The year was 1893, a time of great turbulence in the world. It was the year of the first ever general strike in Belgium (and Europe) and the year of the crash on the New York Stock Exchange which triggered the Great Depression.
Happily, 1893 was also a time of other events, being the year when Chez Leon first opened its doors to the public.
Back then, what is now something of a genuine Belgian institution was very different: a plain old friturie with just five tables, launched by its venerable founder Leon Vanlancker.
While it occupied a similar position to now – just round the corner from that other great Brussels landmark, the Grand Place – it was a very different business to the huge success story it was to become.
But what a business it is today: serving hundreds and hundreds of customers every day (a typical Saturday can see 1,400 people pass through its doors). It is a big restaurant, spread over several floors, but it is often packed to the timbers.
That is a reflection not only of a reputation its owners (the same Vanlancker family, by the way) have steadily accrued over many, many years. But it also reflects the quality of its food (the main thing, after all!), that keeps customers returning time and time again.
And some of these clients come a very long way to sample its lovely food – as far away as Asian with the place frequently packed with tourists visiting the city from China, Japan and Korea.
The first thing that strikes you about the place is the menu, one of the most impressive this writer has ever seen. The front cover currently celebrates a special landmark in the restaurant’s history – its 125th anniversary this year.
The first two pages are a wonderful pictorial history of the place, from a sober looking black and white snap of the said Leon Vanlancker to Kevin Vanlancker, the latest in the family “chain.”
You are also reminded of the remodelling that took place in 2005 and the couple who sat at the same table for years.
Inside the restaurant is another trip down Memory Lane with the walls adorned with no end of nostalgic memorabilia such as menus from way back (some of the items, such as kidneys, waterzooi and fried scampi are still on the menu, albeit differently priced today!).
There’s even a large tv screen showing how the shrimp (served in no less than 14 different ways here) are caught at the Belgian coast and how they are then prepared in the restaurant. 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.
Hordes of tourists join the loyal band of locals who flock to what is one of the biggest restaurants in Belgium. Having a good look round is a nice way to whet the appetite for the classic Belgian fayre you will fine on what is an extensive a la carte.
The house speciality is the mussels but there’s many other excellent and seasonal choices including lobster served naturally or grilled and particularly great during the summer months (try the seafood platter with lobster, oyster, shrimp and sea snails).
In fact, there are some 120 different dishes on the card and the restaurant’s reputation for serving good, “honest” food was recognised when it was given a prestigious “Brusselicious” award (given 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 also for its very own Chez Leon speciality beer made locally, of course. Like a lot of the food here it is very tasty.
This place is also great for a special occasion. It has several rooms, seating up to 200 people which are ideal for groups, banquets and suchlike.
Over the generations, Chez Leon has played host to all manner of famous Belgians, ranging from Jacques Brel and Eddy Merckx to US president Jimmy Carter and French pop icon Johnny Halliday.
There is also a table, near the very busy open kitchen, where the Vanlancker clan gather regularly to sit and reflect on the wonderfully evocative surroundings.
This terrific restaurant even has franchised versions in Tournai, Belgium and further afield in London and even Taiwan.
Arguably the best thing about it though are the staff, people like Yassine, who comes from Morocco, and is very, very friendly. Then there is Said, better known as Alex, who has worked here, amazingly, for 30 years.
People like these make a pleasant dining out experience even better.
The world institution is easily bandied around to describe restaurants and other places but Chez Leon is deserving of such a description.
To which one can only say – here’s to the next 125 years!
Good to know:
18 rue des Bouchers, Brussels
02 511 1415