Food Trip: Dining Highlights of the Low Countries

My husband and I just returned from a wonderful 19-day trip to the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, often known as The Low Countries, or Benelux. We had a lot of things to see and do, from the tulip fields outside of Amsterdam to the World War I battlefields and cemeteries around Ypres, Belgium.

And of course, we had to eat. We needed to sustain ourselves for all those adventures, for those 17,000-step days by putting on all the pounds I brought home as a souvenir of our trip. Here are highlights of our dining adventures organized by specific the cities where we stayed. I’ve chosen a best of and a runner up for each city.

The Hague: Barlow

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We started our trip in the Hague, or Den Haag, staying with our friends, Amy and Adrian, in their suburb of the capital, Wassenaar, where they live two houses down from an actual windmill on Cliché Straat (just joking about the street name, not about the windmill). We spent two lovely days with them visiting nearby Delft, Leiden and of course, strolling on a rare-for-April 70-degree day in the Hague, a gorgeous capital city with a very pleasant central square near a large tourist draw: Vermeer’s famous painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

We strolled around the capital city, admiring the city’s celebration of the centennial of the De Stijl art movement with all kinds of primary-color shapes on buildings and anything else the lovely Dutch art lovers could find in the nation’s capital. But when we became weary and wanted a mild repast, our friend Adrian, who works at the U.S. embassy in this beautiful city, strolled purposefully toward this outdoor café in the central square.

Sometimes such restaurants can be unworthy tourist traps, more expensive and less delicious than less easily found restaurants with subtler real estate, but this place was the real deal. And hey, if you like those places, it’s okay to enjoy enjoyable things! If you want both an on-point restaurant and a beautiful place to enjoy your environs, Barlow will fit your bill.

We sat outside to enjoy the sun and the square, and all four of us loved the food, a light and tasty tuna tataki salad, rich and delicious mushroom risotto, goat-cheese-jacket salad (generous goat-cheese balls wrapped in filo dough) with pesto, and, according to our host, “the best club sandwich ever” with layers of rich bread, meat and fresh veggies and greens. The food was as picturesque as the scenery, and even tastier. With the wine and the weather, it was perfect.
Honorable Mention: Café Broeders in Wassenaar

This comfortable pub is the go-to restaurant for our friends, and we saw why, after we inhaled steak tartare (for me) and salmon filet (for my husband). The G&Ts go down smoothly here, as well.

Amsterdam: De Belhamel

We were in Amsterdam from Monday lunch until Friday breakfast, when we left by train for Luxembourg. We’d never been to this charming and picturesque city before, and we had lots on our itinerary: the Anne Frank House, the Dutch National Ballet, the Rijksmuseum, canal cruising, etc. We trammed about some, but our hotel was very central to what we wanted to do, so we used a combined method of guidebook research and happening upon places to find restaurants. In fact, our hotel, the Hoxton, had a very good eatery in the lobby, Lotti’s, where we ate supper our first night, and breakfast our last day before leaving for Luxembourg.

We’ve settled into a rhythm in traveling in which we start early with museums or tours, take a break for a mild repast mid-day to rest and recharge, continue sight-seeing and then enjoy a relaxing supper. This is a compromise that addresses my husband’s need to SEE EVERYTHING and my need to relax on holiday. We also look for somewhere special to eat in each location, a special “date-night dinner,” and after dedicated Yelping and guidebook research, I chose De Belhamel, a beautiful restaurant in an authentic art-nouveau building at the head of the Herengracht canal in the Western Canals neighborhood of the city. In nice weather, you can sit at shaded tables overlooking the canal and dine al fresco.

We sat inside in the beautiful two-level dining room, with its delicate curly-cue wrought-iron railings, authentic art-nouveau posters and potted orchids interspersed with bottles of the house wines. We didn’t have a reservation, so we had to promise to be finished by 8 p.m., the next reservation for that table. I sipped a G&T whilst perusing the menu, and decided on the smoked salmon appetizer with avocado mousse, and for my entrée, the filet of sole rolls, stuffed with deliciousness. Jay went with the white asparagus soup, which was in season during our travels, so he sampled it all over the Low Countries, and a two-ring-circus entrée: two of his favorites served together, salmon and sea bass filets. It’s as if they knew he was coming and designed this dish just for him. Everything here was prepared carefully and was tasty, with appealing mixes of flavors and textures. The service was personable and professional. Even though we were on a deadline for the table, we never felt rushed or hurried.

Honorable Mention: Van Harte.

We stumbled upon this lovely café and pub in the Western Canals while we waited for our room on the Herengracht to be readied for us. Amazing open-faced sandwiches (truffled egg salad for me, spicy “devil’s chicken” for him) on delicious bread that could be the star of the show itself. So friendly and delicious, I was sad we didn’t have a chance to return before we left Amsterdam.

Luxembourg: Am Tiirmschen

We spent a day on three trains from Amsterdam to get to Ville de Luxembourg, the center of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for very beautiful reasons. It’s the only European capital built on the side of a mountain, and our old town hotel was at the top, not far from a very civilized strolling area along the ravine overlooking the old town well below. You can also scamper and cavort inside the mountain in the Bock Casemates, the hollowed out area that was used as fortifications after the first castle was built on this promontory in the 900s above the oxbow of the Alzette River. And in the 2000s, the city is considered a gastronomic capital, as well.

We rolled up on Luxembourg—or railed up on it, as the case may be—around supper time, and having not eaten all day on the trains, we were ready for a big, meal, an evening’s entertainment of food. Near our hotel was what I called “the restaurant warren,” a little passage that went both up and down and housed several restaurants. Sadly, these restaurants did not open promptly at 5 p.m., but rather later, so we chose one for its 6:45 p.m. opening. The second, which we tried the next night (see honorable mention below), opened at 7 p.m. Hunger chose Am Tiirschen by that short, but very long, 15-minute gap.

But it was wonderful. This restaurant specializes in Luxembourger cuisine, and it is served in one of the snuggliest, friendliest restaurants I can remember visiting abroad. I decided instead of an appetizer and entrée, I would go with an entrée and dessert, so I ordered the smoked salmon on a potato pancake dish from the evening’s specials and my husband chose the salmon filet with vegetables (we like salmon!). For dessert, the warm chocolate cake with a molten center and salted caramel ice cream was our mutual choice to share. It was a wise choice. I would have gone back here our second night in town, but we did want to try some other places recommended by the guidebook. If you go to Luxembourg and eat at Am Tiirsmchen twice, I will salute you.

Honorable Mention: Le Bouquet Garni

This restaurant opens for dinner at 7 p.m., and serves, at least on Saturday nights, only a prix fixe menu of three courses for 50 Euro. This was a little challenging for my husband, who has a health issue with dietary restrictions, but we were all in, and it was amazing. I had the foie gras pate, the Norwegian skrei (cod) with vegetables and a rhubarb tart, and Jay went with asparagus with a poached egg, chicken and mushrooms and fresh strawberries and ice cream. The service is professional and rather French (formal). We enjoyed it and I wished I hadn’t had such a late lunch and had arrived a little hungrier.

Bruges: Poules Moules

Bruges is a living, breathing, well-preserved medieval city, and if you haven’t seen the movie In Bruges yet, stop reading this and go watch it RIGHT NOW. I knew my medieval scholar husband needed more than a daytrip to this gem of the Low Countries, so we stayed in a medieval home B&B, which served us a four-course hot breakfast in our room each morning, with windows overlooking a lovely back garden and a canal, on the other side of which is a church that houses a Michelangelo pieta. No big.

But what did we eat? Bruges is a big tourist town, that’s for sure, and we booked a lot of calories of chocolate here, to be sure, but the first night, we went out in search of food after spending most of the day in trains from Luxembourg. We walked out from our lodgings, crossing more canals using the guidebook to find a little square with a cluster of restaurants. I had decided I would try the classic Belgian dish, moules et frites, mussels with French fries, so we were scanning menus on each café to see what we could find. This is where we found ourselves, and it was divine.

The dining room was crowded with small, wooden tables and chairs, with a tiny staircase (the Low Countries love tiny staircases) leading upstairs to more dining. It felt very old world in here, and this is where I first encountered the cultural ritual and artifacts of moules et frites, which is often considered the national dish of Belgium. The mussels come, prepared according to your selection (mine was usually in white wine) in the pan and broth in which they were cooked. The top of the pan doubles as the dispensary for the shells. It was fun to participate in this ritual in the restaurants, though I admit to watching those diners around me for tips on how to eat mine before my dish arrived. The fries come separately, often with mayonnaise, which made my ketchup-despising heart go pitter pat. Jay, of course, ordered the salmon filet.

This is the first place I ate this dish throughout the trip, and so to me, it was the standard. The mussels were tender and tasty, the broth warm and satisfying on a cool, rainy day, and the lively and friendly café ambience was the perfect setting.

Honorable Mention: ’t Minnewater

We had a whole meal here, which was lovely, in this very friendly café on a small square near the Begijnhof (a former women’s religious community that is now used by nuns), but what I definitely recommend it specifically for the Belgian waffles we had for dessert—of course, they just call them “waffles” in Belgium. Jay had his with chocolate, and I had mine with chocolate and bananas. Crispy, golden, satisfying and delicious. We sat outside on a heated terrace and tucked into those Belgian delights with impunity.

Brussels: Brasserie de L’Ommegang

We spent four full days in Brussels on the last stop of our vacation, and from here we ventured out to the WWI sites around Ypres and to the battlefield at Waterloo, and the other days we stayed close to “home,” our hotel near the medieval center of Brussels. Though Brussels in located in the Flanders area of Belgium, a bilingual country of native Dutch and French speakers, Brussels is somewhat more French than Dutch, though all the street signs are bi-lingual.

We originally intended to try the fine-dining restaurant Maison du Cygne, upstairs from this brasserie on one of the finest squares in Europe, Brussels’ Grand Place, for our final “date night” of the trip, but it was closed or full or something (I couldn’t understand everything our hotel concierge said). But we took the reservations we could get at this companion restaurant, also on the square, and were absolutely delighted. French food felt appropriate for this diverse and beautiful, bustling city, especially the brasserie, which is more casual and comforting, than the formality of a French restaurant. We were tired travelers looking for deliciousness and a chill scene.

In the spirit of the brasserie, then, I chose some comfort foods for my meal, but these were definitely well made comfort foods. My husband and I both started with the mushroom toast, which was a thick piece of delicious bread that was crispy even though it was drowning in mushrooms in broth. After this, I had the vol au vent, a chicken stew in puff pastry (there’s a bready theme here). Again, very delicious, with tender, tasty chicken, in a well seasoned broth smothering a puff pastry dome in the center of the plate. My husband, of course, went with the salmon filet, and he said it was the best he had on the entire trip. We were too full for dessert…or maybe we just wanted to buy some Belgian chocolate on the walk back to the hotel.

Honorable Mention: Le Grand Café

We found this restaurant near the Bourse, the Brussels stock exchange, whilst walking around on a Sunday morning waiting for our guided tour of the Hôtel de Ville and decided to return for my last dose of moules et frites of the trip. By the time we returned around 12:30, the place was hoppin’. The day was still cool, so we sat on the ground floor of the two-level indoor dining room, but the outdoor tables were quite busy, as well. I picked the restaurant because it had a whole section of the menu for mussels, and I was not disappointed. My husband was happiest with his DIY hot chocolate, hot milk that came with a hunk of chocolate on a stick he could stir into the milk when he was ready to partake.

There is so much to see and do in the Low Countries, and this is just a small sampling of what there is to taste and eat. We recommend this region and these restaurants with no reservations.

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Food Trip: Dining Highlights of the Low Countries