Physically speaking, there is no place cozier than an old Amsterdam bar—they tend to be snug, well-worn spots, with charmingly age-skewed angles, a pleasant gloom and lots of simple, dark wood paneling, polished by ten or more generations of drinkers’ hands. The Dutch, however, are not a cozy people—none of this hygge silliness we’ve been hearing so much about lately for them. They’re short on idle chit-chat and empty formalities and long on getting the job done properly.
The contrast between the snug bars, and the brusque, quietly sardonic men and women who tend them makes the city a paradise for a certain type of barfly. If you like a good DJ spinning in the corner; if you appreciate a cocktail that shows a dangerously creative mind at work; if you’re most comfortable surrounded by sleek and successful young go-getters—well, then these bars are not for you.
If, however, you’re content with the quiet buzz of interested conversation; if cold, crisp beer (the Heineken here is a whole different thing from what we get) and little sips of malty, lightly-spiced jenever (the flavored whisky that is the ancestor of gin) are all you need to get by; if you take pleasure in rubbing shoulders with people of all ages and paths through this weary-making world, you might just want to plan for a few days in Amsterdam.
Here are a few of my favorite old Amsterdam bars—“brown bars,” as they’re known, from the centuries of tobacco smoke that weathered the walls (none of that anymore). There are plenty of other good options, though—just look for a quiet spot on an out-of-the-way corner and you should be fine, even if nobody knows your name or apparently gives a damn what it is.
Café Brandon (Keizersgracht 157)
This is not a large bar. Depending on where you stand in the barroom, the door may hit you in the back every time someone—usually a local—drops in. A no-bullshit drinker’s bar of considerable age (it got its liquor license in 1626) Brandon—accent on the “o”—gets a lot less of the tourist trade than you’ll find in the city center, only ten minutes-walk away. (As in most cities, tourists here tend to be self-filtering, with the most obnoxious ones clotting together in the most obnoxious establishments; these old bars are not to their taste.)
Café De Dokter (Rozenboomsteeg 4)
“The Doctor” has been in the same family since the time of Napoleon, which may explain all the stuff on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. This, too, is not at all a large bar. But it’s dark and pleasant and the taciturn owner, whom you’ll find behind the bar, spins jazz LPs from his large collection (the turntable is right behind the bar), constructs a hand-cut cheese-plate that looks like a stack of building blocks and knows a hell of a lot about Scotch whisky, of which he has a fine collection.
Wynand Focking (Pijlsteeg 31)
Dutch can be a comical language for the English speaker, as the name of this ancient proeflokaal (“tasting room”) illustrates. The bar, however, is not funny—unless Andre is working, who is as outgoing as the gent at De Dokter is quiet. The bar, attached to the ancient distillery of the same name (still in operation, but now owned by Bols, the leading Dutch distilling company), serves as a sample room for the distillery’s wide range of house-made liqueurs, traditional and otherwise, and some very fine genevers. Try the one distilled from spelt, unique to Wynand Focking and quite delicious. And if Andre’s around (you’ll know it if he is), ask him to mix you some Dutch-style drinks, made right in the glass without ice. These are far better than they sound, but I suppose they’d better be.
Café Hoppe (Spui 18-20)
Hoppe opened in 1670 as another proeflokaal. The distillery is gone, but the bar soldiers on, light in front and dark and a little bit cavernous in the back, like a scene from a Rembrandt painting. A little bigger and busier than the others, it’s still a fine place to sip barrel-aged genever and eat cheese and bitterballen (little fried balls of potato and whatnot) and thresh out the meaning of life.
Drie Fleschjes (Gravenstraat 18)
Tucked down a little street off the Dam square in the heart of the city center is another former proeflokaal. Once owned by the Bootz family (the 19th-century distillery is next door, converted into, of all things, a Best Western Hotel), the so-called “Three Little Bottles” dates back to 1650 or so. One wall is taken up by rows of small wooden barrels, each with a locked spout. These are where the regulars store their genever (supplied these days by Bols), letting it age until they come in to draw a little jug or two off. There’s not a lot of seating in the bar—a little alcove in the back, some tables and chairs out front—but that makes it the perfect place to perfect your kopstootje technique.
Kopstootje—“cop-SCHTOUT-che,” roughly (pronouncing Dutch sits roughly at the same difficulty level as writing Cantonese)—means “little head butt” and is the name for a shot-and-a-beer, properly served: short glass of cold lager placed on the low bar and next to it a little tulip-shaped glass filled to surface tension with chilled genever. You put your hands behind your back, bend from the waist and slurp off the top of the genever. Then beer. The rest you drink normally. Then have some cheese or sausage (be aware that one of the ones they serve is a sort of beef tartare sausage; some find it challenging) or some fresh maatjes herring, if it’s in season, and get back to bending. It doesn’t take long for it to become a habit.