What Are Dutch Brown Cafes?

Houses along a canal, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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Bruine or bruin (brown) cafés are to Amsterdam what pubs are to London. The cafés are as much a part of the city's charm as its canals, architecture, and its other famous cafes. Most of them epitomize the Dutch term gezelligheid (pronounced "khuh ZEL ikh hide"), a word difficult to translate into English, but best described as coziness, or a feeling of friendly welcome.

Just like English pubs, brown cafes are casual neighborhood gathering spots serving regional food and local beers and located all around the city. Unlike their similar British cousins, that tend to close early, most Dutch brown cafés stay open well into the night, usually until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. 

Brown cafés bring together strangers from all over the world, with most patrons looking for a drink, a snack and friendly conversation. The cafes got their curious name from the dark wood decor found in nearly every location, and the famous brown hued walls, rumored to be that shade due to staining from many years of patrons' smoking cigarettes. Thankfully, smoking is now banned in all bars, restaurants, clubs, and cafes in Amsterdam and all of the Netherlands, so no need to fret about your lung safety. 

What You'll Find in an Amsterdam Brown Café

  • A laid-back, genial feeling, and patrons looking for good conversation.
  • Expect to find local crafts beers on tap, Dutch jenever (pronounced "yuh NAY ver"), a spirit similar to gin, and for the beer and spirit averse, most brown cafes also have at least a few wine options.
  • A well-worn look -- think dark wood, old collectibles, quirky decorations that often go with the theme (or name) of the café.
  • A limited food menu that may include small salads, sandwiches and/or Dutch hapjes ("pronounced "HOP yuhs"), which are light bar snacks like cheese, olives, nuts, and bitterballen (Dutch fried balls of meat and potato).

What You Need to Know About Amsterdam Brown Cafés

  • Most don't accept credit cards; so be sure to bring cash.
  • If you're visiting in the warmer months, most brown cafes have outdoor seating, weather pending.
  • This is a foreign concept for Americans, but some of the cafes have self-service bars.
  • You won't find live music or other entertainment at brown cafés.
  • Beer glasses are often washed upon ordering. Don't be surprised if a bartender grabs a used glass, dumps it into a special washing sink and begins to fill it with beer as it's still wet. He/she will then scrape the foaming top with a tool made just for this purpose, repeat if necessary and serve you a beer with about two fingers width of head (beer foam).
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