The ‘Brown Cafe’ in the Netherlands is similar to the Dutch word Gezellig*: both are described as being somewhat translatable, but certainly not with just a single word or two, and both will likely be experienced by pretty much every visitor to Amsterdam:*convivial, cozy, and fun.
The brown cafe is often said to be the Dutch equivalent of a pub in England. However that might be both better and more narrowly refined to being more like a local pub in Ireland where the local beer and spirits (as well as coffee and tea) are poured, people congregate to chat or catch up on news during the day, to eat, and to drink (and sometimes sing) through the evenings…. and they stay open much later than any English pub I’ve visited.
The name may possibly be derived from their interiors – most often wood paneled bars and walls, with lower ceilings (that are still sometimes stained from the days when smoking cigarettes inside was ok), and the overall cozy, worn but warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Some are noted for their food, and others are decidedly not…. Menus will often heavily feature borrelhapjes, which translates literally as “drink snacks” (get the bitterballen!) and sometimes broodjes – or small sandwiches on rolls, as well as brown bread with Dutch cheeses, spreads and meats.
The Top Brown Cafes of Amsterdam: This is 100% manageable as a 'café crawl', or perhaps just visit them a couple at a time and use them as ‘places of refuge’ when out visiting the sights (and dodging the trams, bicycles, and tourists you'll encounter...).
There is a downloadable map of all listed venues below.
Café ‘t Small Really quaint with a very traditional interior, and a great outdoor terrace perched on a canal for warmer weather visits (it hosts their illuminated Christmas trees in early winter).
Café de Wetering a fantastic option for a cold or wet day. It is filled with original (not staged) charm and is an excellent place of refuge from the crowds of the Rijksmuseum & museum quarter and a great authentic destination for those out to see the Heineken Experience. It also has a fireplace which makes it even more inviting on those days with a chill in the air.
Cafe Chris has a pool table (which is rare given the usual space concerns) and is apparently the oldest beer bar in Amsterdam (1624!) so therefore it has to be on this list.
Café de Eland On the busy corner of Prinsengracht and Elandsgracht this is a great example of a traditional brown café where originally drinks were served in front and the family who owned it lived upstairs in the back. The outdoor seating offers prime people watching opportunity – and ask about the illuminated moth above the bar.
De Blaffande Vis This is a great locals / neighborhood brown café not necessarily known for its location - but it will be busy on any day with even a glimmer of sun. It is lighter than most (tall ceilings, off-white walls, and massive windows) and serves high quality Dutch meals, usually just 4 or 5 options on a chalk board menu, at good prices.
Proeflokkal Arendsnest The Eagles Nest tasting room… perhaps not a true brown café, but they serve only Dutch craft beer, and up to 50 of them available on draft at any time, and there is a great atmosphere – so it makes the list!
Café de Tuin - often hits lists of the best bitterballen in Amsterdam… it makes this list because it is off the beaten tourist path, is not on a canal (center of the Jordaan on a street with some great dining options), and is a great neighbourhood-y example.
Café de Sluyswacht - a rare standalone building in Amsterdam and as a result it is one of the more crooked buildings too – apparently leaning more than the tower of Pisa… instagrammers: get yourself here.
Café Heuvel is one of the older brown cafes still operating today. A good location between the Vondelpark and city center on a corner of a canal. Fairly small inside but with good use of bar seats and perimeter tables you should be ok, the outdoor seating expands capacity on nicer days.
Café de Prins is across from a canal, in a converted canal house, and near the Anne Frank house, and this is one of the brown cafes known for its food. As a result it can get busy but they do take reservations.
Cafe Thijssen has a great location on the corner of Brouwersgracht, offers good borrelhapjes snacks, a rotating menu of soups, and just has a very good intangible vibe to it.
*gezellig: defining the undefinable with wikipedia...
- The beer glass will not be filled to the brim. It will likely be hand washed in a small sink, filled, and have foam at the top that the bartender will flick away with a little spatula-esque implement. This is how it is done - don't question it.
- Most take cards / contactless – but have some cash on hand just in case (or ask first)
- The borrelhapje at the top of the Dutch bar snack pyramid is the bitterballen… which is not bitter at all and is basically a deep fried ball of gravy or roux and while traditionally they have meat in them, there are now spinach, beet, and various other mixed veggie options available all over Amsterdam catering to the plant-based diet aficionados that still like a dirty snack form time to time… The other core hapje offerings are the brown bread with assorted dips, the Dutch cheese platter – often augmented with ossenworst sausage, kroketten, and frickandel