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Postcard from Amsterdam: Brown Bars

Cafe de Sluyswacht
Cafe de Sluyswacht

Richard West

How pleasant as a new resident to find this is one of the world’s great pub towns, here called ‘brown bars’ from the hundreds of years of tobacco-smoke wall/ceiling stains, now, gratefully, no longer allowed. I’ve staked out ten or so around town that meet my requirements: no TV, no loud music, no games, no quiz night. Essentials: coziness, good gab from regulars deep into their anecdotage, murmuring old jazz or classical tunes, serious European beers, especially Belgian.

An early favorite is the Cafe de Sluyswacht, a canal lock keeper’s home (est. 1695), now a starboard-leaning tiny pub with tile floors, green walls, and wooden benches. In mild weather one sits and sips out back looking down the canal. Preferred beer: Belgian’s coriander-laced, on tap golden ale, La Chouffe.

Cafe Brecht
Cafe Brecht

The perfect resting-the-feet spot after visiting the Rijkmuseum or Van Gogh Museum is the wonderfully-funky Cafe Brecht, a one-room, wooden-floored bar filled with garage sale-esque sofas and chairs to remind the owner of his West German Bohemian childhood home. Music here, mostly soft French or German crooners. Preferred beer: the German Weihenstephaner Hefe Weisse from Europe’s oldest brewery near Munich.

Cafe t'Smalle
Cafe t’Smalle

My local, closest to the apartment, is the lovely Cafe ‘t Smalle, the ‘Narrow’cafe, 20 feet off the Prinsengracht canal. Candle-lit tables, leaded-glass windows, genever barrels behind the counter, an intimate mezzanine with wooden walls, and in warm weather, tables alongside the canal. Site of a distillery in 1780, the perfect pub since 1978. Preferred beer: Belgium’s Gouden Carolus Tripel, a well-rounded strong blond ale.

Thanks to Tim Skelton’s essential ‘Around Amsterdam In 80 Beers’ for beer suggestions.
…Cafe de Sluyswacht, Jodenbreestracht 1
…Cafe Brecht, Weteringschans 157
…Cafe ‘t Smalle, Egelantiersgracht 12


richard-west-300x225  Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters. He lives in Amsterdam.

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  1. Nancy Hercher
    January 15, 2014 at 3:36 pm — Reply

    A Texan living in Amsterdam. This resonates with me. I look forward to more articles.

  2. Jerry Mandel
    January 15, 2014 at 9:38 pm — Reply

    Worthless. No mention of the food in those places.

  3. Richard west
    January 16, 2014 at 9:08 am — Reply

    Mr. Mandela,
    I don’t go to brown bars to eat. Gratified you find them ‘worthless’, I’ll have a better chance at a seat. Appreciate your reading EPTR, however.

    • Richard west
      January 16, 2014 at 11:41 am — Reply

      Mr. Mandel,
      Betrayed by auto-correct and/or bifocals. Apologies for misstating your name.

  4. Celine Warner
    January 22, 2014 at 9:36 am — Reply

    Amsterdam is one my favorite stop-over cities when traveling in Europe. Nice to see an article with tips and hidden gems! Such a unique place. I would love to read about more treasures.

  5. Rosa Vito
    July 3, 2015 at 5:30 pm — Reply

    They all look like great places to have a beer.

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