Beyond Space Cakes: My Trip to Amsterdam

You can have the stereotypical Amsterdam experience of smoking and the red-light district, or turn the corner and visit design shops selling felt trivets, cafés selling big, healthy sandwiches on seedy brown bread, or a bar serving cocktails in the shadow of a 400-year-old church. It poured most of my visit in late spring; the one dry day, by 6 p.m. it seemed like the whole city was sitting at outdoor tables on the canals having a beer or a glass of wine with friends. Amsterdam is comfortable and stylish without trying too hard.

When it comes to food, Amsterdam chefs are open to new flavors but not self-consciously trying to impress you, the way their counterparts in Italy or France often are. Things are fresh, solid, and a good value. Here are some places I discovered:

Phone number note: To reach Amsterdam from the United States, dial 011 before all phone numbers listed.

Looks Dining
Binnen Bantammerstraat 5
+31 020 320 0949
This place had an eclectic layout that felt more like an apartment than a restaurant, and it bordered on cheesy (e.g., Euro club–style backlighting). The service was excellent however: I ordered a bottle of wine that I ended up not liking, and they took it right back, no questions asked. The food was solid, too. My friend and I had properly made cocktails (a rarity in Europe), oysters from Zeeland (I’d never heard of the place before, but the oysters were good and not too briny), and beef prepared three ways (smoked tartare, braised smoky short ribs, and a sort of speck napoleon that was layered with fat). I’m pretty over the one-ingredient-multiple-ways shtick, but the smoked angle made for a refreshing take. Next we had a slow-roasted leg of lamb with radicchio and polenta and, for me, plaice (a delicate white fish common in northern Europe—only afterward did I find out it’s at risk because of overfishing) in a beurre blanc sauce with cucumber ribbons and herbed new potatoes. With wine and two cocktails, our dinner came to 120 euros (about $168).

Brood
Zeedijk 66
+31 020 626 2919
Every tourist (including me) inevitably finds himself in the somewhat sleazy section of town between the train station and the red-light district, but not everyone seems to discover this wonderful bread shop there. Cumin seeds cover or flavor many of the baked items—the Dutch were major players in the spice trade. I made my way through a mini baguette with cumin cheese, and a sort of morning bun loaded with cinnamon and sugar and walnuts that was just sweet enough to make the bitter, earthy flavors of the nuts come out, not overly sweet like so many sad-tasting commercial raisin breads in the United States. I also had an apple-hazelnut roll that was so fresh the apples didn’t even taste baked.

Eetcafe Singel 404
Singel 404
+31 020 428 0154
An inexpensive, locals-only lunch spot, despite the very central location, that’s small (seats maybe 50 people tops) with modest décor. You can get big, healthy salads, hearty sandwiches, and lighter soups. I had a salad composed of a giant pile of butter lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, ricotta with beet greens folded in, sprouts, and cured meat on top of brown bread (see picture), and my friend had a sandwich with smoked chicken, guacamole, pine nuts, sprouts, and Brie on wheaty oat-covered bread. We paid what we would have paid for an American lunch at Subway and even got a not-too-sweet mocha and a tasty bitter lemon soda too.

Lunchcafe Nielsen
Berenstraat 19
+31 020 330 6006
You’ll want to go shopping in the design-y, boutique-y area known as 9 Streets, so Lunchcafe Nielsen is a good place to start your day. It’s one of the few spots I visited that actually offers an American-style breakfast, with eggs and bacon, as opposed to the Euro muesli, yogurt, and fruit (they serve that too). It’s offered prix fixe, with OJ and toast. There’s sit-down service, and also a counter with pastries you can pick up to go. Lunches are great here, too, with sandwiches on hearty brown bread.

What’s Cooking
Reestraat 16
+31 020 427 0630
This superquirky, kind of kitschy, yet affordable cookware and tableware store is in the heart of the 9 Streets shopping district. It sells slightly odd knickknacks (porcelain bowls with tiny sculptures in them, for example), as well as high-design tableware typical of northern Europe. I picked up a set of felt coasters with a pretty cut-out lacework pattern and a tea towel with the words “I’m Not a Paper Towel” screen-printed on it. The shop also sells Dutch specialty food products like teas, candies, and stroopwafels that would make good gifts.

Other fun stores nearby:
Chocolaterie Pompadour: An excellent chocolate shop and tearoom.
Fifties Sixties: A vintage store with an awesome toaster and toothbrush collection.
Cortina Papier: A beautiful stationery store.

Werck Restaurant & Cafe Bar
Prinsengracht 277
+31 020 627 4079
In between the Anne Frank Museum and the gorgeous 400-year-old Westerkerk church, Werck is ideally located for tourists but isn’t touristy. In fact, I wouldn’t have known it was there if I hadn’t been photographing doors and noticed that the industrial-modern door I was shooting belonged to a restaurant. Along the entire side bordering the church is a giant window that lets in natural light and creates a romantic mood in the evening. I had a well-made Negroni at the bar, which was packed with nicely dressed young professionals just getting off work, and snacked on good bitterballen (little meat croquettes popular throughout the country). I didn’t stay beyond a few drinks and apps, but the food, served by a young staff in all-black uniforms, was precisely plated and interesting-looking.

Puccini Bomboni
Staalstraat 17
+31 020 626 5474
Visit Droog, the retail store of the famous Dutch housewares-design firm, and stop at this chocolate store—one of two locations—for truffles. The treats are lavishly piled in crescent-shaped tiers in the open air, not under glass. Unlike most U.S. chocolate makers, who use standard molds, it seemed as if each chocolate was a different, whimsical shape and size. The truffles were quite large, and some were interesting flavors, like the slightly sour tamarind truffle. My friend and I enjoyed the traditional chocolate-hazelnut variety, and when we asked the store’s employee to recommend her favorite, she turned us on to the honey-ganache, which was delicious.