A taste of Lille, from crunchy frites to bold beers

France’s most Flemish city is home to a host of traditional local specialities, from crunchy frites and bold beers to some decidedly potent cheeses.

Dining out in Lille’s Place du Général de Gaulle.

Photograph by Alamy
By Carolyn Boyd
Published 30 Jan 2023, 11:00 GMT

The old and the new: estaminet cuisine

Au Vieux de la Vieille, in Lille’s old town, is a curious spectacle. Step inside and you’ll find a space that feels like a cross between a front room and a rustic pub. Shelves are stuffed with trinkets and bric-a-brac, the ceiling is strewn with dried hops, and diners sit on and at wooden chairs and tables that have likely served generations of visitors.

This is an estaminet, a traditional tavern found across northeastern France. And the menu is almost as curious as the decor. Estaminet classics include potjevleesch, a terrine-like dish comprising four kinds of meat suspended in a cold aspic jelly (better than it sounds); carbonnades de boeuf, also known as carbonnade flamande, a rich beef stew made with beer and brown sugar; and le Welsh, the region’s version of cheese and ham on toast. 

When I visit, it’s rammed. Although the city has plenty of modern and international restaurants, the demand for traditional regional dishes is still strong. “They started more like a bar,” explains my server, Marion. “When mining was a big industry here, the miners would leave work and go to an estaminet for a beer. The tables were big, so everyone sat together and discussed life, society, everything.”  

I order chicken in a maroilles cheese sauce and, as I wait, soak up the lively atmosphere of friends and family having lunch together. When the piping-hot dish arrives from the kitchen, it’s rich, unctuous and a great introduction to maroilles, or the “cheese of the north”, as Marion helpfully describes it.

One of Northern France’s most acclaimed chefs, Florent Ladeyn, knows the typical estaminet menu well, having grown up in the family restaurant, L’Auberge du Vert Mont in Boeschepe, about half an hour’s drive north of Lille. “I learned to make all the classics,” he says. “Potjevleesch and other meat terrines, waterzooi [a fish or chicken stew], beer tarts, chicory root flans. The traditional dishes reflect the passage of the various European armies through the region. The carbonnade flamande is a derivative of a Spanish bull stew; the potjevleesch is found in Scandinavian cuisine; the waterzooi fish stew is Belgian.”

In 2007, Florent took the reins of his family’s restaurant, keeping some of the estaminet spirit, but adding a hyperlocal fine-dining approach. He’s also expanded, opening two innovative canteen-style restaurants, Bierbuik and Bloempot, both in Lille.

“I take my inspiration from nature, the rhythm of the seasons, the work of fishermen and market gardeners,” he says. “Although the cuisine is anchored in history, respecting tradition also means making it evolve. We work with 100% local produce, so on the canteen side, with its simple menu, it means it stays lively and adaptable.” 

Later, I eat at Bierbuik, which, decor-wise, couldn’t be more different to Au Vieux de la Vieille: it’s all neon lights and metro tiles, but I love its style. Its menu is a fascinating contrast, too, with much less cheese and meat. I order a brochette of red cabbage, as dense as a cut of beef and just as tasty; the salad of pak choi, shiitake oil, buckwheat seeds and blackberries is a moreish symphony of flavours and textures; and then there are, of course, the frites. Served in a big tray, with a mustardy homemade mayonnaise, there are too many for one, but I make a good go of it. They’re traditional, after all.

Left: Top:

Carbonnade flamande, a Flemish beer and beef stew.

Photograph by Stockfood
Right: Bottom:

Florent Ladeyn.

Photograph by Anne Claire Heraud

The big cheese: Philippe Olivier

The French Alps might be famous for its sheer abundance of fromage, but the Hauts-de-France region is hot on its heels. I see this for myself at the Lille branch of Philippe Olivier, which is both fromagerie and affineur, meaning it buys raw cheeses from producers and then brushes, washes and/or rotates them until the cheeses have attained the ideal maturity and taste. The shop on Rue du Cure Saint-Etienne has a huge selection, including many local specialities, such the large round mimolette, which, though inspired by Dutch edam, is distinguishable by its orange hue. 

“The colour was added with the spice roucou [annatto], which was brought back from South America,” says shop manager Thibaut Tournié. “Customers tend to prefer the older versions of mimolette, which crumbles more easily and has a nutty flavour.” 
Although mimolette is rooted in the region, the cheese the locals really swoon over is the stinkier maroilles, which has a beer-washed rind and is traditionally aged for 100 days. There’s no denying its pungent aroma, but the semi-soft cheese itself is gentler to taste, creamy even, and is served in all manner of ways: over mussels, or as a sauce with chips or even chicken. You name it, there’ll be something on offer with maroilles in it. 

I ask Thibaut about another variety of maroilles, the vieux boulogne, which was named by a team of experts at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire as the world’s smelliest cheese for 14 years running. Thibaut gives me a block. It reeks of unwashed feet, but again, its flavour is milder. Not so the plastic pot of fort de lens, a cheese concoction that looks a little like chunky cottage cheese and has both a smell and flavour that almost knocks me out.

The Lille Chamber of Commerce towers over neighbouring buildings.

The Lille Chamber of Commerce towers over neighbouring buildings.

Photograph by AWL Images

Local spirit: Genever distilleries

Although the Lillois boast of their beer and breweries, there’s a lesser-known drink that also calls Flanders home: genever. It’s a sort of cross between whisky and gin, but in some ways it’s actually gin’s ancestor. Indeed, its name in English is derived from the French word for juniper, genièvre. 

The Distillerie Claeyssens de Wambrechies was established in the suburb of Wambrechies  in 1789 when the Claeyssens family, fleeing the Belgian revolution, decided to set up an oil mill on the Canal de la Deûle. Later, in 1817, it was transformed into a genever distillery. Output peaked in the 1930s when the spirit became the tipple of choice for coal miners working across the area. 

These days, visitors can take a tour to find out how the drink is made. First, three different grains — malted barley, rye and oats — are ground to flour and roasted with water in copper cookers to create ‘wort’, which is then yeasted and cooled. This is then fermented and, finally, distilled. 

At the end of the tour, as the barman pours various samples, I ask him why genever fell out of fashion. “The closure of the mines and industrialisation was the main reason,” he explains. “But also the drink-driving rules!”

As I sip the genever, its 49% ABV makes my head swirl. I also try chuche morette, a blend of genever and blackcurrant liqueur, which was equally popular during the drink’s heyday. To make up for the fall in genever’s popularity, the distillery has expanded into brewing beer, while also producing gin, whisky and vodka. It’s a move that’s obviously paid off — by 2024, the building will have been transformed with the addition of a new visitor centre, complete with salon du thé and restaurant. 

Genever is more commonly found in Holland and Belgium, and there are only two distilleries left in France. The other is Distillerie Persyn in Houlle, 45 miles west of Lille, which has twice won World Gin Awards. When I visit, owner Lionel Persyn admits that, while ‘World’s Best Genever’ is an accolade to be proud of, with just three countries producing it, there isn’t much competition. But when I taste the award-winning Long Drink brand, which is distilled four times and takes it flavour from foraged juniper berries, I feel it beats Wambrechies’ offering for flavour. Seek it out in Lille’s bars.

Bottles of Houlle XIV genever from Distillerie Persyn.

Bottles of Houlle XIV genever from Distillerie Persyn.

Photograph by AWL Images

Chipping in: Lille's friteries

The French may have generally embraced McDonald’s and its fries, but the people of Hauts-de-France loved frites long before Ronald showed up. You’ll find friteries all over the region, often based in a trailer or food truck, offering steaming hot fries alongside specialities such as fricadelle sausage, or simply brochettes (kebab) and meatballs. 

In Lille, the most popular is Friterie Meunier, with the queue from its Place du Général de Gaulle outlet snaking out into the square, beneath Lille’s ornate stock exchange building. Buy a cone of crispy chips, which are chunkier than French fries, and choose from a huge range of sauces, from barbecue, mustard and maroilles to the popular ‘Hannibal’ sauce, made with tomato, onion and cayenne pepper. There are two other Friterie Meunier outlets in the centre, and plenty of other good friteries in the city. If you’re venturing out to the Wambrechies district, try out La Frite à Dorer, a little roadside cabin that has twice been named best in France by the website les-friteries.com

Meanwhile, if you prefer to ‘dine in’, you don’t have to look far for frites. Over a weekend in Lille, I have the choice of frites with nearly every meal. This includes the classic Flemish moules-frites — the satisfyingly steamy pot of mussels with a tray of crunchy chips I devour at brasserie Aux Moules de Lille. Elsewhere, at Florent Ladeyn’s Bierbuik-Bloemeke, a copious tray-full of frites comes with a delicious leek puree. I ask Florent the secret to getting chips just right. “The right potato at the right time in the season,” he says. “They’re then double-fried, at two different temperatures, a few hours apart. Above all, I use beef dripping, vinegar and salt.” And his preferred sauce? “Smoked hay mayo.”

Lille favourites

Lille is known for its beer, and several breweries in and around the city produce the signature brown and blond ales with an ABV of around 6.5%. Some host visitors, including Célestin, which has a number of microbreweries, one of which is in Vieux-Lille. It’s run by Amaury d’Herbigny, who resurrected a family trade that dates back to 1740.

Méert waffles
A refined salon de thé and patisserie, Méert specialises in its own finely griddled waffle, filled with decadent vanilla buttercream. Both Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle were said to be fans. If you’re just visiting the ornate boutique, you can choose waffles with a variety of fillings, from vanilla to chestnut, speculoos biscuits or pistachio.

Méert patisserie.

Méert patisserie.

Photograph by AWL Images

Le Welsh

The origins of this dish differ depending on who you ask. Some locals will tell you it came with the Welsh soldiers stationed at Baincthun, near Boulogne-sur-Mer, during the siege of Boulogne in 1544. Others will tell you it was adapted from Welsh rarebit, brought over by Welsh miners working in the coalfields. Whatever they believe, however, most locals will reel off the recipe when you ask, emphasising that the 200-250g of cheese per person is the most important element. 

Serves: 4

Takes: 25 mins


4 slices of bread (sourdough works well), crusts removed
4 slices of ham 
2-6 tsp blond beer 
800g cheddar cheese (mature or mild), grated
1 tsp Dijon mustard 
few dashes Worcestershire sauce
4 eggs (optional)


1. Toast the bread slices, then lay a slice of ham on top of each one.

2. Pour enough beer into a non-stick saucepan to just cover the base. Place it over a medium heat and gently bring to the boil. Add the cheese and cook for 3-5 mins, stirring constantly so it doesn’t stick, until melted.

3. Stir through the mustard and Worcestershire sauce, then pour the cheese mixture over the toast.

4. Heat grill to medium. Place the loaded toast under the grill for 2-3 mins, until the surface is bubbling and starting to colour.

5. While the toast is under the grill, fry the eggs (if using). Serve the toast straight from the grill, topping each slice with a fried egg.


How to do it
Return train fares from London St Pancras direct to Lille start at £78. Stay at Okko Hotel in the centre of Lille, from €105 (£90) including a snack breakfast and unlimited access to soft drinks in the ‘club’ area. 

More info
Lille tourism

Published in Issue 18 (winter 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Follow us on social media


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved