I read recently that not even Brussels' district of students and souls, the Cimitière d'Ixelles, has escaped the influence of the Brussels' bar entrepreneur. Not content with setting up bars such as le Zébra, le Roi des Belges and, most recently, cocktail bar le Potemkine - it transpires that even le Tavernier, that most studenty of Brussels bars, is a Nicolay creation. I was a bit disappointed by this, because although Nicolay is credited with rejuvenating areas of Brussels, his work is beginning to feel like an empire, slowly spreading its tendrils through the Brussels communes. And I liked to think that Le Tavernier, with its live music nights, smoking terrace and warehouse interior, had been colonised and run by the students themselves, not designed with them in mind. Perhaps for that kind of collective-run set-up, I'd have to go to Berlin. The students are manning the bar, though. And one flicks the bacardi bottle in an impressive fashion as he mixes my mojito.
But I have to give Nicolay some credit: he knows what makes a good bar. He understands what the students want. Le Tavernier is 12 years old this year and still seems to have a captive market in this area. Outside there is the terrace, which is not particularly pretty (especially with the malodorous bins at the front), but is crammed full of people on warm days and evenings and strewn with lights. After that comes the heated smoking terrace, like a smoking incubator, which ensures a steady lifeline of stale cigarette smoke for those in the bar beyond. Then there's the bar itself, with rows of spirits in a rainbow of colours, and the mirrors tilted so you make eye contact with all the other waiting customers. The bar is stainless steel: a good idea, easy to clean. The toilets, at the back, also stainless steel, can be grim but you may still have to pay. There are plenty of wooden tables and chairs and more stainless steel seating outside. There is also the loft above. Last night I was warned from going up there (the natives were rowdy). So I stayed downstairs, where the space is long and dark and boasts a few decrepit armchairs, which are comfy but probably don't smell too good.
A good time to come to Tavernier is on a warm, lazy afternoon, for your taste of a fresh Nicolay Juice. Perhaps it will bring you success! In the evenings, there are beer and mojitos. Things can get noisy. There may be music. There may be dancing and flirting. Some days there may be none of the above and you will be practically alone.
The students have mostly finished their exams now, and gone - somewhere. A few still remain, but over the Summer you're as likely to encounter more of us older types hanging out here than the under 20s. Le Tavernier will keep going throughout, although it's lifeblood has left. This Summer it is hosting live Cuban bands every Saturday in July and August. The place livens up; couples dance salsa hips in the middle of it all. You realise that this place is just made for live music. At the back bleary- eyed people emerge from the toilets and hurry down the steps, as if joining the musicians on stage.
We're a bit thin on the ground, but it's better than being crammed in. We're listening to a Cuban 8 person band called Sonac de las Tunas. There's my favourite, the waistcoated trumpeter, face contorting as he squeezes out the notes; the pair at the front doing the singing, extra percussion and the coordinated dance moves; the energetic piano players producing non-stop syncopated rhythms; the percussion guy (who looks like he's having fun); and the bassist who has a special pared down instrument (makes transport from Cuba so much easier).
The bands come recommended for those of you whose hips twitch involuntarily when you hear this. And it's all a taster for the fiesta latina later in August - which I'm sorry to be missing this year!
445, Chaussée de Boondael