A hotel restaurant as a destination? It’s a new reality in Antwerp


Two forward-looking establishments on opposite ends of the port city are offering visitors a place to grab a worthy bite, drink a cocktail and spend the night in one stylish fell swoop

Bed, board and beyond

For a long time, hotel restaurants were a desperate last resort: expensive, unappetising and too reliant on a captive audience. But venture to New York or London these days, and you’ll find that every next hotel is styling itself as its hometown’s “living room”.

And now the trend is coming to Flanders. Launched in June, sleek 15-room boutique hotel U Antwerp boasts a top location on the city’s marina. Its foodie credentials are just as stellar: Alongside TV personality Hans Otten, it’s the brainchild of Viki Geunes, chef at the two-star ’t Zilte restaurant in the MAS museum, just opposite.

Otten’s wife Colette van Remortel, a long-time training pilot for Brussels Airlines, is managing the hotel, while Geunes’ wife Viviane Plaquet, a veteran of the restaurant industry, is overseeing the food. The calm, metropolitan-chic decor – each bedroom has a different identity – comes courtesy of Karine Ribbens of the April One interiors firm.

Appropriately, friends Otten and Geunes first met while working on a 2009 reality programme where young contestants vied to manage a hotel. “He was the judge, and I was the host,” Otten recalls. “We kept in touch. He was dreaming about a second restaurant, and my wife was dreaming about her own hotel.”

The rules do not apply

A seasoned traveller, Otten wanted to replicate the more forward-looking hotels he’d come across elsewhere – “experience hubs” where you could eat well, sleep well and drink a decent cocktail under one roof. U Antwerp has three dining areas: a formal, parquet-floored restaurant (pictured), an open-kitchen food bar and a stylish cocktail lounge. In summer months, the vast and picturesque terrace has a prime view of bobbing yachts.

“The name U is because you can choose what you want to do,” explains Geunes. “For example, with Viki’s menu you can choose Italian, Eastern or classic Flemish dishes – which is impossible in most restaurants. You can have a quick bite at the food bar, or eat the full restaurant menu there. You can do what you want. We don’t have any rules.”

We’re a restaurant with a hotel, not a hotel with a restaurant

- Hans Otten of U Antwerp

The duo’s hope was that U Antwerp would become a one-stop shop attracting tourists, business people, families and couples on a dinner date. “It’s everybody all in one place,” says Otten. “And it’s happening, which is beautiful to see.” 

Crucially, rather than the food being just another ingredient in this sumptuous lifestyle pie, it’s the main event. “We’re a restaurant with a hotel, not a hotel with a restaurant,” says Otten.  

Meanwhile, at the other end of town, diagonally across from the currently shuttered Royal Museum of Fine Arts, the former HotelO Sud is fast morphing into integrated hotel dining concept Pilar.

A chance opportunity

Ernest Hemingway’s nickname for his wife – and, oddly, fishing boat – was the name Sam Peeters and Christophe Ysewyn were reserving for their offspring. In the event, it made a suitably cosmopolitan title for their project.

Hotelier Ysewyn worked in the building on Leopold de Waelplaats in its previous guise, when it housed a restaurant and hotel, under separate management. When HotelO opted to focus on other branches, he and Peeters, an interior designer, leapt at the chance.    

“The location is really good,” says Peeters. “You have Café Hopper, Patine and the famous pitta place Finjan. But this place was always a bit lost. We saw a great opportunity to give it a new direction.”

Like U Antwerp, Pilar aims to be a multi-purpose hangout – nothing too posh or uptight but, as Ysewyn puts it, “a house where everything is possible.” The upstairs hotel, which will be properly rebranded when it opens later this month – the O sign still casts a ghostly shadow – will house 17 rooms ranging from 25 square metres to 75-square-metre suites. All the art adorning the walls will be for sale.

We made it because we couldn’t find it – that’s our tagline

- Sam Peeters of Pilar

Downstairs already functions as a relaxed all-day cafe serving breakfast, lunch and – while terrace season holds – sharing-style dinners. The menu, led by fresh ingredients, is low on fuss and high on vegetarian-friendly comfort food – avocado toast, sweet potato tart, green soup. In a month or so, Pilar will start offering dinner from Thursday to Saturday.

Also downstairs, a shop acts as a canvas for Pilar’s eclectic sourcing. Alongside the hotel’s bespoke blankets and cushions, it stocks Peeters’ desks and candlesticks he makes with his mother as well as backpacks by a friend of the duo.

Haute French perfumery Le Labo, choosy about its hook-ups, has contributed toiletries for the bedrooms and a special hotel fragrance for the shop. “They’re paraben-free, which is very important to us,” says Peeters. “It’s not easy to be sustainable in this industry but we try,” he adds, pointing out that the smart sofa in one corner of the cafe originally belonged to his grandfather.

Meanwhile, what he says of the ceramics in the kitchen, and the unusually anti-corporate meeting room, also goes for Pilar itself: “We made it because we couldn’t find it – that’s our tagline.”
Photo courtesy Hungry for More/U Antwerp