Het Galgenhuis, Ghent

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Groentenmarkt 5, 9000 Gent, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities & Events – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Galgenhuis, ‘The Gallows House’ is Ghent’s most central and historical pub, occupying a small but nevertheless fascinating and lurid position in the city’s heritage. Set on a corner by the Kleine Vismarkt bridge, and strapped onto the  striking Groot Vleeshuis, the uneconomically modest size never gives the impression of being a likely pub venue.

It’s name stems from a medieval pillory based on the rear of the roof, used in those days to shame criminals. A former fish stall, tripe house, then schandstraffen, Galgenhuis has seen its fair share of fishy doings, both before and following its conversion into a pub during the 1700s. There is some terrific writing about the history of the building to be found here and here.

All the same, it’s 2019, so what’s the place like now? Well, you enter via steps down off the street, past a small patio area. Upon entering you’re greeted with a one room bar with arched ceiling, barely larger than a shed. They believe it is one of, if not the smallest pubs in Ghent.

 

The bar room fits a row of bench seats on each side, and just enough space in the middle to congregate if they are full. There is also a very cosy little mezzanine area up steps behind the bar. The terrace area on the square is very probably bigger than the standing area in pub itself. You will enjoy a great view of the square, sure, but you’ll be getting that the moment you leave anyway – it isn’t really the same as being in a pub, is it?

Despite the limited space in the main room, Galgenhuis boasts ample space in the cellars by virtue of the tunnels built under the Groot Vleeshuis for fishermen and greengrocers back in t’ day. There were, by some accounts, historical problems with the moisture, restricting its usage, but these days they boast of a refurbishment and as you may notice, the cellar can now be rented out for parties and suchlike.

Galgenhuis counts in my book as a ‘brown café’ due to the traditional furnishings and genteel down-to-earth atmosphere in the main room; very much a Flemish pub, but the history of the venue means it has been bestowed with additional historical features that predate the style. Cast your eyes over the impressive painted tiled walls and beamed ceiling painted with some rather threatening gallows-appropriate slogans in gothic lettering. This in my view takes it to another level. Our level.

However, while I love all of that, unfortunately the whitewashed exterior and the splashing of an – in my view – rather bland logo across the wall of the building sticks out a mile in front of some grand stepped-gable houses by the water front. I’m afraid the signage is not really in keeping with the tradition or the interior making the place look far more bland than it actually is. That’s disappointing, as they previously had Gothic signage, but it’s a matter of personal opinion.

This isn’t a concern once you’re inside however, as it can’t be seen. Believe me, if you’re lucky enough to find a seat in here you’ll feel like remaining for the duration. Perhaps it’s the modest size that makes it feel like the centre of the action, being so close to the water nearby and the goings-on in the street, it really does feel like being inside a capsule, one that might even detach itself from the town and leave you up to your neck in the Leie.

Perhaps this is because the bar area is set a half-level down from the street, and so with plenty of windows facing at ground level, it gives the impression of a grotto. In actuality this was to assist bargemen unload their wares – today it is merely an attractive quirk.

If you strip back the numerous eccentricities that add to the charm of Galgenhuis, you will still find a fundamentally sound pub that does the simple stuff well. A cosy room, jovial atmosphere, and during the evening that classic golden glow that emerges from time spent in a well-decorated friendly pub room and careful application of beer.

Speaking of beer, there is a small but decent selection of Belgian ales on tap, from Tongerlo (an excellent though not always common option) down to Primus lager, while hardly Pilsner Urquell in lager stakes, nevertheless preferable to Jupiler and is an acceptable fallback option if the dubbels, tripels and quadrupels are getting on top of you. Prices are as you’d expect for a pub in the middle of an affluent city centre in Northern Europe (ie. belt up), but the manager reminds me that a glass of Primus costs €2.20, in itself a very reasonable price for the city centre.

The bar staff carry out their job with pride, clearly in the knowledge they are playing their small part in the continuation of Galgenhuis. I also felt they were among the more friendly Ghent servers, while considering the places I visited. By contrast, the forgivably wonderful Den Turk (follow the link for our full review) boasts about its ‘Ghent arrogance’: impressive in print, but reflected in fairly charmless service in person. Thankfully  basic pleasantries are still deemed fashionable here at Galgenhuis.

The central location means you can shoot off from here to half a dozen other bars and pubs within minutes, making it suitable for a pub crawl, but the high demand for seating puts the experience itself at a premium. If you are lucky enough to grab a table, why not bed in for a full afternoon session and get drinking?

Have you been to Galgenhuis? Agree or disagree with our take on it? We’d love to find out what you think – please drop us a line in the comments below or join the discussion in our Facebook group!

 

Café Mulder, Amsterdam

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Weteringschans 163, 1017 XD Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Picture the scene: Amsterdam in winter, one of those dire evenings when gales blow in off the North Sea all the way up De Pijp, whipping sleet in your face. Meanwhile, the going underfoot lurches from ice rink to quagmire with each step. Checking to your right for the cyclist that probably isn’t there (but inevitably will break your arm the one time you don’t bother checking) – and then left to see if any motorists fancy testing how well their airbags work. Each movement of your leg invites a splash of freezing sludge and fresh test of your balance.

Across the roundabout we spot a window glowing like a beacon, heat from the room condensing on the glass, the silhouette of drinkers and the sound of good cheer – it’s a pub – rarely has there been a more fine or  welcome sight.

Shuffling precariously across the ice I spot the sign above the bar confirming the establishment and nothing can stop us now. While there isn’t video evidence to prove otherwise, you may take my word for it, I’ve never homed in on an Amstel sign with such vigour and enthusiasm.

Amsterdam is well-used to this appallingly unpleasant weather and therefore well-prepared in its provision of shelter and booze. In late spring and summer Café Mulder flings open its doors and spreads out into the street front, but on a night like tonight this traditional brasserie turns into a refuge.

Being hugged, wrapped in a fresh towel and ushered inside would be the ideal welcome, but the blast of warmth and prospect of a stiff drink ably substitutes.

The pub was as busy as it looked from the outside, full of folk relieved indeed to be anywhere except outside. Now, ensconced among a mixture of regulars and tourists, a drink and a chat will do the trick very nicely.

Seeing an Amstel sign would normally be a bad omen, but their sickly dross is ubiquitous in the city and it’s genuinely more difficult to find such a place that doesn’t also serve other, better beer. So, here you can choose between a pint of that insipid liquid or a smaller portion of something far nicer for the same price.

Outside of craft beer enthusiasts perhaps, it’s difficult to think that beer drinkers could be too upset by the selections here, especially as the place isn’t wholly beer-focused. The likes of Brugse Zot and De Koninck on tap, and at least 7 or 8 genuinely good bottles provide a stock that, while it could be better in variation and sizes, covers several bases well and isn’t going to let too many people down.

It’s nice to see that the place provides a small selection of food rather than turning itself into a dining room, so if you fancy wolfing down some soup, toasties or bitterballen (I wouldn’t blame you in weather like this) get involved. You can even get a hot boiled egg – very old fashioned and it doesn’t take away from the pub feel.

There’s a bit of extra character too with a pub cat and you’ll note it claims to be the most authentic pub in Amsterdam“. A bold claim (not one it backs up in any way) but this is really for you to explore and see for yourself.

Ronald Pattinson of European Beer Guide fame – a man worth listening to about Dutch brown cafés – commented:

“I’m still regularly pleasantly surprised by Amsterdam’s pub scene. While simple, unpretentious cafés like this survive in such numbers, I’ll pass on the razor blades.”

Mulder fits into the brown café aesthetic beloved of the Low Countries but has a hint of the French brasserie to my eyes, with enormous windows and a more classically corner bar layout.  The pub-like elements come from an impressively ornate bar area and shelf unit, the stylish old décor, rustic furniture and the type of socialising going on within, which certainly on a bitter night swings towards the communal. The sense of history helps too, with a lot of features looking turn of the 20th century.

London is blessed to have a huge number of pubs in the same way Amsterdam does, of a variety as-good-as-duplicated many times over. However, with a few exceptions, many of these London pubs have been made more generic by unimaginative owners or pub-companies, the scourge of character and identity. In London, I suspect this place would have gone the way of Nicholsons or Taylor Walker in the last decade and had its soul expunged, but pleasingly, one of the nicest things to say about Café Mulder is that it is not unique, it is not an oasis surrounded by a desert, but it’s common, frequent to find and that’s what makes Amsterdam still so thoroughly enjoyable. We should celebrate the fact that a place this good is only a notch above the mean average for a brown café in Amsterdam. Is this the inverse of damning with faint praise? I hope so.

Anyway, to boil it down, Mulder is a great place to go for a drink, and you know what? I managed to write all that without a single X-Files joke. Cheers!

For further reading – right hit and click Translate to enjoy this superb article by Josh Wolf, which goes into the rich history of Café Mulder: https://josh-wolf.blogspot.com/2013/11/cafe-mulder-te-amsterdam-weteringschans.html

 

Au Daringman, Brussels

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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

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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.