When Americans get together after work and on weekends, we join for happy hour, diner brunches and baseball and football games in sports bars. Sure we drink coffee, but Europeans cannot get their heads around the fact that there is no concept of meeting in a café during lunch break (what lunch break?) or after work. Just because we’ve exported mediocre coffee chains all over the planet doesn’t mean we have a café culture.
In France I am in a café at least a few times a week. But this weekend I took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Amsterdam and am ready to make the controversial statement that the Netherlands has the clear lead in the gold medal race of bar-and-coffee ambience. I should note that this has absolutely no relation to smoking pot: I had actually expected to avoid coffee shops because of smoke clouds; herbal or otherwise. This would have been tragic, because every bar or café we stopped in (three or four daily) was welcoming and warm, and each had a vibe all its own.
Saturday morning we perked up outside a tiny, reefer-smelling cafe near the University of Amsterdam. Features: an ancient long-haired barista dude and 25 containers of tea leaves. Later we found ourselves in Cafe Kale, which felt almost like a British pub with warm red curtains, dark wood and HUGE apple tart. We ended the night in a one-tap grandpa-style bar with ancient jukebox and an awkward lack of non-Dutch people.
Sunday dawned cloudy and frigid, and we drank a morning brew in Caffe Milo, a cocktail-ish joint with an open kitchen, young couples canoodling over breakfast, and Marvin Gaye on the speakers. After three hours in the Van Gogh museum, we sat on the top floor of the touristy Small Talk with enormous lattés, just watching the bikes ride by the Stedelijk museum. We literally tumbled into each of these based on the outside view, which often doesn’t turn out great results. In Amsterdam: easy as pie.
For our final night out, we braved what felt like artic winds to visit Cafe Kobalt, a another wooden-interior “bruine cafe” in a 17th-century warehouse on Singel canal. On a Sunday at 9:30 p.m. (we missed the 5 p.m. live jazz), there was still a small crowd of laughing clients chatting with the bartenders and enjoying wine, beer and snacks. Amsterdam’s cafés, like those all around Europe, will serve you a beer at noon and a coffee at midnight, and anything in between. But they also inspire a feeling of repose and familiarity that I’ve never felt elsewhere. You’ll want to stay a while.