There's no name outside, no neon lights - only an abandoned port-a-loo next to another dug-up section of road. Round the metal barricade you find what you have come for, but you cannot be sure until you have the drinks menu in your hand. Before then you may have to wait in line at the bar by the ancient cash register, ogling well-loaded plates that pass and enviously studying the seated ones who arrived before. There is no menu, no music, no pandering to the wishes of folk who prefer a quiet, uninterrupted service. A huge blackboard tells you the spoils on offer, but the prices are strange and someone has chalked up"no visa".
Welcome to La Fin de Siècle: forever noisy, non-conformist - and simply my favourite restaurant in Brussels. It must be, for it's the one I keep coming back to - the twinkle in the eye of the long-haired waiter tells me I am recognised. I've been here with teachers, interns, rowers, Commission officials, Belgians, non-Belgians - and my Mum and Dad.
Once you're finally seated you feel as if you are in brash beer cellar, for the restaurant is simply one long room with high ceilings, bare walls and simple wooden tables and chairs, the only soft furnishings hanging right at the back over the kitchen wall. I'm curious to see inside that kitchen: great things emerge from it. But first you must get to grips with the noise. Everywhere people are squashed up next to each other, engaged in animated conversations over a hearty meal. You watch them and they watch you, and you catch words, morsels of what is said. But try and engage with the person opposite you and it is like being underwater. But you haven't come here to linger and discuss anything at length.
And so to the food. La fin de Siècle must have the most enormous cooking pots in the world, at the rate at which dishes are served: promptly and with absolutely no fuss. They never seem to run out of everything, and when your dish arrives you will find it piping hot with the meat often so tender it seems to dissolve in your mouth. I've sampled a few carbonnades during my time in Brussels, but the version here has the richest sauce and best-cooked beef. Perhaps you can have better if you pay double the 12.37 Euro. Not me: I save my carbonnades cravings for this place. The menu is rather meat and carb-centric, so you can imagine I am in my element with so much mashed and jacket potato on offer. Strangely they don't offer frites, but they are not missed.
I haven't yet tried everything on the menu, but particular favourites are Gigot d'agneau sauce porto and the agneau en papillote. I've sampled three of the six desserts (tarte tatin, tiramisu speculoos and crème brûlée), which are all to be recommended.
And what of the owners? Well, they are dismissive of niceties such as background music, black and white formality, reservations and candles; dismissive too of imposed taxes (hence the VAT-free pricing) and focussed instead on feeding us up heartily - in a special Belgian (and Greek?) kind of way. Several have worked here since I started coming about three years back, including my bearded friend. I've never asked his name. I'd feel awkward probing. Perhaps it's a co-operative run by Bohemians. No matter: whoever they are, they run it well.
Luckily, there is another La Fin de Siècle in the city. In fact there's another one in the same road, on the corner. It is much quieter, more sedate - suited to a dinner with the parents (though my parents enjoy the other one just as well!) The menu offers fewer choices, but the food quality is the same. And there is yet another restaurant of the same name too, not at all in the same place and not run by the same people - but I haven't been there.
rue des Chartreux 9