One of the first dedicated temples of beer and food I ever visited, perhaps the first, didn’t even make the cut when I was compiling a list of 100 Great Beer & Food Destinations for my latest book, “The Beer & Food Companion.” It was In ‘t Spinnekopke, which I and a generation of early Belgian-beer explorers was alerted to by the work of the late and very great beer writer, Michael Jackson, and where I had what remains to this day the best order of mussels I have enjoyed over a lifetime of enjoying mussels.
As time passed, however, inconsistencies began appearing during my meals at this Brussels institution—poor service here, a slightly overcooked steak there—and although it is entirely possible that such problems were sporadic and simply bad luck on my part, I eventually transferred my allegiances to other restaurants in the Belgian capital. La Villette was first, a cozy estaminet near the city’s fish market operated by ex-Spinnekopke employees, where my first extraordinary meal featured tender medallions of pork covered with both cheese from the Orval monastery and a sauce made from Orval ale.
La Villette also failed to make my list, which out of necessity I had to balance in terms of geography, ambiance, and ease of accessibility for travelers. No point in loading it with terrific spots you could only get to after a three-hour drive, I figured, or making it 50-percent Belgian, which would actually have been a fairly simple task. Although still a lovely spot for a meal, the fact was that since my initial visit in 2005, La Villette had been eclipsed by other Bruxellois favorites.
For instance, Alain Fayt’s celebrated cuisine à la bière restaurant, Restobière, which made it into the book on the back of the chef’s devotion to updated Flemish cuisine dishes like waterzooi made with duck leg rather than the traditional chicken, not to mention a simply terrific kriek sabayon, whisked tableside. Also included from Brussels was the tiny but wonderful Nuetnigenough and, in Watou, the almost legendary ‘t Hommelhof, featuring beer cuisine in the heart of Belgian hop country and source of the beautiful, self-defining 1999 cookbook, “Cooking with Beer at ‘t Hommelhof.”
Still, you expect great beer and food places in Belgium, but in the early years of this century, perhaps not so much in the U.S. or the U.K. Yet those two countries were the source of over one-third of my list of 100 such spots, and while a number are more recent converts to the church of beer and food, like Denver’s Euclid Hall and Glasgow’s Ox and Finch, a number were also earlier beer-cuisine advocates.
My thoughts flick to Higgins Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, where chef and owner Greg Higgins was an early advocate of both beer pairing and beer cuisine, as well as an Alice Waters-esque proponent of local foods. In the early days of “Beervana,” before it became the craft beer oasis it is today, Higgins was the place to go if you wanted to have a fine ale alongside plates of exceptional Northwestern fare.
In England, I recall the early days at London’s White Horse on Parson’s Green, at one time the unquestioned leader in great ale and, not coincidentally, some pretty damn fine, if initially basic, cuisine. Mark Dorber, who headed the White Horse at that time, eventually decamped to open a pub with his wife in Suffolk, The Anchor, where not surprisingly the food is as revered as is the quality of the cask ale.
Slightly further afield, no one who has enjoyed Maß steins of Kloster Andechs Spezial Hell or Doppelbock Dunkel in the monastery beer garden, accompanied by a picnic foraged from the delicious selection of breads, meats, and cheeses available at the kiosk inside, will have any doubt as to why the Munich-area destination was included. Just as Barcelona’s Celler Cal Marino, while not conventionally a beer place per se, makes infinite amounts of sense when you factor in some of the Catalonian capital’s finest tapas combined with a decent, though not excessive, selection of local craft beers. And I will someday write an entire column about Rome, at least a quarter of which will likely be devoted to the well-chosen array of Italian craft beers and unimpeachably good pizzas available at Bir & Fud in the city’s Trastevere neighborhood.
The list goes on. One of my favorite restaurant anywhere is included, Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal, where chef Martin Picard’s delectably irreverent cuisine—poutine topped with foie gras and a duck confit that arrives at the table in a can which is then opened and plated by the server—just happens to be backed up by eight taps of local ale and cider, plus a smattering of bottles. And I still sometimes lapse into a reverie brought on by memories of my last dinner at Copenhagen’s Akkurat, surely one of Scandinavia’s finest and most thoughtful beer and food outlets, helmed by the ever-affable Stene Isacsson.
Yes, there are a lot of stories behind that list of 100 Great Beer & Food Destinations, and many more behind the 100 others that would appear on the next list. Perhaps even a sufficient number to warrant “The Beer & Food Companion II,” I wonder.