There are over 500 cafés of one sort or another in the centre of Amsterdam alone and among these the bruin (brown) cafés are the friendliest.
These traditional drinking haunts derive their collective name from a combination of dark wood interiors, years of studiously unwashed nicotine stains and low-wattage lighting.
They are social centers for the regulars who use brown cafés as an extension to their living rooms: a place to take breakfast, lunch, dinner and nightcaps, open from early in the morning to around 2 a.m.
The atmosphere is generally relaxed, and customers are rarely made to feel rushed. You can linger for hours, if you choose, over a beer or coffee, reading a newspaper or book.
Brown cafés are not quaint tourist attractions but rough and ready establishments, truly traditional and thriving. Some are highly successful; the famous Hoppe on Spuistraat, established in 1670, is nowadays renowned for its business-suited clients who spill out on to the pavements in the summer-time. Yet the back bar on the right of the building’s facade retains all of its ancient character and exhibits few panderings to modernity — with the exception, perhaps, of the telephone.
Each brown café has its own character and clientele. Ranging from the yuppies of the Hoppe, the jazziness of the tiny Wetering, on Leidsedwarsstraat, or the foreign journalistic babble of Harry’s Bar, on Spuistraat, to the loud card games of the Oosterling, on Utrechtsestraat, or the rugged talk of beery sailers in the Karpershoek on Martelaarsgracht near the Central Station.
Spoilt for Choice
Behind the bar in a brown café there is often such an extensive range of beverages on offer that knowing where to start can be a baffling business. Three types of beer are normally on tap. The pils, or lager, is usually from the Dutch Amstel or Heineken breweries. The two other most commonly tapped beers are “blond” and “dark” or “brown” beer, both types nearly always imported from Belgium and stronger than normal pils.
Once beyond the realms of the beer on tap the choice of bottled beers and stronger liquors becomes a minefield of exotic labels. You can choose according to the strength of the beer, country or even region of origin.
The choice is wider still in cafés like In de Wildeman, at Kolksteeg 3, which is a proeflokaal or tasting-place and has 18 different beers on tap alone, or the intimate Gollum, on Raamsteeg 4, which offers a choice of at least five beers from each of the 10 different countries chalked up on the blackboard.
How to Play
It is most common to pay for drinks by running up a bill rather than paying for each individual round. Bar staff juggle rows of small order pads or a large book, in which they keep a record of proceedings.
A mime of the act of writing is usually enough to communicate that you will pay at the end of the evening. Once this has been established it is easy enough to lose track of the amount you have consumed, and that is usually the reason for many an over-enthusiastic tasting.
A useful word to learn, therefore, is afrekenen, which is the verb for settling-up — and “taxi” is the same word in most languages.
Cafés on the Map
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The information on this page is quoted from Insight Guides: Amsterdam.
We highly recommend the Insight Guides: Amsterdam for the insight it provides into Amsterdam — from its history to current affairs. The guide include many high-quality photos, as well as maps and basic visitors information.
• Café ‘t Gasthuys, a recommended brown café
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