Domkeller, Aachen

back to Germany

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities & Events – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10
Hof 1, 52062 Aachen, Germany

Although it shouldn’t, it comes as a surprise to me, as much as a relief to have located a cosy, non-corporate pub slap-bang in the middle of a European city centre.

However, Belgium and Netherlands make a habit of it, and these nations just so happen to be Aachen’s closest neighbours.

This German border city and the Low Countries (either of which can be reached in an hour walk from Aachen centre) share a host of cultural cues, with the city itself having initial importance as a Roman spa town before the cult of Imperial Rome spawned Charlemagne and the crowning of 31 Holy Roman Emperors in the subsequent centuries. Aachen also enjoyed a position as a major trading point between nations, goods and wares shipped from the North Sea ports, which may help explain the cultural overlap.

Don’t be under the impression Aachen is any less German for it – believe me, Aachen is a firm fixture of Nord-Rhein Westphalia, and this mixture today results in interesting blends of buildings as you walk around town. Its town hall and surrounding Gothic buildings in the Altstadt could as easily appear as far away as Ghent or Nijmegen without raising any suspicion, but similarly, the remnants of the city wall and the post-war reconstruction are as German as it comes. The cultural centre of Aachen isn’t a large ensemble of buildings when compared to some places, but they are nonetheless impressive and occupy a bigger portion of the city than Cologne or Dusseldorf’s old towns, for example. Aachen is easy to get to from virtually anywhere nearby, and its attractions justify you spending a night here.

Domkeller is situated in the heart of town in an attractive brick townhouse on the small Hof square (you know you’re somewhere central when Hof appears). The scene is made all the more picturesque by a ruined arch halfway along and the distinctive houses that line the square, all fitted with huge grid windows of the kind you normally expect to see on Burgher houses.

 

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The risk is that Domkeller could so easily be one of those common tourist traps and a let-down given its advantageous situation. Instead, you will find the opposite is true.

Domkeller is neither based at the cathedral, or in fact a cellar venue (that ceased to be true in the 1980s, apparently, due to safety regulations), however its proximity and age, dating back at least until the 1950s justifies a name of such significance.

This pub enjoys a handsome trade of local people both young and old who are happy to sit and socialise among the odd tourist (such as myself) or group of businessmen that are passing through.

It’s a place that invites interactions with other people; that magic chemistry where strangers who would otherwise be ignoring each other feel they can cross the divide. That alone would be a good reason to include Domkeller on our guide. Aside of that – the antifascist sign near the entrance is proof that many of these elements go hand-in-hand.

Be assured, the appeal doesn’t stop there. As you walk in through a corner door you will find a cosy room with bar area to your right and communal bench seating with fixed small tables. To your left is some chunkier furniture and further benches. Beyond the bar area is the second part of the room, which again is based around bench seating by the walls and has the effect that most of the time you are spent in an enclosed space where you are looking at and interacting with what’s inside rather than what’s outside.

Domkeller accepts orders at the bar but keeps table service operating and prefers that – it is quick, attentive and polite without being too formal. You’ll be needing a drink of course, and here is where Domkeller comes into its own.

The choices of beer are certainly quality over quantity, but even this selection is encyclopaedic when compared to most German venues. Here at Domkeller, several bases are covered. They have various styles of German beer on tap covering Kolsch, Altbier, Landbier, Pils and Hefeweissbier – most of which are from medium-sized, not corporate breweries – and a suite of Belgian bottles which are mostly the familiar Trappist and Abbey ales, but nonetheless hugely welcome in a nation that is not fond of selling beer brewed by anyone except themselves. Believe me, travel east from Domkeller, stop in each pub you find and it will be a long time before you see as many Belgium beers again.

The atmosphere is also quite fitting for drinking whisky, something which the management appear to have recognised a long time ago – take a look at the drinks menu for a few interesting options.

Prices are along the typical level for this part of the world – perhaps cheaper than Maastricht up the road, a little cheaper than Cologne too, though perhaps a little more expensive than Liege and the rest of Wallonia, which is after all a poorer region of Belgium than Flanders. For a city centre venue, it’s fair value.

Domkeller’s website claims their Weinstube (the upper floor, accessed via a central staircase by the end of the bar) is converted into a small concert hall every Monday night, which I can imagine drumming up even more atmosphere in this place. These start at 8PM, and the pub won’t accept new entrants after 7.30PM.

The upper floor is a lighter shade than the downstairs with a surprisingly high ceiling, though still decorated in a simple, traditional style. There is a gently sloping roof at one side of the room which adds a bit of character. I would rather be downstairs, but would certainly accept a seat upstairs if that was what remained.

Domkeller have a relaxed attitude towards bringing food into eat, which is a refreshing change and shows the sort of pragmatism that people who know pubs recognise but accountants do not. Clearly any food is going to make a person thirsty for more of their fine beers – who loses?

Have I mentioned the opening hours yet? Bloody brilliant! How many cities have I been to that practically shut up shop by midnight? A lot. Too many. Expect Domkeller to serve your needs well into the early hours of the morning, in fair weather or foul, throughout the week.  This, along with the friendly company and Belgian ales explained why I found it very difficult to leave and go to bed!

Speaking of weather, the place throws itself open as the weather improves, with outside seating on the square. This is of course a pleasant place to sit back and enjoy the sun, but the true character of the place is indoors in my opinion, a wonderful refuge from the bitter winter weather – the core creation should be at the core of the appeal.

Across Europe, places like Domkeller, based so close to the centre of the city, have ceased to be cult venues long ago and sold out to middle aged tourists to become a generic café.

It’s great to see that the real character of Aachen endures and therefore we say, ‘long live Domkeller’ – and hopefully see you again very soon!

Au Daringman, Brussels

back to Belgium

Rue de Flandre 37, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Décor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Rue Des Flandres, in St. Catherine quarter is a great road for a bar crawl, host of several venues varying between good and great. In my view Au Daringman belongs to the great category, not only for the street but for Brussels more widely – I know, high praise in a city jam-packed with great bars.

The primary reason I reach this view is that despite the bar scene across Europe turning increasingly corporate, this brown café still feels like a personal venture. Despite being surrounded by crowds of people, passing trade of tourists and the daily grind, Au Daringman supplies an oasis of calm, moody contemplation during the day and an alternative-feeling cosy haunt at night.

Upon arrival you’ll note an attractive red exterior with old Stella hoarding, partly obscured by the greenery cascading down the front of the entrance, a look which is typical for a street with plenty of side-alleys and greenery.

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In the afternoon the bar is managed by the charismatic Martine (the pub known locally as Martine’s or Chez Martine), the managing in the quiet hours extending no further than being propped up on a stool reading a newspaper or a book, filing her nails, peering over the rim of her specs and drinking coffee.

On first appearances there doesn’t appear to be all that much maintenance required of Au Daringman other than a morning clean, watering of the plants and the odd keg change/clean of the lines, but it is clear the enterprise is a labour of love.

This café is so named because the original owner was a boxer and member of the Daring Club de Bruxelles in the 1950s and 1960s, a Molenbeek-based football club whose players were referring to as the Daringmen. Read further here.

Au Daringman also proves what a solid basis the ‘brown café’ is as a concept to work outwards from. Let’s compare other Brussels venues: Le Coq is the archetypal Belgian boozer, Monk is an elegant historical recreation, and Au Daringman is the off-beat jazz era cousin, with artistic leanings. Yet all of these still belong to the same pub family.

There are lots of interesting touches to the decor, from the cubist textured wood paneling, to a board with what appear to be scores from a local table football league. Apparently the bar has been going since 1942 – it looks like most of the bar hasn’t been significantly altered since the 1970s.

The simplicity extends to the beer choices on tap – it’s very standard stuff. Stella, Leffe, or Hoegaarden. In Belgium at least, all three of these are a reasonable standard.

While it may not be apparent – at least not during my visits – they also boast a host of bottled drinks, some of the well-known Trappist, Abbey and lambic Belgian ales along with some lesser-seen ones such as Gageleer.

On my last visit I spent two hours here quietly, with no book and no telephone function (imagine that in this day an age).  The beautiful simplicity of sitting among the wood paneling and minimalist jazz memorabilia, enjoying a beer and alone your thoughts sums up what Au Daringman is about during the day. Au Daringman wants to make you feel at home, but also quietly oozes cool.

While the bar becomes a lively place in the evening, almost transformed in doing so, some essence of the place goes missing when it is crowded. However, that goes with my impression, which may not be yours. As with Monk, I recommend visiting in the early evening when it begins calm then slowly starts to bubble up.

Despite Instagram cataloguing the world, you won’t find much online presence for Au Daringman, as presumably its location on Rue De Flandres makes advertising superfluous.

Yet another brilliant Brussels bar and an essential visit on the ‘brown café’ circuit in the city.

P.S – Sadly Martina does not own the building itself, so this is a bar that may be on borrowed time. All the more reason to visit while you still can!

Further reading:

http://becinbrussels.blogspot.com/2012/05/au-daringman.html

Have you visited Au Daringman? Perhaps it is your local. Please get in touch with any feedback or comments regarding the above!

De Pilsener Club (De Engelse Reet), Amsterdam

back to Netherlands

Begijnensteeg 4, 1012 PN Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –9/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Brown cafés warrant the name because of their shared characteristics, but the term is best served as a general guide to indicate a few of their recurring themes rather prescribing a precise template. Exploration of these pubs across Belgium and Netherlands will reveal a surprising diversity in décor and atmosphere.

Some emerged from a jazz/blues tradition and are decorated accordingly, even hosting live acts as a revival or preservation of that. There are some upscale brown cafes which take their cues from the roaring twenties: high society, art nouveau and all that. There are English/French style taverns which blend vaulted beams and thick wood with the bric-a-brac décor and beer ephemera you’d expect in a brown café. There there are working class venues with a simple format: rickety furniture, dusty floors, yellowed walls and good booze.

It seems though, whichever angle the owner deigns to take, the fundamental basics of what constitute a great pub are inherent in the DNA of a brown café which put them at a distinct advantage. Whether it’s the fantastic Belgian beer, their aforementioned styling choices, their character and atmosphere that evolves over the course of a day and remains as appealing whether you’re sat there on your own or among a tangle of people, you have to go pretty far to mess this concept up.

The rather crappily-named De Pilsener Club goes by another far better name ‘De Engelse Reet’, or ‘English Arse’. This place is one of Amsterdam’s core historic brown cafes dating back to 1893, and this place is content to be down-to-earth and working class.

There is a no-bullshit attitude to the entire arrangement: it’s brown alright, from the walls to the tables and chairs, and the floor has that aged spit-and-sawdust type look to it that probably has been cleaned daily but has been around so long it has received stains and wear that won’t rub out. Characterful, basically. A notable quirk is that there is no bar at all, all drinks are prepared in a backroom and then brought out.

Drinking is done across a set of communal tables along a small rectangular room with a fairly high ceiling, so you get a cosy surrounding but a woozy sense of space if you look up. The lighting and ambience gives that sense that it could be virtually any time of day and feel the same.

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Drinking pilsener isn’t even half of the point of being here. The purpose of your visit is to drink some high quality, and invariably strong Belgian and specialist Dutch ale in these surroundings. Trappiste, abbey, lambics, micro-brewery stuff. These are proudly displayed above the head of the bar. Alternatively (or potentially in addition to) you can try their decent enough range of jenevers or order a cocktail (I’m not sure why you would feel the need to do the latter in a place such as this, but alcohol is a strange master at times).

There is a nice range of clientele in the place that give it a nice community feel. Old men sipping their beer over a newspaper, groups of youngster sharing conversation, couples diving in from the bad weather (in our case), business folk holding-forth over the worn-through tables. It is the kind of place which manages to be inclusive without turning itself into a safety first bland chain pub, and maintains what it wants to be without discriminating in the ageist and stylist fashion many craft beer pubs do. Of course, being in central Amsterdam will help, but natural advantages still count.

Beer isn’t cheap in Western Europe these days, and it’s no exception in here. Expect to pay 5 euros and upwards for a 0.25l pouring or a 0.33l bottle, although keep content in the knowledge the quality is among the best you’re likely to get. Given the savings to be made elsewhere in the city centre are 20 cents here and there at most, and that a pint of Heineken regularly clocks in at 5.50+ these days, it seems churlish to complain about paying 5 euros for a Rochefort 8. You certainly pay more in England.

As the evening progresses and the alcohol takes effect, the browns and off-whites of the room form a rather comforting hue, and the hubbub of conversation adds to that great calming melange where you really wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. And that’s great because it stays open until 2am.

In most towns and cities this place would be the best pub by a country mile. Up against seriously stiff competition in Amsterdam, De Pilsener Club eschews all gimmickery, sell-out concessions, and, if you excuse the waiter’s rather formal attire, modernisation of any kind, and does a good trade being what it is, a thoroughly likable, characterful place for a drink and a good time. Google reviews are almost uniformly positive about the place and after a visit it’s easy to see why. Mark my words, their words and place it firmly on your hitlist.

 

Känguruh, Vienna

back to Austria

kanguruh
Bürgerspitalgasse 20, 1060 Wien, Austria

It’s a slightly off-kilter situation for Vienna’s best bar to specialise in Belgian beer and be called Kangaroo, but there you are.

Känguruh is apparently a reference to the frequent confusion between Austria and Australia, although why it then goes to offer a large menu of bottled Belgian beer is anyone’s guess. So stylistic consistency…not really this place’s strong suit. However, it’s all good things from here.

The beers are nearly all 4 euros 50, which in certain cases is extraordinarily good value, meaning you can try rare small batch brews, quadrupel strength beers, lambic, etc for less than you would pay in Brussels city centre. As anyone who has tried Belgian beer can expect, the quality is terrific (though the staff will weary a little if you keep making them leave the bar area to dig out their rarer items from the archives at the back). However, the bar also have 6 taps on rotation, largely German and Czech beer if you require lighter high-volume refreshment and there’s barely a crap beer in sight.

Aside from the beers being exceptionally good, the venue itself is cracking. Although the pub is street-facing, they have made a conscious choice to cut off the light filtering through from outside world (it faces a bland street so there isn’t much of a view anyway), so it is one of those places where the transition from outside to inside and vice versa is quite dramatic. I find these sorts of places great at engendering a sense of community – perhaps it’s their ability to make you feel like you’ve left real life temporarily, meaning that while you sit there and continue your drinks and chat, all must be well.

 

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In summer you may find the street-facing terrace area outside open but that really defeats the object of the visit. It’s all about diving into the bowels of a shady, cosy pub.

There is a round bar area and the main room offers largely stool seating, which isn’t ideal, however does reflect the general popularity. The room in the back offers a little more lounge comfort. The atmosphere is shady, candlelit and dramatic, the crowd a mixture of ruminating solo drinkers (referred to as “einslers” in German), couples and friendly youngsters enjoying the close feel and the candle-lit gloom.

Such a place is very appropriate for knocking back Belgian ale, and before long all the outlines of your sight will start to become a little fuzzy. There is a reasonable turnover of patrons so if you don’t strike up a conversation at first, hang around and see what happens. Känguruh stays open til 2am, so let that Belgian ale loosen your lips and you may find just about anything seems able to happen – make a new friend, get punched in the face – the roulette wheel of inebriation spins pretty fast in this place.

Känguruh is a well-known about local legend, one not likely to change in any way any time soon, and an essential visit while in Vienna. One of those places when after your first visit you’ve already decided, ‘if I lived here, this would be my local’.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 10/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10