They say spring is a good time for a makeover and that’s exactly what one of Brussels’s best known restaurants has just had.
Chez Leon, something of an institution here, has just reopened its kitchen after a major refurbishment and that is good news for its legions of fans.
It means the food can now be delivered to diners even more quickly than in the past.
For a restaurant that boasts hundreds of covers each day this is vitally important, not least as it might reduce some of the very lengthy queues that can often be seen, especially at peak times.
The new kitchen is probably the biggest single change the restaurant has seen in its long and illustrious history.
Dating back to the late 1800s, relatively little has changed over the years with the owners naturally thinking “why change something that isn’t broke?”
But the sheer popularity of the place meant that a response was needed to the ever-increasing demand on the kitchen staff to produce not only very good food but speedily as well.
If there was ever any doubt about the need for that one need only look at just how busy the place is even during what are normally regarded as “off peak” hours.
The introduction of brand-new appliances, including ovens and other equipment, will allow the chefs, among a 100-strong workforce, to better meet customer demand.
Valmy Herbignat is the restaurant’s 30-year-old head chef who, after working here for a decade, has seen at first hand the huge growth in customer numbers.
He says that the renovated kitchen, which only recently opened, will also give him and his colleagues “more space” in which to work.
Valmy, who is from Brussels, said, “It’s great to work with this new top quality equipment. Apart from other things, it will make a change to the time it takes for us to get the food out for customers and that, of course, is important.”
The new kitchen is worth observing in itself as the mini-army of chefs and waiters go about the super-demanding task of preparing dishes for customers which can, amazingly, number upwards of 2,500 on an average day.
That is a big job and, to watch the staff go about their work, is a sight itself.
In fact, any visit to Chez Leon is not just for the excellent food but for the experience.
The walls are absolutely covered in framed photographs of the owners – the same Vanlancker family – assorted artefacts dating back years and years and even Chez Leon souvenirs, such as T-shirts, aprons and glasses, that can be purchased.
It is worth taking the time, between courses maybe, to tour the various rooms and corridors so as to get a real handle on the history of the place. Many say there cannot, surely, be any other restaurant like this in Brussels (or Belgium).
But the food is of course the main reason that people, including thousands each year from Asia still regularly flock to Chez Leon.
Here you’ll find some great Belgian classics on what is, quite possibly, Brussels’ biggest menu, all 14 pages of it!
Still the most popular dishes are the mussels and seafood – and both are genuinely good -but there’s an awful lot more to choose from as well, ranging from a terrific meat selection, pasta, salads and also excellent options fo all vegetarians out there.
Whatever you plump for – and, such is the choice that it could take a while to make your mind up! – you can be assured that it is made from the freshest seasonal products and ingredients, many of which are sourced in Belgium. The wine list, mostly French whites and reds, is just as impressive – and beer lovers really should sample the tasty Chez Leon beer which also makes for a great accompaniment to the food.
Apart from the lovely food, it could be argued that the best thing about this restaurant are the staff, like Pablo Bekkouri, 45, who hails from Tangiers and is one of two head waiters. He’s worked here for 20 years and his longevity is typical of the Chez Leon employees (one of the chefs has been here 40 years!).
In an industry known for its high staff turnover, that in itself is a sign of a solid and stable business that also one that provides good job satisfaction for its workers (and there are 100 employed here!). The original Chez Leon is located in the heart of Brussels at Rue des Bouchers 20, (Tel: 02 511 1415)