Bar Crawls: Amsterdam – Brown Cafés & Jenever Houses

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When arranging a bar crawl in Amsterdam, the phrase ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ comes to mind. This city knows about pub-going more than most, having over a thousand drinking holes in the city limits! Unlike other similar cities of its size, Amsterdam has done a reasonable job of preserving some of its oldest and most characterful venues.

Some of the preservation is a happy accident, with original residents moving to outlying areas to escape escalating rent prices and to make way for the bars, restaurants and rental apartments needed to sustain the tourist hordes, but no matter, as everyone is the beneficiary of these old places staying in business.

Something about Amsterdam lends itself well to pubs. The damp climate and frequent biting wind off the sea drives you inside. The city’s tall, thin townhouses create a naturally characterful layout for pubs, with many pubs left utilising height rather than width. Lastly, as a working class port, you can well expect a historically high demand for booze, not so much for trend-following, hence a lot of old-time boozers have survived.

This crawl concentrates on the two drinking holes peculiar to the Low Countries, the brown café and the jenever tasting house or proeflokaal. The former and the latter can be very similar in appearance and occasionally are one and the same thing; those subtle differences from place to place are part of the charm.

In a brown café expect the colour scheme to match the description. Wood, brass and glass, sometimes adorned with antiques and old breweriana. They’ll sell Dutch lager, Belgian ales and jenever.

“At a brown café you immediately think of an authentic café with a story, such a traditional, old-fashioned pub with scarce lighting and lots of dark brown wood. There is an intimate atmosphere, a feeling of domestic cosiness and security. The brown pub does indeed owe its name to all that dark and smoky.  Often the wallpaper and curtains of such a café are also literally browned by the smoke.”

At a Jenever house you may expect slightly more comfort and higher standard in general – upholstered seats perhaps, and a little more of a homely, twee feel appealling to the more middle-aged and middle class. But then again, not necessarily.

Where to start this crawl has been both the hardest/easiest task, as there’s simply so much choice, options poking at you from all angles. My selection below is perhaps not the ‘off the beaten path’ choice some will prefer (but be patient, as further crawls are on their way), but is designed for a newcomer to Amsterdam who wishes to experience some of the core drinking delights. Although some featured here are popular and mainstream, this is for good reason.

We start off at 1. ‘t Smalle, just west of the centre, a suitable venue for visiting in the late morning/lunchtime. The brunch style food offerings are simple and warming while the layout and early ambience of the place is genteel enough to deserve the title café in other countries as well.  However, don’t worry, this is no greasy spoon. You’re in a pub alright.

Clock the magnificent drinks cabinet behind the bar as you walk in, the brandy barrels and the arcaded area at the back, accessible via those steep creaky steps. This place has been steeped in character of a kind impossible to fast-track. A former liquor distillery, it was opened back in 1780 by the aptly-named Pieter Hoppe.

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While seated in the mezzanine gallery your view overlooking the bar is a pleasant way to spectate on proceedings, but you may also prefer the atmosphere downstairs among the activity at bar. As per usual service is direct, plain-speaking but amiable and talkative. We aren’t in Cologne or Prague, in Amsterdam bar staff generally give a damn about making you feel welcome.

A bit of housekeeping at this point: Don’t expect great value anywhere this close to the centre of Amsterdam. Drinks are charged at 4 euros and upwards. Now, released from the burden of pretending this will be anything other than a pounding on your wallet, you can concentrate simply on enjoying yourself.

Time to move on! Take a walk East, along the canal side which will take you past some  sights you’ll have marked on your map – Anne Frank Huis, the Westerkerke and perhaps a coffeeshop or two (please do your research if you’re serious about partaking in that). It’s on walks like these you can really appreciate the scale of the old city; the continuity and integrity of the architecture. Perhaps not quite as effortlessly beautiful as somewhere like Brugge but strikingly distinctive.

Our next stop 2. In De Wildeman is a great all-round pub. The interior is pleasantly rustic in neither an ancient way nor an affected post-modern way either. It simply ties together well. The tiled floor and tall windows help give the place an understated class. Those timber beams add to the homeliness. It ties together well. The furnishings give it a slight kitchen/pantry feel, reflecting that it too was once a distillery – and do check both rooms out while you’re there. You don’t lose points for being nosey.

In De Wildeman is one of the best central places if you like beer, with a well-chosen range on tap, and an extensive selection of bottles. The staff are once again pleasant and talkative, which is to the credit of such a popular place and really got me thinking how this is used as an excuse for rudeness in other countries.

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You’ll want to stay here for a long time, but that’s not the purpose of this day out! Drink up, and wander across the side of the Damrak, checking the iconic Amsterdam Centraal station and the burgher houses on the east side, that seem to emerge directly from the water. This is the heart of the city, and a touristic area, but not one to miss out on, particularly later in the evening as the lights come on.

It’s Jenever time, and the nicest tasting house for my money is 3. In De Olofspoort, a homely, comfortable tasting room that feels historic, cosy, welcoming and oddly familiar, even when you’re walking in for only the first time. It’s a special place.

With the drink of Jenever being largely unfamiliar to those outside the Low Countries, a helping hand is required to guide you to one matching your tastes. The staff must have to start from scratch dozens of times every day, but are unflinchingly kind and patient as they do so.

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Jenever bottles look odd. Part like they belong in a Georgian apothecary, part like they ought to contain body paint for some Central American tribesmen. The cabinets, stacked with these tall stone containers are interesting decoration enough, and the tasting house experience as a whole will widen your appreciation when considering “what is a pub”?

The next Jenever place is a decidedly different format, so head south past De Oude Kerk (do make sure to drop into any attractions that take your fancy) to 4. Wynand Fockink, a name guaranteed to ensure a smirk or two.

This place is more or less a standing room, save for a few bar stools, and is energetically manned by a gregarious showman and his assistant, who will keep the crowd entertained and reel off a series of recommendations to each person in turn. They serve beer as well – although this is not quite the point of the visit.

The atmosphere is ‘medieval utilitarian’, at a loss of more fitting terminology. A wooden bar, a big shelf creaking under the weight of its load and a room with some coat hooks. However, once their own warming jenever is slipping down, you’ll feel quite happy in the throng watching the rain/snow/other assorted Dutch weather falling outside through those distinctive English-style window-panes.

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After a couple of jenevers you may find the alcohol working quickly at this point. The sugar content doesn’t hurt either (at first), so bouncing out of there back into the draughty streets will feel like you’ve been wound-up like clockwork.

A great place that never seems to be too busy or too quiet is 5. De Pilsener Club, otherwise known as De Engelse Reet (The English Arse!) a pub I have written about in detail HERE as part of a full profile write-up.

An excellent selection of beers in a true brown café. This is a historic venue, in some senses battered and bruised, but only to a positive end effect. An odd pub in that there is no bar facing the seating area, so the staff – always in immaculate white shirts and trousers – scurry back and forth with bottles and glasses from a preparation area, partly visible a the back. It’s a venerable operation that is wholly unconcerned with modernising or gentrifying – all to the good. Sand on the floor, peeling wallpaper and crusty old lithographs for decoration. It’s as though it was born aged.

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This is one of those pubs where you can walk in and find all kinds of life sitting and talking as equals. There’s clearly something egalitarian about that simple wooden furniture. Romantic young couples, stately older ones, excitable groups of tourists and solo gents reading a paper or looking wistfully into the middle distance. This place epitomises the special experience those really fantastic places offer.

Improbably, it then gets better still. Only a short walk away, you’ll find 6. Café De Dokter, a small entrance near the begijnhof that you could easily walk straight past. Indeed, overly close adherence to the Google map compass resulted in my walking directly past it, so close I could have brushed the front door with my coat.

De Dokter belongs in the pantheon of true greats. A tiny bar seating no more than 15 and accommodating 20 more, standing only, it can be a push getting in there, so I recommend turning up around opening time (4PM Wed-Sat) or keeping it flexible, as it may take a few attempts.

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Cobwebs, dust, candelabras, jazz memorabilia and beer ephemera, candlewax and vinyl records abound. Not an inch of space goes to waste.

The owner is a retirement-age, barrel-chested gent who goes about his business in a measured fashion. Kind and patient enough, he does a damn good job, and during slower moments he can be seen on his stool by the record player soaking in the ambience.

You can sense that De Dokter has been a labour of love for quite some time, and has a local fan club as well as a tourist conveyor belt, so there is an ongoing jostling for ownership of the place. You may find it is too stifling for you, but honestly, if you get seated, you’re in for a special time, if you can overlook the jealous eyes at the bar.

Drinks are limited and not really the main focus, but there’s just about enough variety and quality to satisfy standard expectations of a Dutch bar.

What? You managed to actually prise yourself away from there? Well done. I mean, that’s impressive commitment to the cause. You’ve earnt another drink. Carrying on south now, towards the Rijksmuseum area, and to Spui where there’s a small square and what seems at night to be a tonne of neon signage.

Take a look at 7. Hoppe and enter the pub. If you turned right, well done, you’ll find a core brown café room that’s the preferred side of the pub for locals. Take a look at the brandywine barrels behind the bar, an interesting feature of a bar claiming to originate from 1670, and a large artwork to the left of the bar area. You’ll still find the sand spread on the floor.

Guess what? Yep, this place was a 17th century distillery as well! Who’d-a-thunk it?

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It’s charming and very popular, featuring on nearly all tourist recommendations. I recommend it nonetheless as you can’t fake this history and you may only be there once.

Is all the beer and jenever starting to take its toll? Better make this next one the last one. It’s a little bit further on, so take in the cool night air and the even cooler Amsterdam nightlife. We’re heading for an area known as De Pijp, which has a slightly more suburban feel and clusters of locals over

8. Café De Wetering is the final stop before home, a truly atmospheric brown café in a 17th century corner house with some unique period features and a brooding late-night ambience akin to a plotting parlour. The place is easy to spot, draped with ivy with  candles and lamplights glowing through the large front window.

With a pub cat, huge fireplace and communal seating you can guess it’s a cosy spot. (By the way – make sure you have cash on you as they don’t take card.)

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Is it too late for board games? I’ll leave that call to you, but a final drink, at least, surely?

I hope you’ll find space in De Wetering, a quintessentially friendly atmospheric late night hangout, well connected to the tram network to find your way home.

So there we are, my friends. It’s mighty difficult to leave out the great many other bars we could have included, and I’m sure we’ll be back to do a second/third/fourth bar crawl, but this is, I believe, the core of the Amsterdam drinking experience and the starting point for any tourist visiting for the first time, who like you and I enjoy the experience of pub-going.

Alternatives:

De Twee Zwaantjes – Neighbourhood cafe

Proeflokaal Arendsnest – Jenever tasting house

Proeflokaal De Ooievaar – Cosy corner pub for beer or jenever

Café Tapvreugd – Brown cafe

Café Van Daele – Brown cafe

Café Gollem Raamsteeg – Popular locally famous pub/brown cafe

Café Heuvel – Brown cafe

Café Mulder – historic corner cafe