Amsterdam's more than 1,400 cafes and bars are a hard act to follow. A lot of Amsterdammers still start their day at their favorite cafe (usually a so-called brown cafe), have lunch there, return for drinks before dinner, and then go back for a bit of socializing, a game of snooker, and some live (or canned) music and a singalong. Since everyone goes to cafes, they are the ultimate democratic institutions. You, the street sweeper, drink with the CEOs and politicos and speak your mind about everything from croquettes to geopolitics. The average price for a beer in Amsterdam is 3€ -- clubs and hotel bars will charge more.
No Smoking -- Second-hand smoke no longer gets in your eyes and up your nose as much as formerly, in this city where rolling one's own cigarettes from foul-smelling loose tobacco known as shag is in the way of being a traditional craft. Smoking is banned in restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs, and other places, and in public spaces in hotels. There are exemptions only for separate enclosed spaces where smokers are kept (and taken care of) by themselves. In a typically Dutch compromise, the tobacco ban applies to drug-selling "smoking coffeeshops," where patrons are still permitted to puff joints, but not cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. This applies even if you are merely mixing tobacco with marijuana to form a joint: If you choose to mix the two, puff it outside.
You haven't really tasted Dutch beer until you've tasted it in Holland, served Dutch-style in a real bruine kroeg (brown cafe). These traditional Dutch bars are unpretentious, unpolished institutions filled with camaraderie, like a British pub or an American neighborhood bar. In a brown cafe, pouring another beer is much more important than dusting off the back bottles on the bar; the ritual is to draw a beer to get as much foam as possible, then to use a wet knife to shave off the head between a series of final fill-ups.
Even if you're not a beer lover, venturing into a brown cafe in Amsterdam will give you a peek into the city's everyday life. In old neighborhoods, brown cafes are on almost every corner -- you can't miss them. Most have lacy curtains on the bottom half of the window, and perhaps a cat sleeping on the ledge. In winter (and sometimes into spring), their front doors are hung with a thick drape to keep out drafts. Once inside, you'll find the smoky, mustard brownness that's unique to an Amsterdam brown cafe, the result of years -- no, centuries -- of thick smoke and warm conversation.
There may be booths or little tables sprinkled around, but the only spots of color and light will be the shining metal of the beer tap and, perhaps, a touch of red still showing in the Persian rugs thrown across the tables (a practice that's typically Dutch, if you recall the old paintings). You'll feel the eons of conviviality the minute you walk into a really old, really brown brown cafe. Some have been on their corners since Rembrandt's time, haunted by the ghosts of drinkers past. The best of them are on the Prinsengracht, below Westermarkt, at the Dam, at Leidseplein, on Spui, or with a bit of searching, on tiny streets between canals.
Smoking Coffeeshops -- Amsterdam's reputation as a wild party town is in part a result of its tolerance toward cannabis. Yet the practice is technically illegal and only just tolerated. Local producers are allowed to operate so long as they don't go in for large-scale production. Individuals are allowed to be in possession of up to 30 grams (about 1 oz.) for personal use, but can only purchase 5 grams (about 1/6 oz.) at a time. "Coffeeshops" in Amsterdam are places where a customer can purchase marijuana or hashish. They are licensed and controlled and provide a place where patrons can sit and smoke all day if they so choose; they are not allowed to sell alcohol, and only some serve food (usually light snacks) -- but the coffee is not bad. Warmoesstraat, on the edge of the Red Light District, is lined with coffeeshops, making it a prime spot for coffeeshop crawls by bands of young tourists (they're usually dazed by the end of the evening, as you can imagine, so things are quite mellow). Like the John Travolta character Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, you'll find it's mostly fellow tourists you'll be gazing at through the fug of bitter-smelling smoke in these places.
Some notable coffeeshops: The Rookies, Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 145 (tel. 020/428-3125; www.rookies.nl; tram: 1, 2, 5, 7, or 10), Kadinsky, Rosmarijnsteeg 9 (tel. 020/624-7023; www.kadinsky.nl; tram: 1, 2, or 5), at Spuistraat; and friendly Paradox, Eerste Bloemdwarsstraat 2 (tel. 020/623-5639; www.paradoxcoffeeshop.com; tram: 13, 14, or 17), off Bloemgracht, in the Jordaan.
Toker's tip: Don't buy on the street. You stand a fair chance of being ripped off, the quality will be questionable, and there may be unpleasant additives.
Jordaan Cafes -- The Jordaan is Amsterdam's iconoclastic blue-collar district. It has suffered from the depredations of gentrifiers, demolition experts, and cleaner-uppers, but still retains its distinctive style and preoccupation with itself. Cafes here are old-style and colorful. You might even take in a singsong of schmaltzy Dutch songs about stolen kisses behind the windmill.
There are only three differences between a brown cafe and a proeflokaal, or tasting house: What you drink, how you drink it, and who owns the place. A proeflokaal's decor will still be basically brown and typically Old Dutch -- and its age may be even more impressive than that of its beer-swilling neighbors -- but in a tasting house, you traditionally order jenever (Dutch gin, taken "neat," without ice) or another product of the distillery that owns the place. Then, to drink your libation, custom decrees that you lean over the bar with your hands behind your back to take the first sip from your full-to-the-brim borreltje (small drinking glass).
Great Dutch Drinks
The Dutch are famous for their gin, or jenever, and their beer. The former is a fiery, colorless liquid served ice-cold and drunk "neat" -- it's not a mixer. You can get flavored jenever -- from berry to lemon -- and, just as with Dutch cheese, you can get oude or jonge (old or young) jenever -- every bar has a wide selection on its shelves. But while cheese gets harder and sharper with age, jenever grows smooth and soft; jonge is less sweet and creamy than oude. All are known for their delayed-action effectiveness, so beware if you don't feel it right away.
As for beer, you can get regular Heineken, Grolsch, or Amstel -- called pils in Amsterdam -- or you can try something different as you make the rounds. I happen to like the witte (white) beer, which is sweeter than pils: Belgian Hoegaarden is a good example. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Belgian dark beers, like De Koninck or Duvel. Belgian beers are quite popular in Holland and are, in general, better made and more artisanal than the native brews.
Message In The Bottle -- You can smooth the process of conversing with locals in a bar if you can bandy about some Dutch drinking terminology. The most common word for a glass of jenever (Dutch gin) is a borrel (bo-rel) or the diminutive borreltje (bo-rel-che), though you'll also hear it called a vaderlandje (fader-lant-che), meaning "little fatherland," and other terms such as hassebassie (hass-uh-bassie), keiltje (kyle-che), piketanussie (pik-et-an-oossee), recht op neer (rekht op near), and slokkie (slok-ee). Avant-garde imbibers may ask for an "uppercut" to prove their international credentials. A glass of jenever filled to the rim, as tradition requires, is called a kamelenrug (cam-ay-len-rookh), meaning "camel's back," or an over Het IJ-kijkertje (over het eye kyk-erche), meaning "view over the IJ" (an Amsterdam water channel). Jenever is often ordered with a beer chaser. The barkeep will place the kopstoot (cop-stoat), meaning "knock on the head," of a stelletje (stel-etche), meaning "couple," on the bar. Beer or pils (pilss) in a small glass is called a colaatje pils (co-la-che pilss); a kabouter pils (ka-bou-ter pilss), meaning "dwarf beer"; or a lampie licht (lam-pee likht), meaning "little lamp." Ale in a large glass is known as a bakkie (bak-ee) or a vaas, which means jar or vase. If it's served in a half-liter (1-pint) glass, it's known locally as an amsterdammertje (little Amsterdammer).
So if you breeze into a brown cafe, park yourself at the bar, and call the bartender over for a "Recht op neer borrel," then ask him to "make sure it's a proper over Het IJ-kijkertje, put a kopstoot with it, a colaatje if you please, and set up a bakkie for later," you should get on swimmingly (of course, they might also send for the men in white coats).
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