Dining and Dating District Style: Belga Cafe
Almost everyone has a television show that they love and will not miss. For some that show is Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (if you are a fan please stop reading and go back to playing with colored blocks), but for many that show is Top Chef. The District has been regularly well represented on Top Chef, and this season is no different thanks to Bart Vandaele, the Chef and Owner of Belga Cafe (514 8th St., SE).
Vandaele is currently vying to bring the title of “Top Chef” back to DC. I have long been a loyal lover of his restaurant, but until recently had never been there for a date. What better way to support our local contestant than by taking my next Dining and Dating District Style date to Belga Cafe?
Ambiance: One of the reasons I have always enjoyed Belga Cafe is the ambiance and the staff. Every single time I walk in, I am quickly and warmly greeted by a member of the staff, and it was absolutely no different when I arrived with my date. The smells from the kitchen were intense even at the front door and foretold a great meal was ahead of us.
The dining room is narrow (as most places in Eastern Market tend to be), but is a comforting mix of white, red, and exposed brick. Belga is a neighborhood favorite, and most of the diners were residents and couples from Eastern Market. While I personally recommend asking for seats by the open kitchen (perfect for two foodies), keep your date in mind if you go that route. If you have trouble hearing your date in a quiet art gallery, you will likely have trouble in those seats.
Food: Belga Cafe serves…wait for it kids…Belgian cuisine (I know, M. Night Shyamalan is jealous of that twist). As such, the menu features traditional Belgian fare including mussels, shrimp, steak and frites. Vandaele builds on these staple s with “eurofusion” dishes that incorporate flavours and ingredients from across Europe and Asia.
To start your date, I think you can do no wrong with the Wafle Met King Krab. There is no politely asking someone to “leggo” this waffle; if someone takes this dish from you I order you to grab your knife and go on the offensive. Set upon a delightful saffron sauce, the waffle is delightfully light and comes stuffed with crab meat. And if that was not enough, the dish comes with king crab legs set across the waffle.
If your date is feeling more adventurous, try the Foie De Canard for a dish that is pleasantly surprising. This dish, featuring smoked and poached Hudson Valley duck liver, baked apples, and apple butter, is a great choice for the season. It goes great with the thin and crispy speculoos wafﬂe.
While there are many main dishes that are worth consideration, if you don’t order mussels, I think you are guilty of a felony and must pay your penance by dining at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar (or a Bennigans if you can find one). While many of the entrees will have me going back for a quick bite, mussels and frites are to Belgium what apple pie is to America.
Out of all the mussel pots, I recommend the Mussels “Ostendaise” above the rest. The pot, featuring half a lobster, clams, tomatoes, cream and lobster sauce, gives you a bit of everything under one lid. My date and I loved having multiple flavors together, and I made sure to sop up and enjoy the sauce. If that much seafood scares you, you can venture into safer territory with either the Mussels “Chimay” or “Hoegaarden.”
Drinks: When it comes to libations, Belga Cafe doesn’t slouch. The beer, wine, and spirits menu is more than 20 pages long and has something for everyone. If you are in need of a cocktail, give the signature cocktail, “The Belga,” a try. Featuring St. Louis Peche beer, Hanger One lime vodka, and Creme de Peche liquor, the cocktail is light and won’t overpower any dish.
However, as a lover of beer (my mother might have less positive words for it), you can imagine my smile as I started to flip through a menu filled with some of the finest Belgian beers this side of the Atlantic. If it is a felony to not order mussels here, it is a misdemeanor to not give one of Belga’s beers a try. There are more than 170 breweries in Belgium, and Belga provides a vast selection from many of them.
While my date and I had a few different beers from the menu, the two standouts were the Saison Dupont and the Petrus Aged Pale Ale. Dupont’s saison (a favorite of beer geeks) is incredibly refreshing. It is fruity up front but finishes very crisp. The Petrus Aged Pale Ale was a recommendation by our server (who was also a trained sommelier), and it is a recommendation we were happy to take. This beer is a paler version of a Belgian sour style of beer and is a great sour beer if you are new to the style.
Neighborhood: Eastern Market is a sub-neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has earned its reputation as one of the most desirable places to live in DC. There is plenty to do and see within just a short walk or trip from this neighbourhood. Visit Eastern Market itself, tour the Capitol Building, or take a long stroll down to the Navy Yard and Yarks Park. Looking for something to do after your date? Head over to Banana Cafe and grab a seat near the piano bar.
Have a date on a Wednesday night? Stick around at the bar after dinner and cheer on Chef Bart from Belga Cafe. While TV is generally a bad idea for a date, this is the exception to the rule.
Belga is easily accessible via the Eastern Market metro stop, but don’t fret if you miss your train. There is plenty of parking on the main trip and on the side streets of Eastern Market. I also appreciate that a cab ride from most of DC to Belga won’t break the bank .
Recommendation: Second Date restaurant. Belga Cafe joins Mintwood Place as being fantastic second date restaurants in the eyes of this frequent dater and diner. It has all the ingredients necessary to help you impress your date, a key on a second outing. Featuring first class cuisine, stellar service, and an expansive drink menu, it will be hard for your date to not walk out the front door with a smile. My personal (AKA DO THIS) recommendation, take your date to Belga on Wednesday night and watch the new episode Top Chef at the restaurant. Cheer on Chef Bart’s dishes and take a drink every time John Tesar says something that infuriates people.
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Sean O’Brien is Dining in DC’s only (and therefore strongest and most intelligent) male contributor. Before he became a Daywalker, Sean was a bartender and bar manager for longer than his parents care to admit. A Marylander born and raised, Sean has spent the better part of his twenties exploring and tasting DC from every corner. His wish for the world is that every week involve crabs, Saison-style beer, bourbon or Old Bay.
When he is not working or eating, Sean is likely to be found biking or hiking around DC. Follow him on Twitter at @sotweets, but be prepared for sarcasm and comments about people who say “YOLO” (You only live once) or “totes.”
*Dining in DC was not financially compensated for this post. Contributor did not receive a complimentary meal. The opinions are completely based upon experience.*