A global city with an outward-looking attitude, Amsterdam has never had trouble attracting people. Since the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, it’s been renowned as somewhere alive with culture and entrepreneurial possibility. Today, food can also be counted among its attractions, with the gastronomic landscape holding its own alongside those of capitals many times its size.
In the past decade, the arrival of industry big-hitters has upped Amsterdam’s restaurant game dramatically. At &moshik, Israeli-born chef Moshik Roth has earned two Michelin stars by using emotion to inspire his food. Each course of his flavour-bending tasting menu comes with a story from his life: one dish was a response to a meeting with artist Damien Hirst in New York, while another, a cloud-like creation comprising different preparations of milk, was inspired by his newborn child.
Meanwhile, smart hotels such as The Pulitzer Amsterdam and W Amsterdam are home to destination restaurants that have diners queuing out the door. Last year, award-winning bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan) chose Amsterdam for his first non-UK venture, Super Lyan. An all-day, neon-pink affair that’s both futuristic and retro, it serves playful cocktails alongside snacks that are as tasty as they are photogenic.
Like any cosmopolitan city, Amsterdam’s restaurant and bar scene combines the latest trends with old-school stalwarts. Cool coffee joints, experimental ice cream parlours and modish cafes specialising in ‘freakshakes’ and vegan junk food cosy up alongside ‘brown bars’, Indonesian restaurants and hostelries with creaking beams and rib-sticking Dutch dishes.
If there’s one thing these diverse dining spots have in common, it’s their informality — ‘doe maar normaal’ (down to earth) and ‘gezelligheid’ (the feeling of being at home) are two of the guiding principles of Dutch life. Locals don’t tend to dress up for dinner, they value atmosphere and company above all else, and they’re allergic to anywhere that takes itself too seriously — so even high-end establishments have a democratic vibe.
In keeping with their low-key lifestyle, the Dutch like nothing more than a borrel (an informal get-together with drinks and snacks). After work, Amsterdammers crowd onto canalside terraces and into micro-breweries for a beer accompanied by simple dishes: cured meat, bitterballen (croquettes with a creamy, meaty filling) and, of course, cheese. Join them, and you’ll soon be feeling gezelligheid.
A day in: The Jordaan & Haarlemmerbuur
You can’t come to Amsterdam without strolling along its crescent-shaped Grachtengordel (canal belt). With its spindly, lopsided townhouses, fairy-lit bridges and colourful houseboats moored nose-to-tail at the water’s edge, it’s supremely atmospheric.
Start at Scandi-style cafe Kessens. A bright, airy space with creative flower arrangements and a laid-back feel, it’s a locals’ favourite for its good coffee and decadent breakfasts, including sugared French toast with honey-lime mascarpone.
Just around the corner is the Jordaan, a formerly working-class neighbourhood that retains its old-Amsterdam spirit. It’s where Anne Frank lived, and the museum here memorialising her and one of the darkest periods in the country’s history is a must-visit.
Continue along the Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal) towards Noorderkerk (the square outside this church hosts a Saturday farmers’ market selling local organic produce). For lunch, head to Westerstraat to order silky smooth hummus topped with spiced, roasted cauliflower and emerald-green zhug (Middle Eastern hot sauce) at D&A Hummus Bistro, whose bold flavours, modern looks and carefree attitude are inspired by the hummus bars its Israeli founder, Adi Goldberg, grew up with.
Crisscross the backstreets of the Jordaan, browsing its rare books and vintage furniture, until you hit Brouwersgracht, a pretty canal backed by handsome, red-shuttered former warehouses. One of the best people-watching spots is Café Thijssen, an olde-worlde brown bar with a sun-trap terrace that serves locally brewed beers and traditional borrel bites.
For a spot of shopping, head over to nearby Haarlemmerdijk; pop into artisan chocolatier Jordino for creamy homemade ice cream served in a chocolate-dipped cone, before visiting recipe-book treasure trove De Kookboekhandel. Stop off and catch a screening at The Movies, a gorgeous art-deco arthouse cinema, before ending your evening at Vesper, where creative cocktails are served in friendly surroundings.
Kessens — a bright, airy space with creative flower arrangements and a laid-back feel. It’s a locals’ favourite for its good coffee and decadent breakfasts.Photograph by Kessens
A day in: Plantage & Czaar Peterbuurt
These east Amsterdam neighbourhoods are separated by a maze of waterways leading to the docklands. Grab coffee from Olie & Zo, whose adjoining deli sells fresh bread and Mediterranean goodies. Then work your way down Czaar Peterstraat (once voted the Netherlands’ best shopping street), where highlights include cheeses from Fromagerie Kef and fancy-flavoured peanut butter (syrup waffle and cinnamon, or garlic and fried onions, for instance) at De Pindakaaswinkel.
Stop for lunch at Frank’s Smoke House. Expect various ingredients, from the burrata in your salad and the jalapeno relish on your fish and chips, to have been smoked in the century-old smokehouse. Around the corner, InStock Amsterdam — whose chefs cook with surplus, in-date food sourced from supermarkets and wholesalers — is a tasty alternative.
Across the bridge you’ll spot the De Gooyer Windmill, next to the city’s best-known craft brewery, Brouwerij ’t IJ. Squeeze into the tasting room for a flight of its most popular beers before strolling up Entrepotdok, an imposing stretch of Dutch East India Company-era warehouses — now smart apartments overlooking the Artis Amsterdam Royal Zoo.
Exploring the zoo’s stunning grounds makes for a pleasant afternoon, and De Plantage — a former greenhouse at the zoo’s entrance, elegantly recast as an all-day grand cafe — is perfectly placed for dinner. Try the ravioli stuffed with fennel-studded sausage, preserved lemon and sage, or roasted aubergine slices topped with pine nuts and cumin-scented chermoula.
Press on towards the Amstel River for a nightcap on the terrace of A Bar at the palatial InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam hotel; the views of the townhouses propping each other up on the opposite bank, and the wistful Magere Brug bridge, are perfect. Be sure to sample the fresh, grassy, orgeat-laced molendijk, or one of the bar’s other signature cocktails, all of which are inspired by Amsterdam’s trading history.
This chic greenhouse-style restaurant is best visited at lunchtime or on a summer evening, when the huge windows give views over its kitchen garden and Frankendael Park beyond. The tasting menu makes fruit, veg and herbs the heroes — almost everything is grown by the restaurant (mainly off site) or by local farmers.
Hidden down a central-Amsterdam alleyway, this homely bistro has its own kitchen garden outside the city. A local institution and Slow Food champion, it has just 10 tables. Book ahead for rustic breakfast and lunch dishes. The latter include sourdough toast topped with pumpkin seed cheese, orange chutney and cauliflower, served with a green salad.
Juniper & Kin - Kitchen Garden & Bar
Preserved ingredients and raw food take centre-stage at Juniper & Kin (a rooftop bar with top-notch nibbles) and its fine dining companion The Kitchen Garden. Visit its high-tech nursery, where around 70 plant varieties form the backbone of the menu. Don’t miss a cocktail (and stunning views of the city) in the fantastic bar.
Spotlight: Brown bars
The Dutch equivalent of British pubs, bruine kroeg (brown bars) are part of Amsterdam’s fabric, and the perfect place for beer and a borrel. A classic brown bar will have dark-wood furniture and nicotine-stained walls, more-is-more decor crammed with knick-knacks, and some serious historical baggage — plus its own clutch of characterful regulars (partial to breaking into folk songs when the mood takes them).
The oldest brown bar in the country, Café Chris in de Jordaan, is the real deal: the Dutch and Belgian draught beers may be mainstream and the menu might revolve around bitterballen, but this time-machine pub (established in 1624) has perhaps the friendliest bartender in the neighbourhood, a truly local feel and plenty of atmosphere.
If craft beer is your passion, you’ll find a kindred spirit in Steve, the patriarch of Café Westerdok, whose regularly changing, 100-strong beer selection includes patriotic pilsners, while the pub cat and communal guitar keep the vibe here suitably gezellig (cosy).
For the most picturesque views, head to canalside pub Café Papeneiland. Enjoying slices of ossenworst (raw beef sausage) with gherkins or a huge wedge of appeltaart out on its pavement terrace, you could only be in Amsterdam.
For the most picturesque views, head to canalside pub Café Papeneiland and enjoy slices of ossenworst (raw beef sausage) with gherkins or a huge wedge of appeltaart out on its pavement terrace.Photograph by Alamy
Amid the timber beams and wood panelling of this warren-like restaurant you’ll find a menu of old-time local classics, including salted herring with pickles, crisp-skinned confit duck with stamppot (mash with sauerkraut), and cinnamon-laced apple pie.
This kitsch spot serves homespun favourites. Order the Hollandse Rijsttafel, a ‘greatest hits’ of Dutch dishes, each served in small portions: beef stew; smoked sausage with red cabbage and apple sauce… and yet more stamppot.
For top-notch modern Dutch fare, visit this Michelin-starred stunner in the Rijksmuseum. Dutch-grown ingredients shine in beautiful dishes such as veal sweetbreads with gingerbread and grapefruit. The three-course set lunch (€42/£36) is a bargain.
Published in the April issue of National Geographic Traveller Food.
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