The Netherlands may not be Europe’s gastronomic epicentre, but the food in the average Dutch restaurant has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, and there are any number of places serving a good, inventive take on home-grown cuisine. All the larger cities also have a decent assortment of ethnic restaurants, especially Indonesian, Chinese and Thai, plus lots of cafés and bars – often known as eetcafés – that serve adventurous, reasonably priced food in a relaxed and unpretentious setting. The Netherlands is also a great country to go drinking, with a wide selection of bars, ranging from the chic and urbane to the rough and ready. Considering the country’s singular approach to the sale and consumption of cannabis, you might choose to enjoy a joint after your meal rather than a beer – for which you will have to go to a “coffeeshop”.
Dutch food tends to be higher in protein content than variety: steak, chicken and fish, along with filling soups and stews, are staples, usually served up in substantial quantities. It can, however, at its best, be excellent, with lots of restaurants – and even bars and eetcafés – offering increasingly adventurous crossovers with French cuisine, all at good-value prices.
In all but the cheapest and most expensive of hotels, breakfast (ontbijt) will be included in the price of the room. Though usually nothing fancy, it’s always substantial: rolls, cheese, ham, hard-boiled eggs, jam and honey or peanut butter are the principal ingredients. Many bars and cafés serve rolls and sandwiches in similar mode, although few open much before 8am or 8.30am.
A standard cup of coffee is bitter and strong and served black with koffiemelk (evaporated milk) on the side, but lots of places – especially city coffee shops (of the non-dope variety) – have moved up a notch, serving mochas, cappuccinos and so forth. Tea generally comes with lemon – if anything; if you want milk you have to ask for it. Chocolate (chocomel) is also popular, hot or cold; for a real treat, drink it hot with a layer of fresh whipped cream (slagroom) on top. Some cafés also sell aniseed-flavoured warm milk (anijsmelk).
Dutch fast food has its own peculiarities. Chips/fries (friet or patat) are the most common standby; vlaamse or “Flemish” style sprinkled with salt and smothered with huge gobs of mayonnaise (frietesaus) are the best, or with curry, sateh, goulash or tomato sauce. If you just want salt, ask for patat zonder; fries with salt and mayonnaise are patat met. You’ll also come across kroketten – spiced minced meat (usually either veal or beef), covered with breadcrumbs and deep-fried – and fricandel, a frankfurter-like sausage. All these are available over the counter at evil-smelling fast-food places, or, for a euro or so, from coin-op heated glass compartments on the street and in train stations.
Much tastier are the fish specialities sold by street vendors, which are good as a snack or a light lunch: salted raw herring, rollmops, smoked eel (gerookte paling), mackerel in a roll (broodje makreel), mussels and various kinds of deep-fried fish are all delicious. Look out, too, for “green” or maatje herring, eaten raw with onions in early summer: hold the fish by the tail, tip your head back and dangle it into your mouth, Dutch-style. Another snack you’ll see everywhere is shoarma or shwarma – also known as doner kebab, shavings of lamb pressed into a flat pitta bread – sold in numerous Middle Eastern restaurants and takeaways for about €3. Other, less common, street foods include pancakes (pannenkoeken), sweet or spicy, also widely available at sit-down restaurants; waffles (stroopwafels), doused with syrup; and, in November and December, oliebollen, greasy doughnuts sometimes filled with fruit (often apple) or custard (as a Berliner) and traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve.
Bars often serve sandwiches and rolls (boterham and broodjes) – mostly open, and varying from a slice of tired cheese on old bread to something so embellished it’s almost a complete meal – as well as more substantial dishes. A sandwich made with French bread is known as a stokbrood. In the winter, erwtensoep (or snert) – thick pea soup with smoked sausage, served with smoked bacon on pumpernickel – is available in many bars, and makes a great buy for lunch, at about €5 a bowl. Alternatively, you can sample the uitsmijter (a “kicker-out”, derived from the practice of serving it at dawn after an all-night party to prompt guests to depart). Now widely available at all times of day, it comprises one, two or three fried eggs on buttered bread, topped with a choice of ham, cheese or roast beef; at about €5, it’s another good budget lunch.
Most cafés, bars and café-bars serve food, everything from sandwiches to a full menu – in which case they may be known as an eetcafé. This type of place is usually open all day, serving both lunch and an evening meal. Full-blown restaurants, on the other hand, tend to open in the evening only, usually from around 5.30 or 6pm until around 10pm. Especially in the smaller towns, the Dutch eat early, around 7.30 or 8pm; after about 10pm you’ll find many restaurant kitchens closed.
If you’re on a budget, stick to the dagschotel (dish of the day) wherever possible, for which you’ll pay around €10. It’s usually a meat or fish dish, heavily garnished with potatoes and other vegetables and salad; note, though, that it’s often only served at lunchtime or between 6 and 8pm. Otherwise, you can pay up to €25 for a meat or seafood main course in an average restaurant. Vegetarian dining isn’t a problem. Many eetcafés and restaurants have at least one meat-free menu item, and you’ll find a few veggie restaurants in most of the larger towns, offering full-course set meals for €10–15 – although bear in mind that they often close early (7/8pm).
As for foreign cuisines, the Dutch are particularly partial to Indonesian food and Indonesian restaurants are commonplace: nasi goreng and bami goreng (rice or noodles with meat) are good basic dishes, though there are normally more exciting items on the menu, some very spicy; chicken or beef in peanut sauce (sateh) is always available. Or you could try a rijsttafel – a sampler meal, comprising rice and/or noodles served with perhaps ten or twelve small, often spicy dishes and hot sambal sauce on the side. Usually ordered for two or more people, you can reckon on paying around €25 per person. Surinamese restaurants are much rarer, being largely confined to the big cities, but they offer a distinctive, essentially Creole cuisine – try roti, flat pancake-like bread served with a spicy curry, hard-boiled egg and vegetables.
Italian food is ubiquitous, with pizzas and pasta dishes starting at a fairly uniform €8 or so in most places.
Most drinking is done in the laidback surroundings of a brown bar (bruin kroeg) – so called because of the colour of the décor – or in more modern-looking places, everything from slick designer bars, minimally furnished and usually catering for a younger crowd, to cosy neighbourhood bars. Most bars stay open until around 1am during the week and 2am at weekends, though some don’t bother to open until lunchtime, a few not until 4 or 5pm.
Though they’re no longer common, you may also come across proeflokaalen or tasting houses. Originally the sampling premises of small distillers, these are now small, old-fashioned bars that only serve spirits (and maybe a few beers) and sometimes close early (around 8pm).
The Netherlanders’ favourite tipple is beer, mostly Pilsener-style lager usually served in a relatively small measure (just under a half-pint, with a foaming head on top) – ask for een pils. Away from Amsterdam expect to pay around €2–3, or €3–4 in Amsterdam. Predictably, beer is much cheaper from a supermarket, most brands retailing at just under €2 for a half-litre bottle. The most common Dutch brands are Heineken, Amstel and Grolsch, all of which you can find more or less nationwide. Expect them to be stronger and more distinctive than the watery approximations brewed abroad under licence.
For something a little less strong, look out for donkenbier, which is about half the strength of an ordinary Pilsener beer. There are also a number of seasonal beers: rich, fruity bokbier is fairly widespread in autumn, while year-round you’ll see witbier (a wheaty, white beer) such as Hoegaarden, Dentergems or Raaf – refreshing and potent in equal measure, and often served with a slice of a lemon or lime.
Around the country, you’ll also spot plenty of the better-known Belgian brands available on tap, like Stella Artois and the darker De Koninck, as well as bottled beers like Duvel, Chimay and various brands of the fruit-flavoured Kriek. There are also an increasing number of local, independent breweries: for five of the best.
Wine and spirits
Wine is reasonably priced – expect to pay around €5 for an average bottle of French white or red in a supermarket, €15 in a restaurant. As for spirits, the indigenous drink is jenever, or Dutch gin – not unlike British gin, but a bit weaker and oilier, made from molasses and flavoured with juniper berries. It’s served in a small glass (for around €2) and is traditionally drunk straight, often knocked back in one gulp with much hearty back-slapping. There are a number of varieties, principally Oud (old), which is smooth and mellow, an d Jong (young), which packs more of a punch – though neither is extremely alcoholic. The older jenevers (including zeer oude, very old) are a little more expensive but stronger and less oily. In a bar, ask for a borreltje (straight jenever) or a bittertje (with angostura); if you’ve a sweet tooth, try a bessenjenever (flavoured with blackcurrant). A glass of beer with a jenever chaser is a kopstoot. Imported spirits are considerably more expensive.
Other drinks include numerous Dutch liqueurs, notably advocaat or eggnog; sweet, blue curaçao; and luminous green pisang ambon. There is also an assortment of luridly coloured fruit brandies best left for experimentation at the end of an evening – or perhaps not at all – plus a Dutch-produced brandy, vieux, which tastes as if it’s made from prunes but is in fact grape-based. Various regional firewaters include elske from Maastricht – made from the leaves, berries and bark of alder bushes.