When you find yourself wandering around the stunning medieval center of the old port city of Ghent, in the Flanders part of Belgium, you may be so enchanted you forget everything else… including food. That would be a shame, because there is a wealth of great food to be found in the car-free city center of this magical town. My personal suggestion is to head to the Graslei, universally considered the prettiest spot in Ghent. This row of ornate and wonderfully preserved warehouses and guild halls from the late Middle Ages line what was the original quay on the right bank of the River Leie. Wander along until you reach #7, De Graslei Restaurant-Brasserie, where you will find a great snack or a fine meal.
Location: Graslei #7, on the right bank of the River Leie in the historic center. Visit the website here: https://www.restaurantdegraslei.be/en
Menu: With an accent on French prep and classic Flemish specialties, De Graslei Restaurant-Brasserie offers a nice range, in the traditions of a brasserie, from a casual snack or coffee and pastry on the terrace to fine dining with excellent wines in an elegant but unstuffy dining room. Look for specialties such as Ghent waterzooi and stoverij, mussels with fries, and cheese or shrimp croquettes. Menus change with the seasons, and there are set menus for lunch and dinner that change daily. These daily menus might include rabbit with prunes, a high-end côte a l’os (bone-in rib steak), or fresh salmon with hollandaise sauce. There is a full bar, a long beer list, and a good wine list.
Thoughts: The location of De Graslei, for all its charm and beauty, might make you a bit leery. So often, places found right in the heart of the most heavily touristed areas of a city are designed to draw in one-time visitors. They can fail on food and service without worry since most of their patrons won’t be returning anyway. You can stop worrying. This is not that. Yes, the restaurant draws a lot of tourists, but I also saw many locals dining here the evening I was there. I overheard many a conversation in Flemish Dutch going on around me. The food, the service, the setting, and the tradition is fine enough to ensure that local people keep coming back.
In all but the coldest weather or when it’s pelting rain, it’s delightful to sit on the terrace at the water’s edge and watch the boats go by. Remind yourself that ships have been docking right here since the 11th century. In case it’s a coolish day, you’ll find heaters to warm the space and thick blankets draped over the chairs to snug into.
Both at lunch and dinner there are several set menus to choose from, which offer very good value. At lunch, you can choose from three appetizers and four mains, which change with the day, for a flat price. At dinner, there are several set menus offering starter, main dish and dessert, each with several choices.
I was told by the waterman on a boat tour that De Graslei Restaurant-Brasserie makes wonderful croquettes and great carpaccio, so that’s how we began. And thank you so much Mr. Waterman for the suggestion. The carpaccio consisted of a platter of Belgian beef that had been aged for two years, sliced paper thin and generously topped with fresh shaved parmesan and pine nuts then drizzled with truffle oil. It made for a closing-eyes-in-delight plate. I could probably live on this stuff. The croquettes, both cheese and shrimp, were also excellent, crisp on the outside, gooey on the inside.
When it comes to the main dishes, hey, you’re in Flanders, and De Graslei is known for its Flemish specialties. I decided to try the classic Flemish waterzooi. This is possibly Ghent’s most traditional dish, a stew originally made with freshwater fish from the rivers and creeks but now more commonly made with chicken. De Graslei serves both. It comes as a light creamy soup filled with chicken, sliced vegetables, and potatoes and with a delightful whiff of thyme.
Or you might wish to try the dark, rich, sweetly sour stoverij, a typical Flemish stew made with slow-simmered beef, onions, and dark beer. It was so good, my companion was quite stingy with sharing, but I did manage a taste or two. I’d go back for more of that stew. A third stew, a Flemish carbonade made with pork cheeks, got raves from a diner at a nearby table.
If you like mussels, you can order moules frites au naturel, in white wine sauce, or in a creamy garlic butter sauce. Whichever you choose, you’ll get an enormous two-handled pot full of the shellfish and a mound of crisp fries…and free refills on the fries if you can manage more. Other fish and seafood on the menu include prawns, with garlic butter or diabolo, fresh salmon, and fried sole or other fish of the day. You’ll also find several steaks listed, with a choice of sauces, and always, of course, with a heaping pile of Belgian fries.
Portions are on the huge side, but do try to leave room for dessert. Imagine dipping your fork into hot apple pie with caramel, hazelnut brésillenne, ice cream and fresh whipped cream. Or maybe you’d prefer some home-made tiramisu topped with thick, fresh chocolate sauce. Yes, do leave room.
If you can’t find a seat under one of the big umbrellas on the terrace, or if the weather is not cooperating, the spaces inside are delightful and inviting. Upholstered armchairs in dark teal or rusty orange make lingering a comfortable pursuit. Wooden tables with starched white linen runners add just the right touch of formality without pushing. The vaulted and beamed ceilings and the wide plank floors lend a feeling of age appropriate for one of the oldest buildings in Ghent.
Since De Graslei Restaurant-Brasserie is popular with both locals and the many tourists who pass by this spot, it can get crowded. Reservations are recommended, especially for dinner. If you call, you’ll find an English-speaking person to help you. The waiters all speak English too (as well as several other languages). Major credit cards are accepted.
Price Range: The best value for money here is to order one of the set menus. The weekday two-course lunch menu costs €21 or €23 on Sundays. Dinner fixed menus are €39.50, €49.50 and €51.50. If you prefer to order a la carte, as we did, starters range from €8.50-20. (My excellent carpaccio was €19.) Meal-sized salads are €21-25.50. Fish main dishes are €25.50-38.50. Steaks run €19.50-32. Pasta dishes are €16.50-18.50. For vegetarians, there is a vegetarian wok served with rice or pasta for €21.50. Desserts range from €4-9.50. Expect to pay €3-7 for beer.