Food and Drinks

Belgium is saving historic cafe bars that are everything modern bling venues are not

To show future generations what its early-20th-century drinking dens were like, Belgian authorities are giving listed status to some of its hundreds of remaining ‘estaminets’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 2:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 5:38pm

Belgians are famous for taking their beer seriously, but authorities are now moving to preserve some of the historic cafes where drinkers have been quaffing since the early 20th century.

In the heart of the town of Alsemberg, in the Dutch-speaking Flemish Brabant region south of Brussels, the PastaCafe is one of those that has best kept its 1920s and ’30s decor.

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The bar and dark woodwork are vintage, as are the leather headrests that remain on the wooden benches. Cracks in the multicoloured floor tiles, which date from the dawn of the last century, show how many drinkers have trodden there.

“They even had a horse in here once,” says manager Ilse Rillaert, showing a picture from the 1970s or ’80s as proof.

The “charming, authentic” bar is the opposite of the modern “bling” drinking haunt, says the manager, who is in her thirties and took over from her brother in 2013.

“There is a lot of warmth. People who come to eat here feel at home with an interior like this.”

Rillaert says that the cafe, known to older locals by its old name De Hoorn, served as the backdrop for an English-language costume drama by French director Francois Ozon called Angel (2007).

It was also used by a Belgian Dutch-language pop group called Clouseau in the 1990s after they became locals because they lived nearby.

With a red-brick facade typical of this part of Belgium and northern France, PastaCafe is one of three cafes that the Flemish regional government said in August that it planned to add to a selection of listed sites because of its “exceptional” interiors.

Belgium, whose thousands of beers have since 2017 boasted Unesco World Heritage status, has hundreds of such old cafes or so-called “estaminets”.

When I quit, my successor won’t be able to ruin this place. It’s great to know it will stay like this
Ilse Rillaert

“But if you want a completely intact interior, typical of the bourgeois cafes from the first half of the 20th century, there are only a handful,” says Joeri Mertens, a real estate heritage researcher for the Flemish region.

Seven of them have already been listed in the region and the three others nominated in August, including the PastaCafe, are set to be added next year after a routine public inquiry by local authorities.

The goal is to show future generations things like the furniture, stucco ceilings and vintage mirrors, even if it imposes some constraints on the bar owners.

“They will have to seek our approval for any developments,” Mertens says. “But on the other hand, we have a budget that they can access for renovations.”

Rillaert welcomes the scheme.

“When I quit, my successor won’t be able to ruin this place. It’s great to know it will stay like this,” she says.

Belgium’s French-speaking regions are also preserving their vintage bars.

They have been doing so in Brussels and Wallonia since the 1980s, particularly for those in the art nouveau style of the famed Belgian architect Victor Horta. There are still not many, though.

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The Brussels cafe A La Mort Subite (Sudden Death), which opened in 1910, benefits from protection of the interior, exterior, main floor and cellar, says its boss Bernard Moucharte.

But as Julien Maquet of Wallonia’s heritage agency puts it: “It’s hard to find cafes which have kept their style permanently.”