, the worse its climate, the more likely it will be crammed full of drinking holes. Liège proves this quite adequately, as a cursory search will reveal, you can barely turn a corner in the centre without bumping into some bar or other, while certain streets have a local notoriety.
Some bars, such as Taverne St. Paul, Café Lequet and Le Pot Au Lait are, for their own differing reasons, Liégeois institutions, the bright lights that draw everyone in (those with good taste, anyway). However, today we are going to focus on a more understated city centre venue, Au Delft.
Au Delft is a corner bar situated in an art deco influenced grey-brown brick city building with a quarter-circle frontage and circular windows running down each storey. The structure is non-committal and the materials used are unattractive in colour, so the impression lands in an uncanny valley between noticeably funky and downright ugly.
It doesn’t seem as though this would contain anything preserved except perhaps the embryonic ego of a reckless architect, but one look at the Jupiler signage, and the ground floor bar indicates that something interesting may be inside – or at the absolute very least, somewhere to buy a beer.
Step inside under a large dark green awning to discover a well-preserved bar blending stylish décor (appearing to span from the early ’50s to ’70s to my eye), with features and fittings that regularly appear in brown cafés, one of my absolute favourite styles of bar. Their name itself references a medieval town in Western Netherlands, a heartland of the brown café or bruine kroege.
That Au Delft now feels frozen in time is no accident – they knew they were onto a winner with this place and haven’t altered the format. Unlike the thousands of idiots who have vandalised amazing pubs and bars over the years, the owners have chosen to retain what made it special and ignored the nearly irrepressible human instinct to follow trends.
The bar area itself is magnificent. Faded with age but handsomely redeemed by its character. This scene is juxtaposed with a chess board tiled floor, which wouldn’t be my preferred choice usually, but works brilliantly for this place.
Some small details set this place apart, without adding clutter. The newspaper clips, the beautiful painted lettering on the mirrors which are installed in the partitions above crimson leather-backed seats. Indications of present tradition and ritual mixed with a melancholy legacy of days that are long gone, never to return.
Some of this reminded me of Au Daringman, in Brussels, another out-of-time venue, that exudes confidence and contentment in what it is.
If you are used to paying 4 euros 50 for a quarter litre of beer in Brussels bars then you will scarcely believe your eyes when you discover the prices. Yes, pleasingly these are pitched to attract the custom locals rather than fleece tourists, but when allowing for Au Delft’s city centre location it comfortably beats some of the local competition too.
Au Delft are not competing with those bars that are trying to start their own seed bank of beer for when the human race faces extinction, but they carefully tick off most of the main traditional Belgian beer styles and none of these could be said to be poor value: far from it.
There is actually something relieving about being spared the task of rifling through a Bible to choose between hundreds of beers and dozens of styles each time you desire a drink.
With my limited French I struggled a little to get my point across (there’s nothing more confidence-sapping than delivering a sentence which you are fairly confident is grammatically correct and well-pronounced only to receive a reaction of complete opacity and confusion) but thankfully the service was more than kind enough to offer patience in that regard. Any beer you select will be served to your table along with a small tray of nuts, which is a little token of mutual back-scratching I always like. After all, once the salt gets to work, further liquid is required.
The crowd in Au Delft is a mixture of loyal older regulars who have instant recognition and are well cared for by the staff. You will also find couples wanting a quiet drink and the occasional group of young friends.
Au Delft has a nice convivial atmosphere whether quiet or busy, partly down to the carefully preserved décor and sense of refuge. It is both an excellent place for quiet contemplation or jovial conversation.
I was on limited time and so could only stay for a couple of beers, but I could have easily remained in Au Delft all evening. The impossible prospect of turning a place into my local, to get to know the other staff and become part of the fixtures of the bar are often one of the melancholy aspects of travelling. Often I am happy just to have found the venue and spent a night there, but Au Delft is one of those places I suspect you can only truly ‘find’ when you have visited for many years.
While Au Delft may not be the first name on everyone’s lips when it comes to nightlife in Liège, their quietly confident style, preserved features, genuine local life, friendly service and great value mean that it can’t be missed out and it comfortably earns a place on our guide as being one of the best pubs in Europe.
Our Rating: 8/10
Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
Style and Decor – 8/10
Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
Value for Money – 8/10
The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10
…back to Belgium