When I lived and worked in London in the mid-1990s, it was around the time that England started to get its act together food-wise with the opening of top tier restaurants that went beyond traditional French-based fine dining. The likes of Terence Conran with Quaglino’s, Gary Rhodes, who reinvented British classics, and Gordon Ramsay with his first Michelin Star gig, Aubergine, all led the charge.
And there was innovation a notch or two down as well. One of those innovators was Belgo – a temple built to honor Belgian beer and simple fare like mussels and frites. It all started in North London in 1992, and when it opened up a swanky, underground joint in the heart of Covent Garden in 1995, I remember how excited we were. It fast became a favorite hangout to soak up the inevitable after work cocktails. With waitstaff dressed like monks, it’s practically communal bathrooms, and an industrial elevator to boot, this place was exciting back in the mid 1990s.
Fast forward to another century and these days, I often find myself falling back on this old favorite when I have a meal to spare in London. Monkey enjoys it too. Although it’s generally bustling, we easily grab a seat or six (as on the last occasion) in the communal dining room without any trouble. Sitting under the brick arches of underground caves smack in the heart of Covent Garden has a certain charm to it.
The Express Lunch offers great value: a handful of dishes from moules two-ways: traditionelle or Provencale, to roasted chicken and gruyere tart, all priced at 7.95 (UK pounds). The kids menu isn’t insulting as most kids menus are, and includes a scaled down bowl of mussels with fries which Monkey immediately opted for. (I just have to say how in awe I am of his palate. there’s no way I’d have looked at a mussel, let alone eaten one, aged 11.) And the main menu offers huge pots of moules with fries, mayo and ketchup (but mayo is really the way to go) for 12.95, salads, rotisserie chicken, burgers and much more.
But of course, the whole point of Belgo is it’s vast collection of Belgian beers – apparently the largest in London. Each is served in its own unique glass and the variety and selection is bewildering. Now I don’t drink beer, but I do have hazy recollections of the depth charges they used to serve back in the day: a pint of beer with a shot glass of something sunk inside in the glass, but that’s another story…
While Belgo’s may not be fine dining, it serves up consistently decent food, and is a great stop at the end of a day’s shopping or after spending too long in a conference room. The atmosphere is buzzy and the space alone makes the trip worthwhile. I think the quality of food has slightly diminished over the years, and the crust on the gruyere tart looked suspiciously machine-formed (too uniform, not a sign of fingers molding it to the pan in sight), but it still tasted good.
Belgo Centraal is located at 50 Earlham Street in Covent Garden. More details here: http://www.belgo-restaurants.co.uk/locations