The word “institution” is sometimes too easily bandied around to describe restaurants. But one place that is deserving of such a description, certainly for its rich and varied history and longevity, is Chez Leon.
Occupying an enviable position, just around the corner from the Grand Place, the city’s most famous landmark, this restaurant has also been a central part of Brussels’ restaurant scene for longer than most can remember.
Its ownership has now, amazingly, passed to the sixth generation of the same family. The hordes of tourists who join the loyal band of locals who flock here on a daily basis is all a far cry from its origins as a relatively humble friterie with five tables.
Nowadays, it is huge, seating over 400 people over several floors (plus a terrace). One of the biggest restaurants in Belgium, it also manages to be, at the same time, intimate and very cosy.
Indeed, one of the best reasons for visiting Chez Leon is to peruse the wonderful memorabilia which adorn the walls. They evoke a golden era in the city’s past as well as charting the glorious history of the restaurant itself.
One such example is a framed menu from the very early days, with quite a few of the dishes you will find on the card today (thought the prices, shown here in French francs) are rather different!
Having a good look round is a nice way to prepare for the very traditional food you will find on what is an extensive a la carte. Arguably the house speciality, the mussels, come in no less than 14 different preparations but there’s many other excellent choices including that good old Belgian favourite, stoemp.
In fact, there are some 120 different dishes on the card and the restaurant’s reputation for serving good, honest food was recently recognised when it was given a prestigious “Brusselicious” award. This is awarded only to those restaurants which are proven to be promoting Belgian cuisine and Belgian products.
As well as boasting a rich and varied wine list, look out for its very own Chez Leon speciality beer made by Brasserie Saint-Feuillien and based on a recipe by Jean Pagura.
This place is also ideal if you are considering somewhere for a special occasion. It has several rooms, seating up to 200 people which are ideal for groups, banquets and suchlike. Note that the prices for such occasions have not changed in four years! Not only that but children under 12 who are eating with their parents can eat free of charge.
Over the years, Chez Leon has played host to all manner of famous people, ranging from Jacques Brel and Eddy Merckx to Jimmy Carter and Johnny Hallyday. There is also a table, near the open kitchen, where the Vanlancker family (the owners) gather regularly to sit and reflect on the wonderfully evocative surroundings.
The head waiter still regularly takes his place at the same table with his wife for a meal too (there’s even a photo of the pair in the impressive menu). This terrific restaurant (there are also franchised versions in Tournai, London and even Taiwan) is celebrating a very special landmark this year – its 125th anniversary.
Judging by its continued success it will still be attracting diners by the bucket-load in another 125 years. Here’s one Brussels institution that, thankfully, shows no sign of vanishing.