Life is Beautiful
Until very recently, Brussels was an oddity among European capitals: it had no cocktail scene. And while Ghent and Antwerp remain ahead (Belgium is a weird country!), things are slowly changing. On a recent visit on our way to Venuez, the country’s bar show held early this week, we dropped by Life is Beautiful, a bar opened in July 2016 by Harouna Saou and Karoline Vlk.
Lib, as it is sometimes called, is located on rue Dansaert, a street that symbolizes quite well Brussels’ duality. Its first part is filled with fancy restaurants and design shop. Gradually, they give way to cheap joints and shops run by people from all over the world – the street leads to one of the city’s most diverse area. In spite of the higher prices associated with cocktails, it’s on the latter part of the street that you’ll find Lib, defined by bartender Harouna as “a neighbourhood bar”. “We wanted a relaxed and cosy space where everyone feels welcome”, adds Karoline, who works the floor.
In a way, Life is Beautiful is the result of a yearlong experiment that started in February 2015. “We didn’t understand why cocktails were a thing in Flanders and not in Brussels”, says Harouna, “so we decided to organize a monthly event: we’d rent a space where we’d offer 3 signature cocktails matched with finger food. Booking only, 30 people maximum”. It worked: the demand was such that the duo increased the number of events: “We started doing pop ups in spaces that closed late afternoon. We’d stay for 3 or 4 nights a week”. Meanwhile, they looked for and found the venue to open their own bar. “We didn’t have a lot of money, and doing these events allowed us to test neighbourhoods and also to create a community. When we launched Lib, we had over 1500 followers on Facebook, so the first few months were not too difficult”, adds Harouna.
The events also served an additional purpose: get Karoline on board. Although not initially from the industry, Harouna had paid his way through university working in hospitality and says he always knew he wanted to open a bar. “I was a bit shy but I loved the relationship you could create with your clients”. The cocktails came later, once the Paris-born man moved to Brussels. Although Karoline and him always scheduled stop at cocktail bars on their travels, it’s really with the tastings that she got the bug.
Over the last two years, they cemented the place of Life is Beautiful as one of the still all too scarce essential bars of Brussels. While hospitality is at the centre of the experience – it is after all what first attracted Harouna to the industry – the cocktails are not far behind. The short menu has a bit of everything. On one of our visits, we had a cocktail mixing Havana Club 7 with bourbon, a match that made sense (blending two spirits in one cocktail is quite common at Lib), but we also saw a tiki-inspired, juiced-up concoction served in a tree trunk (!). As many Belgians are not used to cocktails yet, a strong focus is put on the diversity of the offerings and staff is always on hand to help. They’re building trust, and it pays off: “We know what our bestsellers are going to be, but we like to have a couple cocktails with ingredients people are not used to. We can now go further than at the beginning”, says Harouna. According to Karoline, “people know this and come on the look for new sensations. And when clients tell us they don’t like a spirit, we try and reintroduce him or her to it. If it works, perfect!”. Whether you’re an experimented drinker on the look for a nice cocktail in a welcoming atmosphere or a beginner with a desire for education, there’s not better place to stop by in Brussels than Life is Beautiful.
Life is Beautiful, Rue Antoine Dansaert 161, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium. Tue to Sat from 5.30 pm. https://www.libcocktailbar.com