Famous Belgian seaside resort goes from strength to strength

Ostend is called queen of the seaside cities (queen of the coast), a nickname that evokes images of belle époque hotels and villas.

Many of these were destroyed in the second world war and, in recent times, the city has arguably appeared a little ragged around the edges.

The good news is that is all changing as this grand old dame of the Belgian coast is currently undergoing an exciting and ambitious renaissance. A quick look at the number of cranes on the skyline gives a clue as to the progress being made.

This includes a major upmarket residential redevelopment near the marina and rail station that is set to attract scores of new inhabitants (and second home owners) to this, the largest of the country’s coastal cities.

The project is an example of the innovation and entrepreneurship that exists in Ostend, a philosophy epitomised by a couple of local businesses.

The first is an excellent restaurant, Bistro Mathilda, run by Luc Deklerck and his wife Gerda.

The month of May will mark a double celebration for Luc: the 25th anniversary of the restaurant’s opening and his own 54th birthday.

But the couple are already celebrating after seeing the business go from strength to strength in recent years, so much so that, even in the depths of winter, the place is often full.

Located close to the city’s famous casino, the restaurant is based in what was once a bank but which had stood empty for three years before Luc set about transforming it into the ultra stylish place it is today.

There’s a certain irony in the building’s origins as, back in the mid-1990s, Luc was studying economics when he decided on a change of career away from the world of commerce and banking and towards the horeca trade.

The go-ahead Luc joined forces with his father, an architect, and launched their first restaurant on the Ostend seafront, Brasserie Ocean (which he still owns with his brother Leo). Mathilda came along in 1995 while a third, Frenchette, a gastro bar, was opened by the family one year ago. Each of the three have proved a big hit.

The marvellous Mathilda – or more specifically one of its set menus - is listed by the prestige Michelin label, Bib Gourmand. These honour ‘good quality, good value restaurants’ and a Bib restaurant will, according to Michelin, “leave you with a sense of satisfaction, at having eaten so well at such a reasonable price.” That is exactly the case at this bistro which also specialises in one great Belgian tradition that you don’t normally associate with the coast – steak tartare. Luc and/or Gerda will personally prepare for you at your table and it’s a real customer fave.

Along with veal kidney, sole, skate (guests also travel miles just for this) and lamb stew, shrimps are another huge and traditional favourite with Luc pointing out that his shrimp stocks come direct from local fishermen who supply only selected restaurants.

These shrimps, he correctly points out, “are a different and superior quality to those you will often find elsewhere, certainly in Brussels.”

This fine restaurant, which extends over two floors, benefits from great service and a lovely cosy yet chic ambience. It also has a great a la carte (and wine card) plus three set menus and also a great value for money lunch option (€39pp). Good to note that there are two shifts on a Saturday at 6pm and 8.30pm.

Luc, who speaks near perfect English and now also teaches culinary workshops locally, credits the “very pro-active” local tourism office for much of the forward-thinking policies currently being promoted in Ostend.

Such is the range of activities now taking place here that December, once a very quiet month at the coast, is, after the summer, Ostend’s busiest time of the whole year (so busy was it that on one Sunday between Christmas and New Year, entry to the city actually had to restricted!).

Another very good example of Ostend’s entrepreneurial spirit can be found at a local café run by Robin Lefever and Tom Truyens.

If you hanker after something other than chips and mussels then you really should check out Expo and Kafie, tucked just behind the city’s bustling promenade.

Ostend-born Robin and Tom, from Limburg, set out to offer something a bit more healthy and nutritious with a great range of very tasty and ample salads and similar light dishes. Worth noting that everything you see in the small-but-intimate café can be purchased, including the chairs! It means that people who re-visit often see a totally new interior.

Like Luc, the venture marked a big change for both – Robin used to teach autistic young people while Tom studied law at Leuven – but if there was any risk involved it’s paid off as the café has proved a big success.

If you are looking for a sleepover locally then a good spot is the Leopold Hotel, just 150 metres from the beach and located in a beautiful Art Deco building which is typical of some still found in the city.

Dating from 1928, the timeless elegance of the building has been boosted by a recent refurbishment and the hotel now offers 64 comfortable rooms and suites (one room even has its own private sauna).Studio and family apartments are also available for a longer stay.

A nice link with the past exists as the aunt of Bavo Moerman, a receptionist, used to own the hotel, then called Lido, around the year 2000.

Now owned by an Irish hospitality group, it offers comfortable accommodation at an affordable price.

Unlike so many resorts that are allowed to fall into a sad decline, this proud Flemish city is doing its best to stay ahead of the game. The world’s longest tram ride: the 67km coast route from De Panne to Knokke, passes through it, there’s 7kms of sandy beach and lots of good attractions, including Fort Napoleon and, nearby, the Atlantic Wall open air museum.

So, if you are maybe looking for a short break to recharge the batteries this winter, then why not consider Ostend, once a favourite of Queen Victoria, no less. It won’t disappoint.

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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