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Frédéric Nicolay invests in local ambiance

 - ©Reporters/Michel GOUVERNEUR

2013-05-15 - Over the past 20 years, Frédéric Nicolay has launched numerous trendy Brussels venues. Bonsoir Clara, the Roi des Belges, the Mappa Mundo, the Belga, the Bar du matin, the Flamingo, the Zébra, the Potemkine, the Walvis… a long (and as yet unfinished) list of addresses bears the imprint of this avowed urbanite. Starting in Saint-Géry, they have gradually multiplied in the capital’s central districts as far as the Canal, as well as in Ixelles and Saint-Gilles.

They include eateries and places where you can have a drink, they have a slightly cultured and very friendly atmosphere, and they are preferably open all through the day, because this launcher of new spaces for living it up is an ‘early to bed, early to rise’ man and loves nothing better than to take full advantage of the daylight.

Uncanny instinct

Nicolay is a well-built man in his forties rooted in the reality of local life, with brown curly hair and his mind forever dwelling on his plans. He is not an architect, not a property developer, and not a restaurateur: don’t ask him what his profession is, as he’s not fond of labels and you will come away with a laconic ‘entrepreneur?’. To tell the truth, he’s not really that bothered.

The press has dubbed him the ‘entrepreneur designer of Brussels’ catering scene’, because what one can say about him is that he possesses an uncanny instinct for finding neglected spots, giving them an atmospheric look and ‘launching’ them. He creates restaurants, bars and bakeries, clubs that people visit out of curiosity and return to because there’s plenty of ambiance, and he has a certain idea about quality of life in the city.

‘A great playing field’

He doesn’t talk very readily about himself, although he replies dutifully to questions when interviewed. Nothing to say about his childhood in the Congo. Not a word about his studies at the Namur school of hotel management. And little more to relate about the start of his career. He reluctantly confides that what he was into twenty years ago was alternative rock, and that he didn’t have any career plans. The reason why he settled in the city centre was that he didn’t have any money. The fact that he stayed on was because there was so much to do and what he personally missed was places in your local area where you could have a drink, chill out, meet people, have fun and so on.

And so it was that various central districts of Brussels – such as Saint-Géry, Dansaert, La Porte de Hal, the right bank of the Canal, or the area around the Flemish Theatre, not to mention Ixelles and Saint-Gilles – gradually saw him coming up with plans that were fairly inexpensive to implement and highly effective. He admits: ‘The price per m² was affordable. And when there’s nothing there, everything is possible, it’s a great playing field!’ These projects were invariably in districts that at that time were fairly unlikely, but where even the smallest initiative could easily become a local landmark – a role that his own projects have often played.

An enthusiast for city life

Is he a trendsetter by calling? It’s not how he would put it. What excites him is the impact that opening a new venue can have on a whole neighbourhood. A convivial atmosphere, a good social mix, different human activities existing side by side – these are hissources of inspiration. He buys the land, creates and sells up: the businesses that he has conjured up are not run by him.

Over time, of course, he has developed a certain style, and the décor has a coherence and an economy of resources that are his trademark. Sometimes, he puts his own money into making the surrounding area more attractive, and plants trees, ‘big trees – they’re more expensive but more alive than saplings, where you have to wait years to see them grow’. Or decorates a blank wall with pallets and trunks picked up at an exhibition… He sees the modern city as a collection of districts which are definitely different, but all of which have the advantages of a village.

Bringing some ambiance to new locations

Yet his vision of the city centre is not naïve – and he sees the centre as extending as far as Schaerbeek and Forest. This free spirit who does not just want to be regarded as a middle-class Bohemian has someradical social fibre, one senses. What does he expect of the government? A thorough renovation of social housing, including the areas around apartment blocks. And a focus of investment on education, because his belief is that school is way to combat social polarisation: ‘That’s how we can give kids a sense of self-worth, a sense of belonging: through education!

So will the man who, over the years, has invested in the Canal area, who set up the Walvis café with its view of the passing barges, continue to operate on both sides of the quays? Probably not: he notes that today, the price per m² by the waterway has risen too high for the types of project that have made his name. But he has other projects in mind, because there is no shortage of spots where he senses the possibility of bringing some ambiance. And in the medium term, he would like to focus on other types of building – less ‘flashy’, as he puts it, than bars and restaurants. Housing, schools, and public spaces: these are the challenges ahead that fire him up.