Dutch cuisine doesn’t have a particularly good reputation, but just as there has been a phenomenal change for the better in British cuisine in the last decade or two, I think the Dutch also deserve some recognition for the great food that can now be found there. Well, certainly in Amsterdam.
Much as many non-Brits think we live on fish and chips and roast beef, a lot of people think the Dutch live on herrings and cheese. Certainly some of the traditional Dutch dishes like meat croquettes, deep-fried meatballs (bitterballen) and uninteresting toasties are not much to my taste, but the Dutch, like the Brits, have adopted a more cosmopolitan attitude to food now and you can find excellent food with modern twists and influences from other countries. That said, I think it’s nice to seek out some of the traditional dishes or at least know what kind of foods are typical of the region. There is a strong seafaring history, and the sea itself is rarely far away, even from Amsterdam, which means fish and seafood are popular – and some of the best you’ll find anywhere. There’s also a lot of Indonesian food – a by-product of the days of colonisation when the Dutch sailed East and brought back spices. If you want to go Dutch in your eating while in Amsterdam, then here’s what to look out for and some of the places I like best.
A typical Dutch breakfast will consist of thinly sliced cheese and hams to eat with bread. They love dark rye breads so you will usually find these with any selection of breads. You might also be offered a boiled egg. There’ll be butter, maybe jam, tea or coffee; often freshly squeezed juice. The Dutch love their dairy foods – think of all those Friesland cows! Hence there’s a strong tradition of drinking milk and you’ll even find special handle-less milk cups. You’ll also find excellent yogurt.
The Dutch have always made good coffee and to be served a bad one is rare. However, much like the rest of the world, they’ve upped their game with the recent fashion for artisan coffees and single estate coffees and you can find some exceptional coffee in a new breed of cafes. The best I had on my recent trip was at Caffe Il Momento (180 Singel), quite close to Central Station.
Another good find was Cafe Kobalt (2 Singel).
Lunch is where croquettes and toasties come into choices, but you’ll also find wonderful home-made soups on offer in bars and cafes. The description ‘bar’ or ‘cafe’ is almost interchangeable. A lot of places called ‘cafes’ are more like what I might define as a ‘bar’. But then you can go to them to just have a drink or something to eat – or both. These are the places you want to go for a typical Dutch lunch. The menu will probably be small and simple but apart from the toasties and bitterballen you’ll find glorious soups. The most famous is a thick Pea & Ham and for me the best place to enjoy this is Cafe ‘t Smalle on Egelantiersgracht, just off Prinsengracht.
Here it comes with rye bread and thin slices of ham. It really is a meal in itself, wonderfully warm and filling, especially if you’re there in winter as I was then I took the photo above. In warmer weather you can sit outside by the canal.
It’s become quite a tourist destination as it’s in all the guide books, but I don’t feel it’s been spoiled and it’s a fine example of a traditional Dutch cafe. You won’t be treated like a tourist and you’ll find some locals there too!
Most bars and cafes will sell soup and other snacks. But there’s a large number of vegan and vegetarian places too for salads and lighter fare. Despite all the dairy and meat, the Dutch have quite an alternative and healthy attitude to life and eating.
Pancakes and waffles are big things in Amsterdam – and I mean that both in terms of their popularity, with dedicated pancake houses – and the size of the things themselves. Most of us have heard of Dutch pancakes and basically they’re just very big and served on huge plates. For lunch they are popular served savoury style with things like cheese, bacon and ham but often with an addition of nuts and honey. You’ll always find sweet versions too. My favourite place to go for a pancake lunch is Roem (126 Prinsengracht).
In warm weather there are tables by the canal opposite with a great view of Westerkerk and the Anne Frank House but it’s cosy inside in the winter too.
If food can be an institution, then Apple Pie is a Dutch institution. You will find it wherever you go; often blackboards outside bars and cafes will broadcast that they have their own version of the famous apple pie. It is glorious. Most European cuisines have some kind of apple dessert – Tarte Tatin in France, Apple Crumble in UK – but for me there is nothing like the Dutch apple pie. In fact, I have to eat it pretty much every day when I’m in Amsterdam! The most famous and said to be the best is at Winkel (in photo above), on Noordermarkt, at the top end of Prinsengracht.
Just a little further up the road at 2 Prinsengracht you’ll find Cafe ‘t Papeneiland.
It serves a slightly different version but also very good.
This cafe is famous because Bill Clinton once – when he was President of the US – stopped there for coffee and a slice of apple pie and liked it so much he bought a whole pie to take back to his hotel!
If you have a sweet tooth then you’ll want to try these amazing cookies at Van Staple Koekmarkerij (4 Heisteeg), in a little alleyway that runs from Singel through to Spuistraat.
I came across it by chance walking back to my hotel one day and was attracted by the sight of a long queue from a tiny shop. Looking inside, all I could see were chocolate cookies – nothing else! But I decided they must be good to attract such attention. I went back another time and bought one, still warm, a dark chocolate cookie filled with white chocolate. I took it back to my hotel and made a coffee (there was an Nespresso machine in my room at NH City Centre Hotel!) and it was very good, though a little too sweet for me. I find it intriguing that a shop – however good the product – can make such a success out of making just one cookie!
Fish & Seafood
You’ll find fabulous seafood in Amsterdam and one of the best places to go is Lucius on Spuistraat. Here you can have a wonderful seafood platter or an excellent fish dish.
Great favourites in Amsterdam are herring – you’ll see lots of places advertising them on their menu – and mussels served with frites. The Dutch also love smoked fish – salmon, of course, but another favourite is smoked eel.
Places to Enjoy Good Dutch Food
My favourite restaurant is Cafe De Reiger (34 Nieuwe Leliestraat). Despite the ‘cafe’ name, and seeming very much like a bar inside, the food is of the highest quality; more like fine dining and absolutely superb. Sadly I didn’t get there my recent trip as they were temporarily closed on Mondays – my last night. But it’s usually a must for me and I always go there (see this review).
A restaurant I did go to for the first time in over 20 years – it was once a great favourite when I spent a lot of time in Amsterdam – was Luden, close to my hotel on Spuistraat.
This is more like a brasserie and they serve food all day, from typical Dutch fare like smoked salmon and mussels to burgers and salads.
I also like Cafe Het Molenpad which I discovered last year (2016).
As I said above, Indonesian food has been very popular in Amsterdam since the days Indonesia was a Dutch colony. You’ll see lots of Indonesian restaurants but one of the best known and respected is Long Pura (46-48 Rozengracht). Many other restaurants will often introduce an Indonesian touch to their dishes, so popular are the flavours.
Cheese in Holland really means Gouda but don’t think this is boring. Go to the most amazing cheese shop Tromp at 27 Elandsgracht, just of Prinsengracht, and they’ll explain the difference between the young and old Gouda and let you taste them. The young cheese is mild and creamy; the older ones stronger tasting and more salty. Apart from Gouda, Tromp has a wonderful selection of many other cheeses, breads and wine. It’s just a fantastic shop and I always go there on my last day to bring some cheese home.
Of course a great thing to do if you’re staying in Amsterdam for a few days is to take a trip out to the town of Gouda itself (52 minutes on the train from Central Station). There’s a cheese market on Thursdays in the summer with a great display of cheeses and cheese sellers often in traditional dress. Edam – the town with another famous cheese – is smaller and very pretty, so a great day out. (The train journey is 50 minutes.)
The two most famous local beers in Amsterdam are Heineken and Amstel (the name of the river that runs through Amsterdam). You can visit the Heineken brewery but also look out for newer micro-breweries like Brouwerij ‘t IJ for a more exciting beer experience.
Genever – or jenever – is the predecessor to the kind of gin we know as London Dry Gin. Genever has more malt wine than ‘ordinary’ gin (the kind we’re used to for Gin and Tonics) giving it a note of flavour akin to whisky but retaining the herbal notes and juniper we’re used to finding in gin. Gin made in this traditional way in Holland is known as old or ‘oude’ genever. Young or ‘jonge’ genever, which has become a favourite with mixologists lately, has less malt and is lighter. I just love an oude genever last thing at night after a meal – a kind of digestif – and my absolute favourite bar to go to is Cafe Chris (24 Bloemstraat), the oldest bar in the Jordaan district, near Westerkerk, which opened its doors in 1624. The genever is served cold from the fridge and the barman will always fill the glass to the brim. Don’t try to pick it up! You’ll instantly show yourself to be a tourist. You must lean forward and take the first sip by leaning towards the glass.
Amsterdam is one of my very favourite places; I just love it and it is perhaps one of the only cities that I can imagine living in other than my home city of London. And I think I could only love a city that serves good food! Food is always an important part of my travels. If you go to Amsterdam and try any of the places I recommend I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
This article and more on Amsterdam are now available to download on the GPSmyCity app – click here.