What is a brown café and which are the best ones in Amsterdam?
Amsterdam has a lot of nice places to go out and every week several more are opened up, all of them as hip as the other. To Amsterdam locals, brown cafés are what pubs are for Londoners. The brown cafés in Amsterdam are just as much part of the charm of the city as the canals, museums, architecture and other famous attractions. Most of them embody Dutch cosiness and gezelligheid.
Like English pubs, brown cafés are informal neighbourhood spots serving regional dishes and local beers that are found all over the city. Unlike their comparable British cousins, who tend to close early, most Dutch brown cafés, especially the Amsterdam brown cafes stay open late into the night, usually until 1 or 2 in the morning.
What is brown about a brown café?
Because we can all form a mental picture of a brown café, you may never have wondered what the term actually means. We have figured out what makes a brown café brown. First of all, it has to do literally with the colour of the interior: the pub is dark brown. The bar is made of dark brown wood and it is dark inside because there is always very little lighting. If you form a mental picture of such a pub, then you might also imagine some clouds of smoke. That brings us to the second explanation of the term “brown cafe.” Nowadays, visitors are no longer allowed to smoke in brown cafés, but that was not the case in the past. Wallpapers and curtains eventually turned brown due to all the smoke from cigars and cigarettes.
Where does this pub-style come from?
Brown cafes can be recognised by an old-fashioned, homely interior. This style has a funny history and can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century. The first brown cafés were created in people’s homes or front rooms. Many locals in the big cities decorated part of their houses, usually their front room, like a living room cafe. This way, they could host patrons, sell liquor and earn extra money. Later, permits were of course required and most of these cafes disappeared, but the intimate, homely style has always remained.
What is so typicial for brown cafes in Amsterdam
Brown cafés in Amsterdam bring strangers from all over the world together, with most patrons looking for a drink, a snack and a friendly conversation. The cafés were given their odd name from the dark wood decor that could be found in almost every location, and the famous brown-tinted walls, which, according to rumours, were the shadow of stains from patrons smoking cigarettes for years. Fortunately, smoking is now prohibited in all bars, restaurants, clubs and cafes in Amsterdam and throughout the Netherlands, so don’t worry about your lungs.
What you can find in an Amsterdam brown café
- A relaxed, friendly appearance and regular customers who are looking for a good conversation.
- Expect to find local craft beers on tap, Dutch gin (genever), a gin-like spirit, and for the beer and alcohol fan, most brown cafés also have at least a few wine options.
- A worn look — think of dark wood, old collectables, quirky decorations that often match the theme (or name) of the cafe.
- A limited menu with dishes, including small salads, sandwiches and/or Dutch snacks, such as cheese, olives, nuts and bitterballen.
What you need to know about Amsterdam brown cafés
- Most do not accept credit cards; so make sure you bring cash.
- If you visit during the warmer months, most brown cafés have a terrace. You may be able to chill there depending on the weather.
- This is a strange concept for Americans, but some cafes have self-service bars.
- You don’t always find live music or other forms of entertainment at brown cafes.
Some brown cafes in Amsterdam
This is one of the best brown cafes in the Jordaan. At Café Chris, time really did stand still for a moment. There is a billiard table in the middle, gin is poured at the table to ensure that you really get it filled to the brim and the pub is always filled with Amsterdam locals and tourists looking for an authentic Amsterdam brown cafe experience.
Café Ruk & Pluk
Café Ruk & Pluk in Oost is such a good old Amsterdam brown cafe. There is always a party at this popular pub. It is full of decorations (often the Christmas decorations of previous years) and the sing-alongs are always on repeat.
In Het Aepjen
After Amsterdam was destroyed by fire in 1452, the old city was rebuilt using brick. Only two wooden buildings survived. One of them is an inn, located on the corner of the old Zeedijk (sea dyke), near the infamous Red-light District. In ‘t Aepjen on the Zeedijk is one of the oldest pubs in Amsterdam and has been serving genever and food since 1544.
There are also plenty of cosy bars in Amsterdam West. At the start of the Admiraal de Ruijterweg, you will find Bar Treffers, a cosy brown bar, with a large table and many Amsterdam neighbourhood residents chilling there.
Back to the Jordaan, where it is naturally full of beautiful old brown bars: Het Smalle. This cafe owes its name to the narrow building where it is located and has a beautiful interior, with wooden floors that always have a bit of sand on it. There is always a happy buzz in the brown bar and it is known to attract a lot of tourists and locals.
A billiard table, shuffleboard and garlands on the wall all year round. At Café Hermes it’s always a party. Whether you come to watch an Ajax game or to celebrate your birthday, the atmosphere at this brown café is always the same. You always receive a warm welcome from the fantastic owner. It doesn’t matter if you are here for the first time or have been at the bar for 100 years, everyone is warmly welcome.
De Ouwe Garde
Buitenveldert may not have a particularly large number of restaurants, but with “De Ouwe Garde” they have one of the most beautiful brown cafés in Amsterdam Zuid. The Ouwe Garde is really a bit the neighbourhood centre of for the locals. It’s where they all come together at the end of the day to socialise, drink and enjoy each other’s companies. The slots against the wall still radiate the real brown cafe. To top it all off, “De Ouwe Garde” arranges an Amsterdam folk singer for a performance once in a while.
The Rivierenbuurt is one of the most beautiful working-class neighbourhoods in Amsterdam and a number of brown bars cannot be missed there. Het Vliegertje may officially be a restaurant, but the whole interior screams brown cafe. With a beautiful old bar and interior, you can enjoy a wide range of beers there. In the summer you can also take a seat on the spacious terrace and dream away in the Amsterdam sun.
Café Welling is now 118 years old and can boast of being one of the oldest cafés in Amsterdam Oud-Zuid. When you enter the cafe, you really get the feeling as if you’re in the midst of regulars who have been patrons for 100 years. In this history-rich café, not much has changed in terms of design over the years, except that more and more photos have been placed on the wall as a sort of exhibition. At the bar you are always greeted in a friendly manner, it really doesn’t matter if you are new or a regular customer. Café Welling also regularly organises jazz performances.
Checkpoint Charlie Amsterdam
The modern city of Berlin represents a contrasting mix of old and new in Germany. Checkpoint Charlie was a checkpoint at a passage in the Berlin wall between the American side and the Russian side. The name of this cafe, located on the bridge between Westerpark and the Jordaan, refers to the place where Amsterdam West and the Center come together. In addition to the many classics, you will find plenty of new beers brewed in young, local breweries all over the city and the Netherlands.
Café Hill Street Blues
Conveniently located in the heart of Amsterdam is Café Hill Street Blues. The cafe is known for its artistic interior, delicious milkshakes and musical evenings. It is an ideal place to relax and have a drink with your friends.
Bar-Bodega De Blauwe Parade
In hotel Die Port van Cleve in Amsterdam, you will find the traditional bar-bodega De Blauwe Parade. Here you can go for a drink, snack or participate in a real Dutch Gin or liqueur tasting. The bar is a nice place to relax and enjoy an Old-Dutch atmosphere. The bar has a special ambience due to the dark wooden furniture and unique Delft blue porcelain tile frieze from 1887. The tile frieze is the largest Delft blue tile tableau in the world.
Café Hoppe is also another old brown cafe in Amsterdam since 1670. It is funny to know that this brown pub has the highest beer turnover per m2 in Amsterdam. In 2013, the pub also called itself the best pub in the Netherlands for a year due to its timeless ambience, professional staff and old-fashioned hospitality. Hoppe is brown from head to toe and it seems like time stands still when you hop inside.
You will find brown cafes of all shapes and sizes throughout Amsterdam. From large pubs, where more than a million beers find their way to the thirsty clientele every year, to small ones that derive their existence from a handful of local residents who come in for a pint and some bitterballen. Let us know which café is your favourite and what you think about brown cafes in Amsterdam.