De Pilsener Club (De Engelse Reet), Amsterdam

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

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
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10