What makes a bar a brown bar? Before writing this article I never really thought about it. We Dutchies can tell a fake or wannabe brown bar from an authentic one in a split second, but in case you're not sure, you too can learn by using my own very unofficial checklist.
What is a brown bar?
For me, a good brown bar needs to:
- be at least 25 years old. You can’t ‘start’ a brown bar. A bar gets brown with time.
- have a bartender who is over 60 years old (or much younger but looking like over 60)
- have low volume, lousy background music, or no music
- have lots of wood, dark brown wood, on the walls, bar, tables and floor
- have a mixture of clients. At least a couple of lawyers in a suit, some artists, students and some salt-of-the-earth locals
- have brown walls, preferably stained by lots of nicotine from the pre-smoking ban era and cosy, low level lighting
- be owned by the person serving you, or their family
- have a few regulars spread around the bar (never together) who don’t talk to each other
- serve just one or two beers from the tap. Never more than two. And always a genuine Dutch beer brand as their main pilsner (not the cheap Jupiler beer from Belgium!)
- serve traditional Dutch snacks like bitterballen, cheese, leverworst (liver sausage) or (my personal favourite) ossenworst
The best brown bars in Amsterdam
I’m delighted to share five of my favorite brown bars in Amsterdam. Please visit and study how different types of Amsterdam locals behave and co-exists in their natural habitat. We come here to drown our sorrows, talk about life and have fun with our fellow locals. We love mingling with visitors, but please keep your voice down and be respectful.
My then-18-year old girlfriend (now wife) Sanne walked into this bar 20 years ago looking for a job. There was no job advertised, but she just liked the bar and asked the owners if they needed any help. She got the job that wasn’t available, and this was the start of my love affair with this fantastic bar and its owners and bartenders. I have fond memories of admiring owner Emile cooking up amazing food (very affordable, very good but mostly unhealthy) in the tiniest kitchen I’ve ever seen, in a body that was - with all due respect - huge. I’ve played board games, I’ve watched regulars fall off barstools, I’ve tried to peel the thick wall of theatre posters off the wall to reveal the decades-old posters hidden under there, I’ve had countless quick cheap dinners before catching a movie at the nearby The Movies, I’ve ran out of good songs to play on the Wurlitzer jukebox (which was recently renovated) and I’ve seen countless new bartenders take the place of old ones. Binnen Oranjestraat 15 // De Oranjerie
Cafe Slijterij Oosterling
Photo: Cafe Sliterij Oosterling via Facebook
My absolute favourite brown bar is ‘The Oosterling’ (that’s what I - and I think most people - always call it). I lived 200 metres from this bar when I was a student, had my first kopstoot (a beer with a jenever chaser) here, and lost many brain cells. This bar started operating in 1877. Today brothers Oscar and Marcel Oosterling (4th generation) and Pierre are serving you. I couldn’t describe it better than Spotted by Locals Amsterdam Spotter Jan did: “When I enter Oosterling, it’s like time stood still here and it feels like coming home. The interior is great. The old wooden barrels that were used way back when to ship the beer are witnesses of a time gone by. The stone floor and the low counter add to the unique setting of Oosterling. The low counter dates back to the time that the VOC (East India Company) traded spices, coffee and tea here, starting in 1735. [...] The Amsterdamse ossenworst from Louman, combined with leverworst, cheese, some pickles and mustard go well with the beer and make me stay longer. Bitterballen and kaasstengels are ordered from a snackbar around the corner, that’s why the guy with the helmet comes in every other 15 minutes! So cheers to you!” Utrechtsestraat 140 // Cafe Slijterij Oosterling
Photo: CC BY 2.0 David Coggins via Flickr
This brown bar opened its doors in 1624, which makes it the oldest cafe in De Jordaan. The story goes that the owner of this café, who was also in charge of building the Westerkerk around the corner, paid his workers in this cafe to make sure much of the money flowed back into his pockets. Pretty smart! This is a brown bar as old school as it gets. A very kind older lady behind the bar who’s seen it all, awful 90s (fortunately low volume) music on the speakers and just one beer on tap. It’s the kind of place you meet a friend to talk about life, as I did just last week! The coolest detail is their tiny little toilet, which was built in a closet so small that the water tank and flusher are both located outside the bathroom. If you don’t need to go to the bathroom yourself, at least take a look at what happens when somebody exits! Bloemstraat 42 // Café Chris
Café De Spuyt
Photo: S. Abma
I only go to the Leidseplein area when I really have to. The neon signs and masses of tourists who don’t know they are missing out on much better places always make me kind of sad. But there’s a tiny gem located right across the corner: Beer cafe De Spuyt! A tiny traditional-looking bar with over a hundred (international and local) beers to choose from. Spotted by Locals Amsterdam Spotter Sentia describes it well: “The Spuyt has a warm atmosphere, a few cosy nooks and an inviting bar to hang out at. I love the fact that it’s never too crowded. The healthy mix of locals, students and tourists that visit the Spuyt is just right and you could easily strike up a conversation with some interesting people here [...] Make sure you try their cheese platter!” Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 86 // Café De Spuyt
Café ‘t Mandje
Photo: Fridtjof Versnel
This brown bar opened in 1927 and was owned by the legendary Bet van Beeren, who was openly gay in a time when homosexuality was far from widely accepted. Bet’s niece is now running the place. There’s always something happening in ‘t Mandje, and there’s usually a healthy mix of real Amsterdammers and tourists, and gay and straight people. I come here to have fun and drink too much beer. It’s not the kind of place for a deep conversation about life. If you have no friends to accompany you, you will make friends here! Or the crazy archive of items saved since 1927 will keep you busy. Lots of underwear, cut off (by owner Bet) men’s ties, and even a stuffed iguana. There’s a great interview with Bet’s sister Greet about the history of ‘t Mandje on Youtube. Zeedijk 63 // Café ‘t Mandje