Eat like a king in Lille

Haute cuisine in Paris, sure, the laid-back plates of the sophisticated south, of course – but France’s not so secret gastro bastion/stronghold/culinary centre is Lille. This northern city offers up more than 900 restaurants, bistros and bars. I’ve sampled some of these – and found that the people here in the north are as warm as the food that is served at the many, many tables...

Méert waffles

But first a history lesson: because hardly any other speciality in Lille looks back on such a long tradition as the famous waffles from Méert, which even supplied the Madagascan vanilla-filled delicacies, invented in 1849, to the royal family in nearby Belgium for a while. I have a happy memory of the waffles from an earlier trip to Lille and don’t want to miss out on them this time either. So I drop by the shop in Rue Esquermoise, which along with a wonderfully historic tearoom, in the meantime also owns a restaurant. No question: Time has left no mark on the waffles, and they taste as good today as three years or even (nearly) 170 years ago.

Place aux Oignons

Around this square, so typical of Lille’s old town, but still especially charming, I encountered one of the city’s many estaminets. These cosy taverns feature mainly traditional, regional dishes on the menu. And because Carbonnade Flamande (small pieces of meat in beer), Potjevleesch (a kind of potted meat) or Waterzoi (chicken or fish in a cream sauce with baby vegetables) can’t be called ‘light’ meals, they are usually accompanied by a locally brewed beer – ça va! Many of the taverns also serve outside and characterise the urban landscape – especially as two thirds of restaurants in the city have terraces. If you paid attention at the start, you’ll know: That’s an impressive 600 terraces in Lille!

Les Bières de Célestin micro-brewery

Keyword: beer, not 600, but six: The Célestin brews and sells so many of its own products in the quiet Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau – and of course dozens of imports from France, Belgium and the whole world. But the craft beer here is the real story: That’s how the ‘La Dix’ lager, both in the classic and the oak barrel-coloured ‘Coup de Foudre’ variety, made it onto the beer menu at the three Michelin-starred restaurant, Pierre Gagnaire in Paris – along with the hoppy ‘Yuzu’, which despite the flowery aroma surprises with its grapefruity dry, refreshing bitter taste. A highlight is the ‘Noir’ – a stout flavoured with coffee from Ecuador and vanilla from Tahiti and which should take an exciting position in one or other beer pairings. I’m not a huge beer fan, but here it’s fun to discover the characteristic strong, bold beers.

Le Babe restaurant

In this restaurant in the city centre, just round the corner from Tourist Information, I experience Lille’s currently hippest foodie address. Housed in a building from the 19th century, the clash of unrendered industrial chic and lush pot plants is in tune with the times – and like the dishes on the menu, totally ‘instagrammable’, as they say. Because sometimes it’s fascinating to try something vegetarian in a restaurant that focuses on meat dishes, I opted for asparagus in a light mousseline sauce as a starter and then tempura courgette with smoked tofu and vegetable tagliatelle. This main is first class, conjuring up a fantastic landscape on the plate thanks to the tempura.

Ma Reine restaurant in the hotel ‘L’Arbre Voyageur’

From the start, this brasserie has belonged to the reserved, stylish hotel with jungle theme housed in what was until a year and half ago the Polish Embassy. The concept is as simple as the dishes: There are burgers and salads made from above-average quality ingredients, but without any frills. The highlight of Ma Reine, however, is the signature cocktails, eight in all, and which with good reason occupy the whole second side of the menu and which were created in the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Le Jane, on the other side of the lobby. My Douceur Printanière is an exotic fantasy of calvados and yuzu syrup, with pine needles, cinnamon stick and pressed apple slices, simply put: a delight to the senses.

Bistrot de Saint-So at the Saint Sauveur station

The spacious bistro in the old Saint Sauveur station stays fresh with a menu updated weekly, featuring mainly international perennials like chicken curry and beef tartare – both in really generous portions – and on my visit alongside traditional dishes such as Potjevleesch. Here the highlight is the surroundings: The grounds of the station, lying south of Lille’s city centre, are where today the culture collective, Lille3000 perform, not just the internationally acclaimed city-wide festival organised every three years (‘Eldorado’ celebrates its opening in April 2019) but exhibitions are put on throughout the year. I can still see the exciting multi-disciplinary show, ‘Ola Cuba’, and soon ‘Sport photo’ starts.

Le Coke restaurant

But my absolute favourite thing about my visit to Lille is this restaurant in the former headquarters of a regional coal giant. Le Coke combines a breathtakingly beautiful location, whose expansive architecture was designed by Louis-Marie Cordonnier (who also created the other two absolute must-see sights in Lille in the Opera and the stock exchange), with a fine dining spectacle that you come across only once in a blue moon: The six course dinner soars from one fantastic creation to the next, with dishes like cauliflower baked in bread, sitting in a straw and grain birds nest, or perch fillet wrapped in vine leaves, which I first have to pluck off a branch, to then dip it in a raisin carpaccio; I rave about it to anyone I meet even days later. The menu in Le Coke is turned on its head five times a year and completely redesigned. Meaning: A bientôt, Lille!