I’m going to tell you about France’s best-kept secret.
When it comes to food and drink, we know France for many things: some of the best wine in the world, fantastic cheese, protected spirits like Champagne and Cognac, calvados, baguettes that you can get for one Euro, perfectly crisp and crackly croissants, Michelin star restaurants, and so much more.
The one thing that we rarely associate with France?
But Lille, France, changes everything you thought you knew about French craft beer.
Considered the “Beer Capital of France,” Lille, located just an hour’s train ride north of Paris, should not be overlooked.
On a recent trip to Europe, I visited this city of about 236,000 (1.2 million if you consider the entire metro area), most between the ages of 25 and 40, courtesy of Hello Lille.
Lille has a fascinating history. The last city Spain owned before ceding to France in 1668, Lille sits at the border of Belgium. With an exciting mix of Flemish, French, and Belgian, Lille reminds me of New Orleans, a city whose history includes French, Caribbean, Creole, and Cajun influences. Similarly, Lille benefits from its culmination of cultures.
Walking through old Lille, a collection of crisscrossing cobblestone streets, one can get lost as you zig-zag right and left, then left again. But you won’t be lost for too long. After only a half hour, I often passed shops twice, slowly mapping a way through the tangle of boutiques, little cafes with sidewalk tables, bakeries wafting smells of freshly baked brioche, and, of course, beer bars.
At its core, Lille seems a rebellious teenager in the French family.
Where Paris can feel stifling and often wary of visitors, Lille feels chill, cozy, and welcoming.
And where Paris flaunts wine, Lille touts beer.
It always has.
A Quick History of Beer in Lille
A rich heritage of beer in Lille dates back to the Middle Ages. “It’s absolutely a part of the character of the city,” Hello Lille’s Destination Promotion and Press Manager Sélic Lenne told me. Perhaps owing partly to its proximity to Belgium, a country whose beer history traces back centuries, Lille lives for beer.
Breweries like Motte Cordonnier, whose 370-year history makes it one of the oldest breweries in Northern France. Along with Célestin, another brewery that can trace its roots back to the sixteenth century.
In Lille, residents considered beer a daily part of life. “My grandparents used to drink a very low-alcohol beer at school,” Aurélie Baguet, co-founder of L’Échappée Bière, a beer event and tourism group in Lille, told me as she showed me around the city. Like other places in Europe, water wasn’t clean enough to drink then, so beer became a safe alternative.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Lille counted 2,000 breweries within the city and surrounding area.
But complications arose from brewing in Lille’s compact urban center. “It was noisy and complicated to deliver the beer,” says Baguet. “So years ago, they just went away.”
Plus, the growth of mass-market beers in the mid-1900s forced some of Lille’s oldest breweries to sell or stop brewing. Célestin sold its brewery in 1956 and Stella Artois bought Motte Cordonnier in 1970.
But today, Lille has been reclaiming its title as “The Beer Capital of France.”
“But now it’s different,” says Baguet. “[Beer] is coming back!”
A Craft Beer Renaissance in Northern France
Baguet says she now counts 250 breweries in the region and thirty-five in the metropolitan city identified as “héritage bière,” an earned label that designates the brewery or beer bar as taking steps to welcome tourists.
“[Beer] is a part of the culture and has clearly shaped our culture,” she says. “It has become a real representation of our regional identity for French people. When French people come to Lillte … clearly, beer is a part of their trip. They know that here they are going to drink good craft beer. … Beer is everywhere!”
Moreover, within the last decade, the original families of both Motte Cordonnier and Célestin bought back or revived their breweries, starting from scratch and recreating a modern identity for their historic family breweries.
One might even venture to say Lille has started its own beer renaissance. And since we are American, we can’t resist a good craft beer revival.
Which means we had to check out Lille.
And after our visit, we’d go as far as to say Lille might just be the surprise beer city of 2023.
An influence from Belgium means we found plenty of Trappist-style ales like tripels along with blondes, oud bruins, and saisons.
But more modern creative takes abound. We encountered IPAs with yuzu, a farmhouse ale with pepper, and even a beer made with cigars!
A fierce devotion to locally grown products also means you’ll find IPAs with hops grown nearby and wild ales with local grains or foraged flowers.
But most of all, we found a warm, buzzy city dedicated to sharing beer around a table with good food, friends, and family.
Whatever it is, Lille might just be France’s best-kept secret.
So if you’re taking a trip to France, but you’re more interested in grains, yeast, and hops as opposed to grapes, consider hopping on one of the numerous daily trains running north from Paris, getting off in Lille, and wandering (or tripping) around the cobblestone streets, stumbling into tiny beer bars, unique cafes, and drinking in the history and the renaissance.
Don’t worry; we’ve done much of the work for you already.
Pro Tip: But if genuinely stymied, we highly suggest booking a tour with L’Échappée Bière, who will take you on a journey through Lille’s beer culture, local breweries, and beer bars, including beer and brewery tours, beer treasure hunts, visits, and beer tasting workshops.
First, How to Get There
It’s effortless. If you’re flying into Charles-de-Gaulle Airport in Paris, you can connect to the train station right from the airport and jet up north in under an hour.
As I texted my mom, “On the train now.” She replied, “Hope it was easy to find. Enjoy the ride.”
My response was, “Yup. Super easy, actually. I just followed the signs. 😃”
“In French??,” she responded.
“Ha, they were in French and English and had little train icons,” I noted.
Book your ticket through SNCF Connect. You’re looking for the TGV inOui Paris-Lille train. They run pretty much on the hour.
Getting Around Lille
Again, it’s super easy. This is a very walkable city. In total, the metro area is only about 34.8 sq km (~14 sq mi). But the area you’ll spend the most time in—Old Lille—is much smaller. In fact, with its narrow, bumpy roads, we’d recommend just hoofing it.
Although, Lille also has Uber, so you can get a little outside the city (to, say, one of our suggestions for dinner—Brique Land—about a ten-minute ride away).
There is also a metro system, but we didn’t need to use it during our visit.
Pro Tip: Worried about getting around on only English here? Don’t be! Everyone speaks at least some English, especially in the old city center. And the best part? They are very welcoming about it. I’ve been to Paris, and speaking English often causes one to throw me eye daggers. Not so in Lille. Although I did attempt some broken French phrases first: Je suis désolé, je ne parle pas français (I’m sorry, I don’t speak French). At which point they’d question English? Or just graciously switch over.
Friday: Welcome to Lille – The Beer Capital of France
You don’t have to follow in our footsteps (exactly), but here are our suggestions for where to stay and how to drink and eat around Lille in a little over forty-eight hours.
Mama Shelter Lille
97 Pl. Saint-Hubert, 59800 Lille, France | +33 3 59 82 72 72
3:00 PM Where Mama loves you – So I should preface this by saying I traveled to Lille via Lisbon. I flew from San Francisco to Lisbon, spending two days getting acclimated in the Portuguese capital before taking a two-hour flight to Paris and a one-hour train to Lille.
But I imagine you’d want an excellent place to rest your weary body if you jetted right to Lille.
Think of Mama Shelter as the Moxy or Ace Hotel of Europe.
You’ll find video games and glass cases full of merch in the lobby. Every mirror, whether in an elevator or your room, includes vibrant graphics, making for the perfect Instagrammable moment.
Mama has her homegrown touch on everything here. Besides the plush beds, rainfall shower, and incredible views of Lille, your room includes significant tiny touches. A pair of slippers encased in the words “Mama Loves You” with little hearts; face, hair, and body wash branded as “Mama Says Have It All”; local magazines on your nightstand.
Mama Shelter is the place to be in Lille and not just for tourists. The restaurant, bar, and terrace garden buzzed every time I passed by at night.
People come to this hotel when passing through, but locals also seem to come here to be seen.
I felt like Mama loved me within her four walls and encouraged me to get outside and enjoy Lille.
Tour the City Cobblestone by Cobblestone
4:00 PM Get lost and found in the city – You’ll want to explore first and get acquainted. Head into the old city, where you’ll find iconic landmarks like the Lille Opera Building (Opéra de Lille) and the Chamber of Commerce, which sports a gorgeous clock tower.
Do a 360, glimpsing Parisian architecture from the nineteenth century on one side and Flemish on the other.
From there, head just one square over to the Grand-Place (Pl. du Général de Gaulle), where you’ll find a fountain with a statue of Déesse, a goddess who symbolizes the spirit of Lille, commemorating how the residents of Lille rose up against a siege of Austrian troops during the French Revolution. (Lille hosted the Rugby World Cup when I visited, so the statue touted a rugby ball!)
Afterward, I just picked a narrow cobblestone street and wandered down it. Which is how I found…
Aux Merveilleux de Fred
67 Rue de la Monnaie, 59800 Lille, France | +33 3 20 51 99 59
5 Pl. du Général de Gaulle, 59800 Lille, France | +33 3 20 57 34 54
5:00 PM Eat dessert first – Aux Merveilleux de Fred has four locations around Lille (plus various others across Europe and even one that opened in New York City). Still, I recommend visiting one of the two in the old part of Lille.
Enchanted by the smell of sweet dough wafting out the open door, I wandered inside.
Something I learned about Lille is that many of the city’s bakeries stay open late, often close to 7 p.m. Will they be less stocked? Perhaps, but you’ll still find some temptations.
And at Aux Merveilleux people still appeared to be baking when I walked in. Here, you’ll find intricate puffs of different flavored pavlova that look like mounds of whipped cream.
But I went for the Cramique, a Belgian brioche loaf often found in Northern France (see how Lille uniquely mashes Belgian and French culture?). Studded with plump chocolate chips, the Cramique came to me hot.
I sat on one of the little sidewalk tables, tearing into the challah-like loaf.
Pure bliss and a great way to start my journey in Lille, even if that meant eating at a bakery at dinnertime. Hey, when in Lille!
25 Rue des trois Mollettes, 59800 Lille, France
6:00 PM Drink your first beer – More wandering brought me to this tiny corner beer bar. But don’t be fooled by the size; La Capsule packs in twenty-eight taps of primarily local beer.
While offering a few American styles like a double West Coast IPA, the beer bar also leaned heavily into Belgian styles like a kriek from Boon and a Belgian strong ale from Brasserie Dupont. But by far and away, French breweries feature predominantly here.
Check the large chalkboard behind the bar to see what’s on. Then, pull up to one of the elegant wooden high-top tables and let adventure take its course.
The couple next to me ordered a board of sliced meats and bread, deciding they wanted IPAs to pair.
I can get excellent IPAs in the U.S., so I went for one of the French beers: the Rye Amber Ale from Effet Papillon. The color of the crust of the Cramique I just ate, the rye beer drank like a bit of honied biscuit with raspberry jam, a little raisin, and a finish of toasted pumpernickel—a little on the sweet side but super smooth and malty.
Dinner: Mama Shelter’s Restaurant & Bar
97 Pl. Saint-Hubert, 59800 Lille, France | +33 3 59 82 72 72
7:00 PM Eating under a chalkboard ceiling – Not going to lie, pretty tired from my travels, I finished the night at the restaurant and bar in my hotel, Mama Shelter.
The wackiness extends into the restaurant and bar, where you’ll find intricate drawings and phrases written in chalk on the ceiling; it’s like an avant-garde galaxy.
Most places in Lille feature Flemish food, a mix of hearty meat or fish-based stews, frites, mussels, and a beer-washed cheese called Maroilles (which I still have trouble pronouncing despite asking every single server I encountered how to say it).
Today, a lot of establishments like to bring their own inventive approach.
At Mama Shelter’s Restaurant & Bar, you’ll find traditional dishes like Carbonnade Flammande or Coquillettes with ham but turned on their head slightly.
It seems to hit home. I sat down at 7:00 pm, and within a half hour, people packed in—couples on date night, visitors, and after-work crowds.
A group table of seven guys ordered a bunch of wine, some beer, and a charcuterie platter, pulling out their own boule from someone’s bag to complement the assortment of meats. (BYOB—bring your own bread? 🤣)
I kept things simple: A cheese plate with a side of pea soup. Refreshingly simple but executed perfectly.
The soup arrived chilled with a nice earthiness from the legume. Hunks of haddock and hard-boiled egg dotted the bowl with a whisper of cooling mint.
The cheese board included twelve-month aged Comté AOP, Saint Félicien IGP, Tomme de Savoie IGP, and Tȇte de Moine AOP. All accompanied by an unassuming brown bread stuffed with little chunks of pillowy yet toothsome baguette.
With a wine, champagne, beer, and signature cocktail menu, Mama Shelter’s Restaurant & Bar is where you can park for the rest of the night.
And as I left to go upstairs and get some shut-eye, many people were.
Saturday: Beer, Food, More Beer
In truth, I spent Monday through Thursday in Lille, but I’d recommend going during the weekend if you can. Many places are closed on Monday, Tuesday, and sometimes even Sunday.
After a whole night’s rest, we’re gearing up to take you through your beery paces today, traipsing around Lille to drink at some fantastic breweries and beer bars and eat some trendy, inventive food with a nod to heritage.
Bakery: L’Ogre de Carrouselberg
17 Rue des Vieux Murs, 59800 Lille, France | +33 3 28 36 40 68
9:30 AM Pastries almost too cute to eat…almost – Down a little alleyway…no seriously, this alley is different than all the others. Mainly because in it, you find two must-stop places to start your morning.
Known for its pastry called P’tit Pouchin (little chick), L’Ogre de Carrouselberg also stocks a gorgeous case of bejeweled pastries—domed tarts, honeycomb bee hives of towering whipped meringue pavlovas, uniform eclairs, and blossoming baba à la fraises.
I went for the P’tit Pouchin, whose crackly, sugary exterior gives way to plush cream inside.
You could just pick your way through, grab what you want, and sit on the sidewalk tables outside, eating your stolen crown jewels.
But to me, this is the move…walk just down to the next store to grab a coffee.
10 Rue des Vieux Murs, 59800 Lille, France | +33 9 67 08 28 21
9:30 AM Best espresso we’ve had in a long time – Literally kitty-corner down the alley from the bakery mentioned above, you’ll find Tamper! Walk through the open white barnyard door into a little five-table-long coffee paradise.
Shelves of records sit behind a counter full of goodies like carrot cake, apple cake, cinnamon rolls, and buttery chocolate chip cookies that might fall apart if you pick them up the wrong way.
I just grabbed an espresso here, and it’s one of the best I’ve had all year, smelling of mocha and campfire—smooth, rich, and robust.
The shot of coffee paired perfectly with the almost too-sweet P’tit Pouchin. The brownie-thick liquid filled in the cracks and crevices in my brain, and dare we say, tamped down the sugary pastry.
But Tamper! also has a tempting breakfast menu—bread with local butter, granola, eggs in a hole, shakshuka, huevos rancheros, and French toast, among others.
Stroll and Shop Around Lille
10:30 AM Find something unique – With a bit of the lay of the land after last night’s exploratory excursion, I thought I’d be able to navigate Lille. Maybe not yet, but just wander, stopping in any shop that fits your fancy.
That’s how I found Cabaïa, a backpack and travel bag shop on Pl. du Lion d’Or.
I’d been looking for a little backpack to help carry around all my stuff on my trip, and this place provided.
Or the Old Stock Exchange (La Vielle Bourse). Stop inside, and you’ll find people with tables set up sporting different wares like vinyl.
All along the walls of the open-air courtyard, you’ll see photos of important Lille figures. For instance, Louis Pasteur, who served as the dean of the science faculty at Université de Lille and who eventually discovered that yeast produced CO2 and alcohol in beer.
19 Rue Royale, 59000 Lille, France
12:00 PM Like a gastropub in your neighbor’s house – One of my favorite places I visited in Lille, Bierbuik, is hard to miss.
Inside these bright pink walls, you’ll find Flemish food flipped on its head. All driven by the crazy mind of Florent Ladeyn, runner-up on the first season of Top Chef France.
Ladeyn grew up in the restaurant industry, taking over his parent’s restaurant, Auberge du Vert Mont, in the Lille area and turning it into a Michelin-starred establishment.
Bierbuik takes everything Ladeyn learned from fine dining—local produce, expert technique, exquisite service—but ditches the tweezers for fingers and replaces the wine list with craft beer he made on-site until two years ago when he moved operations because he needed more space.
“The idea here is to use one hundred percent local products, one hundred percent homemade products; it’s exactly the same product we’re going to serve you in the Michelin-star restaurant; the difference is the number of hours,” Ladeyn told me. Instead of spending two to three hours on a multi-course meal, over a casual lunchtime, we dig into twice-fried beef-fat frites with four different sauces—a hay-smoked mayo (my favorite), a green leek oil mayo, a beet ketchup, and a cheese sauce made of Maroilles, a local raw cow milk cheese brushed and cleaned with beer. You can’t miss it because “it smells really strong, like really strong,” laughs Ladeyn. At Bierbuik, Ladeyn layers the cheese with sour cream and warm milk to smooth it out to something less insane.
Even though Ladeyn doesn’t like cheese (“I shouldn’t say that too loud because I’m a French chef,” he jokes), the frites with Maroilles cheese sauce became a signature dish for him.
“It’s about street food,” he told me between bites. “You don’t have to think much about balance, about textures. It can be too hot, it can be too fatty, it can be too salty because it’s just about pleasure, eating with your fingers.”
And for Ladeyn, it’s more faithful to how he grew up around the table eating with family.
It’s why he proudly shows me his tattooed forearms, the left with a fork and the right a knife. “But not a chef’s knife,” he points out. No, it’s just a regular ol’ butter knife. “Because I love to go to the table,” he explains. “This is my memory of spending a lot of time with my grandparents. … All the memories I have with them are around the table.”
He continues, eyes sparkling, “I love what the table means—people being together, speaking together, enjoying a meal, sharing food. Beer [and food] bring people together. This is important and beautiful.”
Family and friends wind their way into many of Ladeyn’s beers and dishes. His cousin is a hop farmer, so he leverages local hops. “They’re not as funky or sexy as U.S. hops, but they are from here,” Ladeyn says. “We are always adding our local homemade spices and herbs, too.”
Like one of his house-made sour beers he shared with me called Glycine Municip’ale, made with the wisteria plant (glycine in French) that he foraged from a cemetery on the French-Belgian border near his home. (He initially didn’t want to share the story with me because he technically harvested the flowers from the Belgian side of the border, “But I cannot lie!” he proclaimed.)
Or his falafel dish, which includes lentils from a farmer at La ferme du Duneleet named Stephanie, who took over her parents’ farm, believing that farming should avoid using tractors because it turns the soil too much. “She puts in nothing, and she’s doing great,” Ladeyn told me. “These lentils, I make sprouts with water on top, then blend it with shallots and spices.”
The sausage for another dish isn’t homemade, but it comes from Ladeyn’s hometown butcher shop, now owned by a guy he played rugby with as a kid.
A dessert playfully called Afoingato (foin is hay in French) includes hay ice cream and chicory, not coffee—because chicory is one hundred percent local.
But Ladeyn says the most popular dish is the Flammach, a flatbread made in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven using homemade sourdough and local flour fermented for seventy-two hours. The almost personal-sized pizza comes out with this perfectly springy dough that bounces back in your mouth like memory foam.
Beerwise, Ladeyn rarely brews a beer twice. When I visited, besides the Glycine Municip’ale, he told me about a black saison with fresh hay in the tanks, an amber beer with quinoa, and an upcoming grape ale with leftover grape skins and must from a friend whose regular day job is teaching, moonlighting as a vintner when on break.
Ladeyn’s approach sticks out in a region dedicated to older Belgian styles like tripels, oud bruins, and saisons. But it makes sense to him as he tries to represent terroir in Lille.
“If I say, okay, this is a white deer that my father just shot three days ago; these vegetables are done in permaculture with biodynamic farming and zero chemicals, and I made this toast with my own sweetbreads, and then I serve it to you with a beer from Denmark or Sweden, there’s no logic in this,” he says.
So yes, the local verbena he uses for a verbena Berliner Weisse might be five or six times more expensive, and the natural fruit he wants to put into a sour will cost more than a frozen puree, but “when you fight so much for a craft label, it should be crafted,” he exclaims.
These are the kinds of beers he makes. “If you ask me to brew an imperial coconut stout, I cannot do this,” he says. “When I brew, it’s always borderline. I brew juices like this—really light with wild yeast, so you don’t really know if you’re drinking a beer or something else.”
As I drained my glass of wisteria sour and licked the salty grease from the frites and Flammach off my fingers, Ladeyn got a text.
“That’s a reminder, I promised to get foraged hops,” he says.
If you go to only one place in Lille, make sure it’s Bierbuik.
120 Rue Esquermoise, 59800 Lille, France | +33 9 81 21 67 21
1:30 PM IPAs with yuzu, blonde ales with ten hops, a beer with cigars – A one-minute walk from Bierbuik, you’ll run into Célestin. And it could be the most surprising brewery in Lille.
On the outside, founder Armaury d’Herbigny appears like your neighbor down the street, a slightly older bespectacled man with salt and pepper hair in a blue quarter-zip sweater.
But inside d’Herbigny’s brain, it’s a wild, imaginative world.
First started in 1740 by d’Herbigny’s great-grandfather, Célestin survived until 1956 when the family sold the brewery. After a sixty-year hiatus, d’Herbigny decided to revive the ninth-generation brewery.
Today, d’Herbigny approaches beer with a gleam in his eye.
“I don’t brew classical beers,” d’Herbigny told me. “My IPA, for example, is not an IPA but an IPA with yuzu. My triple, it’s a triple but with coriander and pepper from South Africa.”
D’Herbigny calls his secret ingredient emotion.
“In general, in France, most of the breweries—like eighty percent—brew a blonde, an amber, a brown, sometimes an IPA, but very classical. I don’t want to do that,” he says.
Instead, you’ll find that aforementioned Hoppy Yuzu, the brewery’s second most popular beer.
And when he does brew a blonde ale, like the brewery’s most popular La Dix, it’s with ten different hops from the U.K., Germany, and the U.S. “I wanted to have a blonde with more complexity,” he told me.
It worked. The beer won best blonde beer in Hauts-de-France by the gastronomic guide Gault & Millau, a better version of the Michelin Guide, according to d’Herbigny.
Pale ales get dosed with ginger. Double IPAs find themselves blended with orange blossom.
And the beer in the tanks when I visited?
A base between a blonde and an amber resting with a cigar-infused rum and actual cigars in the fermenter.
D’Herbigny brewed the 9.5% ABV Havane a year ago, and it was such a big success, “I had to brew it again,” he says, noting that the idea for the beer came from his past working for a tobacco company. According to d’Herbigny’s internet search, this might be the first time a brewer has put cigars in a beer. “I don’t think it exists,” he says.
My favorite of all the beers I tasted was the Brute Gracieuse. “Do you understand brute gracieuse?” d’Herbigny asked me with a little smile. “It’s an oxymoron.”
Typing the phrase into Google Translate, he showed me that the name means “graceful brute.”
A stout barrel-aged in Sauternes and Porto barrels between six months and two years, Brute Gracieuse is not too strong, which d’Herbigny attributes to the barrel aging used to refine the beer instead of increase the booziness. “I love this one,” d’Herbigny shared.
However, when I asked him the beers he’s proudest of, he exclaimed, ”All of them!”
There are two ways to enjoy Célestin. D’Herbigny runs a beer shop on the corner of Rue de la Barre and Rue Esquermoise that you can pop into Tuesday through Saturday to buy bottles to go.
You’ll find an extensive collection of barrel-aged beers here too. D’Herbigny takes his best-selling blonde La Dix and ages it in all types of casks, including Condrieu (a white wine from the Southeast of France), Sauternes, Porto, Cognac, whiskey, bourbon, and more. Plus, he’ll add select ingredients like bergamot, pumpkin (citrouille in French), tonka beans, local honey (miel), or even an ingredient we couldn’t quite land on a word for in English—Quetsche (which translates to squeeze, so your guess is as good as mine. I thought maybe Quince, but the picture d’Herbigny showed me didn’t fit. If anyone knows, DM us on Instagram because it’s prickling my mind!).
The brewery itself lies not twenty paces down Rue Esquermoise. Inside, you’ll find a tiny taproom attached to the actual brewery.
D’Herbigny only opens the brewery on Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., so if you want to drink beer here, plan accordingly.
But trust us, it’s totally worth it.
L’Abbaye Des Saveurs
13 Rue des Vieux Murs, 59000 Lille, France | +33 6 66 33 54 65
3:00 PM A craft beer shop in Lille – Owned by the same folks that opened Le Capsule, L’Abbaye Des Saveurs reminds me of Covenhoven in Brooklyn. Walk in, stare in awe at the floor-to-ceiling shelves stuffed with bottles of local beer, pick out a few, take them outside to the tables on the sidewalk, pop the tops, and drink and watch the world go by.
13 Pl. Saint-Hubert, 59800 Lille, France | +33 3 20 47 53 83
5:00 PM Dinner at a modern Estaminet – What is an estaminet? It’s a question I asked several people over my time in Lille because it’s an integral part of the food culture there.
“It’s like an old coffee [house],” Lenne from Hello Lille told me. “In the nineteenth century, it was very popular because … at the time, there was no internet, television, or Netflix. Workers in the industry after the factory would go to an estaminet to drink, but you could also play cards and different games; you could smoke; you could sing together; it was a real social venue.”
Ladeyn at Bierbuik calls estaminets “the devil’s chapel.”
He says, “It was not only a bar or a restaurant; it was a place where you could do whatever you could not do somewhere else—drink, buy tobacco, etc.”
Although Lenne says you didn’t really eat at the old-school estaminets, today’s versions have chefs reinventing the tradition.
Bierbuik and Hein (a very tricky word for English speakers to pronounce; it comes out like “uh”) embody the new frontier of the estaminet.
Hein describes itself as a “UFO exploring the richness of the legendary products of the Northern region through a regressive, minimalist, and slightly reinvented cuisine.”
Taking up three floors of a glass building in a reasonably open square, Hein includes its own microbrewery and a beer wall with twenty taps.
This contemporary estaminet is the place to be in Lille. Right by my hotel, whenever I came home at night, people packed the tables outside, buzzing with drinks and conversation as they bathed in the neon yellow glow of the enormous Hein sign in the window.
Inside, it’s almost like a quirky tavern with mismatched rug squares on the floor and bric-a-brac pinned to the walls—urns and pitchers of various sizes and shapes, a corner of eerie hunting scenes made out of yarn, and vintage posters.
Hip French music pipes through the speakers as I pass by tables, almost all adorned with a boat of frites and a beer. Of course, I had to order that along with a regional specialty, Maroilles of Fame, a tart with the famous regional cheese.
Like a quiche, the flaky crust encased a pungent but still delicious cheese mix. Perfect to wash down with one of the brewery’s beers, New Queen in Town, a citrusy American pale ale.
For the carnivores, you’ll be in heinven (?). Choose from dishes like Carbonade Flamande, a flemish beef stew made with Hein beer and accompanied by homemade fries, a cheeseburger, or a sandwich called Highway To Welsh with ham, beer cheddar, and frites.
Honestly, I’d park it here for the night, drink the beers on tap, and have yourself a Flemish feast.
Sunday: Waffles, Frites, Pizza, and, Of Course, Beer
Luckily, some of the best foods in Lille involve carbs, lots of carbs. So Sunday gave me time to soak up the extensive amount of strong beer I drank the previous two days.
25-27 Rue Esquermoise, 59000 Lille, France | +33 3 20 57 07 44
10:00 AM Like an adult candy store – A suggestion from Ladeyn at Bierbuik, Méert is like walking into the iconic London Harrod’s if the department store just made delicious sweet pastries.
An opulent emporium, Méert has impeccably dressed attendants on hand for your every need, guiding you to the superb pastries lying temptingly behind glass cases.
Almost a choose-your-own-adventure, you can head to the salon to sit down and dine, grab a pastry from the case in front of you, or move on to your right to the main attraction in a separate room—the waffle or gaufre in French.
Iconic to the city, gaufre isn’t your Denny’s version of a waffle. Two thin, chewy, wafer-like cookies sandwich various delicate creams.
You can choose from flavors like caramel and vanilla, raspberry, speculoos, and pistachio y griotte (which I didn’t know but learned later was like a sweet cherry).
Méert is a white-glove service bakery, so just accept it, and lap up every minute.
Lunch: Grand Scène
31 Rue de Béthune, 59800 Lille, France
12:00 PM A French street food hall with grub from around the world – As we learned from Ladeyn, street food isn’t really a scene in Lille. But when Grand Scène Co-owners Marianne Barbier and Geoffroy Marticou opened this street food hall in June of 2020, they aimed to change that, creating a cultural community center in the heart of Lille.
And much like Ladeyn espouses how food and beer bring people together, Barbier and Marticou feel the same.
Spread over two levels with ten different food stalls and two bars featuring only local beer, Grand Scène spans cuisines worldwide but focuses on using ingredients sourced from the region.
“There’s nothing like this in Lille,” says Barbier, a business school graduate who fell in love with food after working for two and half years for a restaurant guide called Le Fooding. A five-year stint at a startup and then time working in a food court in Paris cemented Barbier’s plans.
As she and Grand Scène’s General Manager Joséphine Seth walked me from stall to stall, I could see the excitement build in their eyes and hear the pride in their voices.
And the vendors responded in kind to them. There’s a sort of unique kinship within Grand Scène’s walls. You might only notice it if you pay attention, which is hard considering you’re constantly diverted by a new delicious smell or someone walking by with a good-looking dish.
Like an orchestra for the senses, Grand Scène builds with a crescendo as you go from the first floor to the second.
On level one, you’ll find a bar along with a satellite location of Bierbuik; Bleuet, a new restaurant as of August with good street food; La Broche, who won a prize for Lille’s best-made kebab; and Moon, owned by the same brothers of La Broche, featuring an homage to Thai food.
“This is the first Moon restaurant; there is no other,” Seth explains to me, pointing out a series of postcards from Thailand plastered on the stall, a request of the owners asking fans to send in.
Upstairs, it’s culinary melee!
You’ll find Ataya, a pop-up focused on Middle Eastern food from Syrian couple Bassem and Reem Ataya. “They have lots of loyal customers because they have the best falafel in Lille,” says Seth. I can attest this is true.
Kalimera features flavors of Greece like souvlaki wraps, while the Pimm’s bar offers the eponymous cocktail in a nod to the famous English drink.
Barbier says the most popular restaurant is The Flying Counter (Le Compteur Volant). A famous Lille food truck started by childhood friends Grégoire Chaignaud and César Toulemonde, Le Compteur Volant gained notoriety for its burgers. Homemade buns, high-quality meat, and locally sourced cheese make the difference in these meaty behemoths.
Although Barbier does admit that favorites sometimes depend on the moment of the year or time of day. “Of course, pizza works in the evenings, but at lunch, Le Compteur Volant is quite popular.”
The pizza she speaks of comes from Pizzou, which focuses exclusively on French ingredients in its pies. When I asked Barbier what type of pizza they make, she hedged, “Between Roman-style pizza and Neapolitan-style pizza. Not too tiny, but not too thick either. Maybe they make their own style!”
Regardless, they do it very well, proofing the dough for at least forty-eight hours in their little lab in a hidden corner of the food hall.
And, of course, there is La Guerita, one Barbier takes particular pride in. A women-owned restaurant focused on Mexican-inspired burritos, bowls, and even karaage chicken (“because she has a Japanese friend and they worked together to make the interesting recipe,” Seth told me) that opened first in Grand Scène two years ago, La Guerita went on to win an award from Gault & Millau and open its second location.
“This is a woman chef who opened her first restaurant here; she started here!” exclaims Barbier.
After telling Barbier and Seth I’m a vegetarian, they threw out a few suggestions. Ultimately, I went for the falafel plate from Ataya. But halfway through the meal, Barbier brought over perhaps one of my most delicious bites from my time in Lille.
From Bleuet, a homemade brioche toast included a mound of burrata, sun-dried tomatoes, pickled cauliflower and zucchini, and greens. (She also dropped off for dessert a divine rice pudding with stewed apricots and apricot jam.).
If you’re unsure what Lille is about, go to Grand Scène, and you’ll see. Families, students, young workers, and old couples sit together at tables, feasting on food made with local ingredients and sipping local beer.
Whatever you settle on at Grand Scène, you’re in for an epic treat.
Beer: La Mousse Touch’
19 Bd Jean-Baptiste Lebas, 59000 Lille, France | +33 9 71 57 43 09
2:00 PM Pub crawl a bit outside of town – Time to walk off an incredible lunch. A recommendation from Baguet at L’Échappée Bière, La Mousse Touch’ is a little bit outside of the old city center (about a twenty-five-minute walk) but worth a venture.
“It’s quite cool,” says Baguet. “They have good beer. It’s kind of an alternative place; they are really cool and trendy.”
Striking up a conversation with the bartender inside, he took me through each and every beer La Mousse Touch’ had on tap, a couple they made right on site. But I settled on something from a different local brewery. Grabbing the Brasserie du Pave Blonde, I snagged a sidewalk table and, like many moments in Lille, watched the world go by with a beer in hand.
Beer: Taste’n Brews
12 Pl. Jeanne d’Arc, 59000 Lille, France
3:30 PM Stop two – Another suggestion from Baguet, Taste’n Brews is just an eight-minute walk from La Mousse Touch’. Baguet says to go to this place if you’re looking for “crazy stuff, crazy beers.” According to Baguet, because the beers are so out there, it’s sometimes pretty empty when you go, but if you like incredible international beers, check out this place.
Dinner: Brique Land
Parking Halls de la Filature, 27 Rue Félix Faure, 59350 Saint-André-lez-Lille, France | +33 3 28 52 82 59
5:00 PM Pizza + beer – Hop in an Uber for a fifteen-minute drive outside of town to Brique Land. Owned by the same company that runs Hein, Brique Land is a beer hall pairing together two timeless loves: pizza and beer.
You can hang out inside the hall or stroll out to the expansive backyard beer garden. Scan the QR code on your table, order and pay on your phone, and then sit back and wait for food to arrive without talking to anyone.
This place reminds me a bit of Roberta’s in Bushwick but with homemade beer.
The pizza impressed me. I ordered a white pie with truffle cream, mozzarella fior di latte, roquette, ricotta, parmesan, and truffle oil. You’d think the copious amount of varied cheese would clash here, but weirdly, they didn’t. You get a hit of the cool earthy, funky truffle cream and a zing from the sharp Parmesan curbed by peppery arugula and all smoothed over with mozzarella and a pillowy dough.
It’s one of the better pizzas I’ve had in a while!
I paired the pie with a blank-slate German pilsner called Mick Lager, but you’ll also find IPAs, sours, and the like. All brewed on site.