The very first time I came to Brussels – aged 20 at the end of my first year at university, to work for a couple of weeks doing someone’s filing – a kind colleague took me to Comptoir Florian. I was, frankly, quite mad at the time: I was depressed and bewildered, in a ginger wig and on some very heavy medication that made me quite dim and dozy. Even so, I had surprised myself by enjoying both the office (there were a lot of free snacks, people were very kind) and the city. Comptoir Florian wasn’t really the kind of place I went to much back then: when we were feeling fancy we went down the Clarendon Centre and took tea in Whittards café, next to Sainsburys. My Oxford experience was a lot less Brideshead than one might imagine, and considerably more … British Home Stores. For some reason – probably because I’m a contrary bastard – all that ethereal, extraordinary beauty made me crave really prosaic things: I would drive to Habitat and Homebase and Tesco and walk around, soothing myself staring at aisles of washing powder and cereal and rawl plugs.
Anyway, Comptoir Florian was dark and elegant and tranquil. It had actually just opened then, but you’d never have known: it was in a classic Art Nouveau building with a classic Brussels tiled floor, they were playing chamber music, it smelled of Lapsang Souchoung and Ethiopian coffee and Guerlain Habit Rouge and other exotic substances and it BLEW MY MIND. I didn’t really know places like that existed, where you were allowed to come and enjoy all that rarefied beauty without having to be terribly elegant or rich or wordly. It felt like a lovely, ethereal embrace from a city I was starting to rather love. The colleague and I had fresh mint tea in one of those pretty North African silver tea pots and it came on a silver tray with a weeny dainty thin slice of soft, dark, chocolate fondant and I felt very, very grown up and like just possibly, things might be alright.
On several subsequent visits to Brussels to do other people’s filing over the following years, I tried to find “That Amazing Café” (I had no idea of its name) again. Back then, before crowd-sourcing and Google, it was a case of walking folornly around the general area where I had thought it might be and looking around. I didn’t find it for years, until we actually moved back to Brussels in 2006 and I ended up working just around the corner (for the same company whose filing I had been doing back on that first trip, oddly enough). Even then, it took me a few months to find my way there, but happily, it had not changed a jot and it’s still identical now: low classical music, great teas and coffee, the same thin slice of complimentary chocolate cake. There are piles of good magazines and art books, big, low leather armchairs, dark red walls, strange but beautiful things under glass domes and crystal cake stands. There are other places like this, I suppose – particular and decorous and slightly eccentric – but for me it remains the café that came to represent everything that was lovely about Brussels.
Comptoir Florian, 17 Rue Saint Boniface, (2) 513 9103
(put your phone on mute, they’re not allowed.. and for nice photos of the interior, go look at Brussels Kitchen)