Amsterdam’s “Brown Cafes”

amsterdams-brown-cafes, cr-Pinterest

amsterdams-brown-cafes, cr-Pinterest

Pub Crawling in Amsterdam, Netherlands

(***Please note, these cafes and pubs are not the marijuana or cannabis cafes that have been in the Dutch news from today).

“I have a pinger in my stomach” announced Blix from Norway at 5pm.

“What? Excuse me?”

“This pinger goes ping, ping. It’s telling me it’s time for a gin and tonic”.

This was a good omen, a good start to a fine evening. The conference we were attending in Amsterdam had arranged a “Historic Pub Crawl”, with five different routes, so a group of us got together to explore the pubs and bars in this city famous for pubs and bars. Amsterdam’s well-known brown cafes are everywhere, so called because of their nicotine-stained ceilings and wooden interiors. Many are so old they look as though they’ve been there forever. Since Amsterdam has just about as many brown cafes and bars as it has tulips, we were happy for suggestions on where to go.

Blix was in fine form. “There are one million two hundred thousand pubs in Amsterdam”.

“Really?” asked a guy from Australia.

“Well, I really made that up, but just look around you. There are at least a couple on every street.
There must be thousands”.

The ones we visited each had their own interesting character. Our friend, Sandra, spoke to some Dutch people at the conference and they were impressed with the chosen list, so it must be fairly representative of what pubs here in Amsterdam are really like.

The pubs focus on beers, mainly Dutch and Belgian, but many also have Dutch gin (Jenever). Be aware that these beers are very strong, and can go quickly to your head if drunk quickly. After two pubs and three strong beers, one guy kept saying, “ We need food.  I need something solid”. Tram lines and curbs are a bit rough around the city and it’s easy to trip even if you haven’t been drinking. All beers have the alcohol content listed on the menu, which is a good idea, as many are really strong—some, at 10%, like wine.

Apparently many locals don’t pub crawl really; they go to one place and stay there, or perhaps go to two places. But for us visitors it was a great way to sample a variety of pubs. You can combine the beer drinking with pub food, or eat at one of the many restaurants around.

We focused on the Spui, and Leidseplein, one of the liveliest squares in Amsterdam, with theatres on one side and many restaurants and cafes on the other three, but you could also focus on Rembrandtplein (named after the famous painter of the “Nightwatch”, who lived in a house just a few blocks away), or the Nieuwmarkt, adjacent to the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) Red Light District. We “crawled” around the following six pubs over three evenings, as we ended up staying and chatting to locals in each one for a long time.

1. HOPPE, on the Spui, a small triangular plaza between Amsterdam’s two busiest shopping streets, Kalverstraat and Leidsestraat. There are two parts to this famous pub. The section on the right has been a bar since 1670 and the interior reflects a rich history. The sand on the floor is refreshed each day, no music is played and there is standing room only. The left part is bigger, with seating and music.

Hoppe is very popular, especially on Fridays, with the crowd spilling out onto the sidewalk on summer days—friendly, well-dressed folk coming after work. It’s a proving ground for new Heineken products, as they’re launched here first, and it’s also the originator of genuine HOPPE jenever. Service is great with excellent barmen, so sit at the bar or on a bench or just stand outside with a Heineken and enjoy!

2. DANTE is on Spuistraat, a few steps up from Hoppe. It is much bigger, as it’s a bar, restaurant and gallery, showcasing many works of Herman Brood. He was a rock-and-roll hero of Holland, who was known as much for his art as for his excesses. Other modern art also adorns the walls and you can wander around to admire. The restaurant and its terrace face Singel Canal, and the bar has a heated terrace on Spuistraat. Inside is decorated with beautiful Italian marble and wood, but we sat outside on the terrace, overlooking tables on the sidewalk. Young people crowded the tables, and loud pop music blared. A very friendly young waiter suggested Vos, a Dutch beer, strong and slightly sour tasting, served in big goblets.

3. De SWART is next to Hoppe, with some tables outside facing the Spui, where we sat and watched the world go by before the sun went down. To get your order, push your way through the small, very crowded bar inside. We had Belgian Palm beer here, a lager type, somewhat similar to Heineken.

4. DE SCHUTTE (The Marksman), at 13 Voetboogstraat, not far from the Spui, has some tables outside but the best part of this (literally) brown cafe is inside. Walk up steep dark wood stairs to where the action is—a huge area, open to the street with big windows. There are lots of small brown wooden tables on a brown wood floor and a big bar, the high ceiling decorated with used tea bags dangling down!  I wonder how they stay up there? A second big room is decorated with many bright pop posters on the walls. The pop music was quite loud, but not
overpowering.

People of all ages, some tourists and many locals, can choose from a huge selection of tasty Belgian beers. We had St Louis Kriek beer, cherry flavor—only 4.5% alcohol content—kinda like a beer cooler. Many Belgian beers are fruit flavored. There’s a limited food menu (chops, salads) but the platters were huge and smelled delicious, and could be a good snack with your beer. Be warned, a good, strong Belgian beer can be a meal in and of itself.

5. DE ZOTTE (Belgian for drunken fool) is a great little brown cafe, not far from Leidseplein, at Raamstraat 29, which offers about 160 beers (many Belgian). Coffee is also possible, which some people did order. “Bieren Van ‘t Vat” is “beers on tap”, in two four-tap brass towers that offer a tasty Amstel, Hoegaarden, La Chouffe, Brugs, Brigand, Palm or Leffe. We had Leffe Blond (in a small goblet with Leffe written on it), 6.6% alcohol, a lager type. Each type of beer is served in a special glass (different shape and size) often with the name of the beer engraved on the glass. Then we tried Westmalle, a Trappist beer, served in a larger goblet, a much darker color, 7%, with a slightly sour taste. The Trappist monks are famous for liquor of all sorts.  Note, Rochefort beer is 10% and thus really potent!  One of our party had Kwak beer, an amber malty beer, served in a double flask, a tradition since 1791.

The atmosphere and ambiance are great, dim and noisy with many buzzing conversations almost drowning out the jazz music, sort of homey with a collection of old bottles on top of a shelf behind the bar, and walls decorated with beer signs and posters; a plain scrubbed wooden floor, and a few plain wooden tables; candles on tables and the bar. It was very crowded so we were lucky to get two bar stools and space at the bar. A few tourists mingle in with the locals, many young guys, but also couples, some eating a meal too. Some of the drinkers also ordered just bread, a good idea with the strong beer. It seemed to be more a young person’s bar as we saw more young people than older. The very friendly bar tenders were just two young guys, in jeans and open shirts, doing an amazing job and coping with all the people.

6. At CAFE EIJLDERS, just off Leidseplein, at Korte Leidsedwaarsstraat 47, the ambiance is different to de Zotte—more open, airy, light, like a lounge with some tables and booths inside, and tables in a glassed-in verandah jutting onto the narrow street. It boasts background music, tiled floor, lights as well as candles, a big vase of fresh lilies on the bar and framed bright pictures of flowers on the wood-panelled walls, and no beer signs. Very relaxed bar tenders in black and white and bow ties serve unobtrusively.

We met the friendly resident black cat, which sits on the piano a lot of the time, but sometimes comes onto the table and people stroke it. This is a popular local place as many locals play cards or backgammon in some of the booths. We had Belgian Duvel beer, in a bottle, 8.5%, which is light in color, similar to Leffe.

Even though it looks more up-market, the prices are pretty good. We went back another night for espresso coffee and calvados and only paid 18 euro for 2 espressos and 2 calvados. Coffee (or tea) is always served here with a biscuit or a chocolate on the saucer, which is a nice touch.

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