Belgo Centraal, near Covent Garden, seems very unimpressive at face value, but first impressions can be deceiving. Walking in through one of the two ground-level doors on a Saturday evening, it is busy with people buying drinks at the bar, but no sign of a restaurant that won London Restaurant of the Year in 1996. Only a small door off the side of the metal walkway connecting the two entrances/exits gives a hint to the cavernous 12,000 square foot underground food heaven. The stairs this door leads to are lined with picture frames containing the red and yellow colours of the Walloon Region, the predominantly French-speaking part of Belgium.
A way of looking at Belgo is to say it provides wide choices. Have a drink upstairs or descend for food. But even then there are more choices. Coming down the stairs you are directly facing the kitchen, matching the stainless steel from upstairs in its appearance. The industrial feel is however shaken off if you veer left, into the restaurant. Cosy booths give you more of an intimate atmosphere suggestive of a generic restaurant experience. On the right side however you will find the raucous, lively beer hall.
Served by waiters in black robes reminiscent of a monk’s garb in both halves, the seats in the beer hall are roughly hewn wooden benches and tables that seat up to eight people at a time, lined to give a group size of about twenty people a communal dining experience. What makes the beer hall so exciting is its liveliness, but while it is fantastic not to have to reign in conversations out of respect for other guests, it can become exhausting, and in the hubbub of things, patrons can wait a while on staff to come around and ask for drinks and meal choices.
The menu reflects Belgian cuisine, strongly featuring moules, half of the beloved pairing of mussels with French fries, in a variety of dishes. The escargot moules are a cheeky nod at the French habit of eating snails, prepared in the same style with garlic butter, herb crumbs and pastis, but including the far more palatable ingredient of mussels. The Thai moules kilo pot brings in exotic flavours of fusion cooking, proving that Belgo is not a one-note restaurant. For fans of less maritime options, the crisp pork belly with apple sauce, buttered spinach and mash with vegetables is a delight. Their waffles are a desert that cannot be resisted either, regardless of how how filling the main course is.
The true highlight of choices at Belgo however is the beer menu. Sorted into different categories such as fruit, amber or Connoisseur’s choice beers, the menu prides itself into finding exactly the right beer for each customer – though soft drinks, wines and ciders are also served for other tastes. The beers are served in appropriate glasses, with the Pauwel Kwak served in the notable glass hanging in a wooden holder. However, given that most beers on menu are less common than the ubiquitous Leffe Blonde, the prices are accordingly higher.
Belgo’s unique nature belies the fact that it is in fact a chain restaurant, owned by the same hospitality group in charge of Café Rouge for instance. It has too much character to be associated with efforts to standardise a dining experience. Mid-size groups of up to ten people will enjoy the experience together more than larger groups in the beer hall, which out of the three areas definitely is the place to be, whereas families are best suited to the restaurant, and after work drinks with a staggering choice in beers can be enjoyed at the ground level bar. All in all Belgo can, and does, cater to everyone.
Kettle rating: 4/5
Note: A service charge is included in the bills automatically.