Whisper it quietly but Christmas is looming and if you find yourself in Gent over the festive season you really should make a beeline for this lovely Belgian brasserie right in the heart of this pretty city.
With the city arguably at its finest then it’s well worth a visit to Gent over Christmas. But, in truth, Restaurant Du Progres should be on your radar whatever time of the year. It is a sign of a top notch restaurant when they have to turn away almost as many (if not more!) customers than they have room to accommodate.
Yes, the restaurant is located in an enviable position, on the main square and very close to the cathedral, but that does not fully explain its enduring popularity, both with locals and tourists. The main reason it often has to turn people away, certainly on a Friday and Saturday night, is simple: excellent food and equally excellent service.
First the service. Everyone is greeted with a cheery welcome here (yes, even if they are full and have to politely turn you away!) and the mostly young staff, including Nikita and Maxime, go out of their way to make customers feel at home.The same standard of customer service extends to the kitchen which is overseen by 47-year-old Aiden Scully who hails from Athlone in central Ireland but has been based in Belgium for seven years.
After a 30-year career in the horeca trade that spans the U.S, Ireland and Europe, including Irish bars, he arrived at Du Progres 18 months ago and has brought his wide experience and skills to bear on what was already a smooth-running and successful operation. His motto? “We make no pretentions about fine dining. The idea is to keep people happy. We keep things simple but use good quality ingredients and produce in the cooking.”
The success of all this can be seen in the statistics – a standard Saturday lunch will see Aiden and his hard working team, including Belgian-born Hans, his no.2, handle an average of 230 covers, with the same number in the evening. There’s a good mix of local people and the many tourists who flock to Gent – and no discrimination in terms of who’s turned away!
The restaurant can seat about 92 people inside and 100 on the ever bustling terrace and one way of tackling the space issue will be to upgrade the upstairs room which can accommodate up to 40 people at present but tends to be used mostly by groups.
Special mention also to Gent-born Stijn Verpaele who used to work in a local factory producing jenever, the Dutch/Belgian liquor, but has now taken on a high profile role here.
Now in his eighth year here, he is working in ever closer collaboration with the long-standing owner, Johan De Baets, the third generation of the De Baets family to run this brasserie.
Johan is never slow to try new innovations, including (since February) a brand new kitchen. The work was so extensive it necessitated the closure of the restaurant for a month but now boasts an assortment of new features, including machinery and ovens.
It has also enable Johan and his 16-strong team to extend the menu well beyond the “Belgian classics” it used to mostly contain.
There’s now more to choose from with plans to extend the menu further still with, for example, more fish options.
Even so, some of the old favourities remain – Flemish stew, the house spaghetti Bolognese, Chateaubriand – and these are still among the best sellers on the menu. Starters include croquettes and scampi in butter while there’s also vol-au-vent and one called “surf and turf” – salmon, scampi and beef steak.
Look out too for the beef (and sauce), imaginatively called James Bond after the 007 hero. There’s a nice choice also of pasta and salads, some lovely deserts and a great wine list
The suggestions on the list change month and, for those who like hare, boar, rabbit and such like the good news is that there will be more game produce available in the coming weeks with the game season now into full swing (a lot of customers come specifically for such dishes).
One relatively recent innovation is to “decorate” the plate with a dash more imagination and, for the health conscious out there, more focus is on those with allergies and gluten-free food.
They say a happy workforce makes for a successful business and, much to his credit, Johan goes to some lengths to maintain the job satisfaction levels of his team.
Several times a year he takes everyone on a team building outing – the latest is this week (a cycling trip in Gent) – and this is all clearly good for staff morale (other employers please take note!).
The walls of Du Progres are lined with lovely old black and white photos of the market square outside. They reflect what some may see as a bygone, lost era. But it’s good to report that some good things never change – and that includes the quality of this restaurant.