Have you booked your Amsterdam trip yet?
The canals just turned 400 this year, and the city is celebrating. Two of Europe’s greatest museums—the venerable Rijks and the modern-art Stedelijk—are back after nearly a decade of closures, both with jaw-dropping starchitect makeovers. Beyond the Museum Quarter and the central Canal Ring, futuristic architecture is creating a waterfront wonderland on both banks of the IJ River. And did we mention Europe’s most exciting marriage of design and dining?
This last development might come as a shock to an Amsterdam regular. Sure, the Dutch have a knack for edgy design. But their cuisine—ouch! The butt of European jokes (with hash brownies as the unfortunate punch line), Amsterdam at table just couldn’t shake off that enveloping Protestant plainness, which is why, perhaps, local cooks have historically shunned their own roots. For as long as I can remember, blah Continental and generic fusion passed for “fine dining” here. On the casual end, sandwiches on squishy brown rolls were to be endured along with salads shaggy with hippie alfalfa sprouts. Having spent my summers in Amsterdam for almost a decade, I’d long resigned myself to DIY picnics canal-side.
Until a recent dine-a-thon changed my mind, that is. Lo and behold, the city’s younger generation of chefs are at last embracing their Dutchness, to say nothing of luminous homegrown ingredients. Amsterdam’s almost militant eco-commitment assures that bio (organic) is the new dining buzzword. Local butchers, bakers, distillers, brewers, and cheese makers are finally getting their due. Amsterdam, in short, is catching up with the world. And the settings—those transfixing settings! Whether a stupendous goat crépinette at a sleek glass house that seems to float on the water, or terrific oysters at a former oil rig with breathtaking harbor views, or a picture-pretty salad in a dreamy restored park manor, or wood-fired bread at a monastic chapel turned locavore shrine—some of Europe’s most singular urban eating experiences lie just a quick tram (ferry? bike?) ride beyond the central canal zone. Don’t wait another nanosecond. Start making reservations right now.
The Museum Restaurants
A demi-hop on the iconic blue-and-white ferry docked behind Central Station whisks you into the Future, to the reclaimed industrial waterfront of Amsterdam’s Noord (North), poised to become the city’s answer to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Noord’s Guggenheim Bilbao effect kicked in last April with the opening of the breathtaking Eye Film Institute, designed by the Austrian firm Delugan Meissl Associated Architects (DMAA). Looming over the IJ, the building evokes a giant white Cubist panther waiting to leap. Inside the creamy-tile-and-glass fantasia await film exhibits and interactive 360-degree “image storms”—plus the Eye Bar-Restaurant, with a terrace that overlooks the zany silhouette of the IJ-Dock complex, another new architectural showstopper. The museum’s curatorial spirit carries over to the simple menu at lunch. A baguette from famous organic bakery Vanmenno joins with silky salmon smoked over beech and oak wood by the boutique Baykow smokehouse. The elegant veal kroketten hail from Holtkamp, Queen Beatrix’s favorite patisserie. For dessert try Holtkamp’s creamy lemon-meringue tart and the fruit-studded apple cake from rival bakery Kuyt. Which wins? Ponder the question on your return ride to the 17th-century Amsterdam of gabled roofs and narrow canals. Or better, compare it with the crumbly, house- baked apple pie served with Medellín Secret brand coffee at Restaurant Stedelijk, inside the renovated museum. A bold design statement of tactile concrete, stainless steel, and tomato-red rubber seating, the glass-walled restaurant is just as eye-popping as the museum’s stunning Malevich canvases. Overseen by Ron Blaauw, a local celebrity toque, the kitchen delivers pleasing renditions of cosmopolitan classics, from crab tempura to vitello tonnato. But it’s the Dutch beef—whether as rich, hand-cut tartare seasoned at table, or the awesome burger with truffle mayo served on a feathery brioche bun—that commands the attention.
Video: Tour the Stedelijk Museum
The Hotel to Watch
Just next door to the Stedelijk, a late-19th-century neo-Gothic bank building turned music conservatory has been revamped into the dramatic Conservatorium Hotel by Milanese designer Piero Lissoni. Its two restaurants, the casual Brasserie & Lounge and the high-concept Tunes, celebrate the triumphant homecoming of local culinary hero Schilo van Coevorden. The unstoppably creative chef (born right in the neighborhood) worked in Japan and Dubai, perfected fusion at Amsterdam’s Blakes Hotel, then cooked up a storm in Marbella, Spain. Now le tout Amsterdam is clamoring to taste his nuevo-Spanish bravura applied to local ingredients. Farmhouse goat yogurt? It’s dolloped with Adriaesque beet sorbet and gilded with Dutch caviar in a fetching play of earthy, salty, and sweet. Gado gado? Amsterdam’s Indonesian favorite gets reinterpreted as a witty collage of tiny fried eggs, shrimp crackers, schmears of peanut sauce, and pickles accenting the crisp-creamy fried sweetbreads. Lissoni’s austere lofty interiors—repurposed industrial lights; chiaroscuro displays of Royal Delft porcelain—are warmed by the open kitchen and the perpetual celebrity buzz of the room. Madonna recently swept in. Here’s Dutch design wunderkind Marcel Wanders, chuckling over the chef’s cheeky “nostalgia to Andalusia” dessert: a craggy-branched chocolate tree on a soil of pistachio crumbs and olive-oil jelly. And how not to smile at the award-winning gin-and-tonic menu? Don’t miss the No 3. Gin, with elderflower tonic and mint.
The Urban Gardener
Leave time before your dinner at Bolenius to gawk at the lofty zigzags and madcap asymmetries of the post-postmodern skyscrapers of Zuidas, the futuristic business district in Amsterdam’s south. This architectural eye candy provides the perfect backdrop for the artistic amuse-bouche ahead: a jagged disk of Sardinian cracker bread protruding from a white stone; black-olive choux strikingly set in a garland of actual rope. All blond birchwood, concrete, and tented white sail fabric, the two-year- old restaurant was a labor of love for the thirtysomething chef Luc Kusters and his partner Xavier Giesen, your dapper host in the dining room. A bit Spanish deconstructionist, somewhat new-Nordic naturalist, ravishingly pretty, and refreshingly personal, Kuster’s “New Amsterdam” dishes are inspired by his urban kitchen garden—improbably planted right under the skyscrapers. Borage and tarragon flowers decorate a shocking-green cube of lettuce gelée. Cauliflower is bewitched into a trompe l’oeil risotto highlighted with herring roe. Even pickled onion—an Amsterdam tavern classic—gets a conceptual makeover as a liquid-nitrogenated sorbet in a cone infused with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. To close: a Willy Wonka extravaganza of Dutch caramels, waffles, and marshmallows.
The High Flier
Even in this city of boffo waterside settings, REM Eiland turns heads. Back in the mid sixties this former oil rig of cubical steel, rising on stilts 80 feet above the IJ, was repurposed into a pirate TV broadcasting station—with its own helipad. Promptly shut down by authorities, it was dismantled and only recently saved from the scrapyard and reassembled into the ultimate dining attraction in the emerging Houthaven port district. Time your arrival for sunset and behold the sweeping harbor views from REM Eiland’s wraparound walkways and decks. Barges chug along below toward the North Sea, while cranes tower over Amsterdam’s last remaining working ship-repair wharf. Indoors, under exposed ductwork at tables refashioned from scaffolding wood, pretty young things order charcuterie platters and seafood plateaux from the crowd-pleasing brasserie menu. The kitchen can’t always keep up with the mad dinnertime crush—but you’ll do just fine with some briny fines de claire oysters, crisp brain-and-veal croquettes, and, from the cool, affordable wine list, a Barbera from Walter Massa, Piedmont’s eccentric-genius vintner. Next in Amsterdam’s woolly reclamation department: a luxury three-suite hotel is set to open soon inside a 1958 industrial crane.
The Locavore Temple
The fabulously round concrete Brutalist building on the edge of Beatrix Park once housed a monastery chapel. Now at Restaurant As, stylish, rough-hewn oak tables in former prayer nooks host blond hipsters worshipping the slow-leavened breads baked in chef Sander Overeinder’s outdoor Tuscan oven. An Alice Waters disciple and high priest of the locavore faith, Overeinder romances Dutch produce in his short, Mediterranean-inflected prix fixe menus recited by servers. Tonight’s inspiration might be a gorgeous salad of shaved zucchini with curry crumbs and heartbreakingly tender North Sea squid flash-fried in a crunchy coating of cornmeal. Delicate favas braised in a basil butter add a fresh jolt to the veal shoulder slow-cooked in a stove inherited from the good brothers. Outside, puzzling totem poles and colorful lights strung over a rusting fence give the overgrown grounds an air of an arty-boho summer camp. As darkness descends, votives glint, pearwood smoke tickles the nostrils, and you realize that bliss rhymes with Van Wees, the cult distiller of that profoundly complex malty genever you can’t stop sipping.
The Corner Café, Reinvented
In Amsterdam, “coffee shop” still connotes cannabis, while a “brown café” is a pub. And an eet (eating) café? It’s a neighborhood joint dishing up bitterballen (meatballs) and sandwiches on hippie brown rolls for a nosh while you booze. On a multiculti street in southern De Pijp district, Café Reuring redefines the genre so brilliantly that a recent rave from a powerful local restaurant critic caused a stampede. Book ahead for your plastic chair at this no-frills corner storefront across from a graffitied Turkish grocery store. The ultra-brief seasonal menu might kick off with a pretty still life of mozzarella, figs, and rhubarb-jus marshmallows, progress to an epic steak tartare with a clever panko-fried egg, and crescendo with an unimpeachable North Sea plaice, roasted on the bone and served in nutty brown butter. Come dessert, the chef might pop out with news that the cherry-size blueberries for the yogurt bavaroise were picked by his wine guy. And this being Amsterdam, architectural epiphany awaits a mere minute away. Cross Lumastraat walking south and there’s De Dageraad, the visionary 1920’s Amsterdam School housing development. Who knew that brick masonry could curve and billow like fabric?
The Manor Life
To escape the clutter and stench canal-side, wealthy 17th-century burghers built summer residences in idyllic Frankendael Park, east of the city center. Now the only period buiten (garden manor) remaining is the stately Huize Frankendael, where since 2008 the terrific restaurant Merkelbach has occupied the coach house. A glass of rosé at a patio table. Sunlight dappling the extravagant patches of daisies and heathers in the restored 18th-century garden. On your plate: a picture-perfect salad of pink and yellow heirloom beets assembled by Slow-Foodie chef Geert Burema. The spicy shaved aged cheese in the salad? That’s clove-studded nagelkass (“nail cheese”), the chatty server explains. Today’s zucchini? From a garden plot run by the local elementary school. Up next: ravioli filled with velvety cauliflower purée, dressed with dusky chanterelles and rich Dutch country butter. Walk off the calories exploring the park’s narrow allées fringed by private gardens. Citizens diligently prune peony bushes outside their brightly painted dollhouse-scaled cottages. Here’s hoping someone invites you in for tea.
The Riverside Idyll
Booking a hot table outside the Canal Ring is a great chance to discover untouristed neighborhoods you’d otherwise miss. Who knew that the residential district around Amstel Station harbored such a lovely riverside path? Who knew the path led straight to Riva, a panoramic new brasserie with such a jazzy design and swoon-inducing location you’d happily come here to eat a boiled clog? Outside the huge windows, willow trees bend low over the Amstel River, and fat swans glide past giant luxury houseboats. Inside, burnt-orange leather banquettes are arranged under cool ceiling panels evoking a river current, and a fantastical chandelier chimes with porcelain fish. In this setting, Riva’s chef, a young, worldly Australian, fries up a peppery soft-shell crab, dishes up a sassy hoisin-glazed quail, and slow-cooks a seriously soulful goat-meat crépinette. Take your croissant-and-butter pudding out to the deck and watch as the lighting gets moodier, the river grows glossier, and Riva’s regulars unmoor their boats and sail home.
The Design Atelier
Marjolein Wintjes (social scientist/textile artist) and Eric Meursing (industrial designer/chef) weren’t interested in a conventional restaurant. Instead the pair, known for such provocations as a wedding dress fashioned from edible rhubarb paper, call their De Culinaire Werkplaats “eat’inspirations.” Book one of their themed dinners—say, “Eat the City” or “Postcard from Shanghai”—take the tram to the emerging Westerpark neighborhood, and prepare to bus your own plates from a long table shared with regulars. It all feels like crashing a dinner party at the airy design atelier of a hip, arty friend with food that’s surprising, provocative, and shot through with that Dutch eco-idealism. The walnut pesto is pounded from nuts grown in Amsterdam’s sports park. A starkly beautiful dish called “guerrilla garden” pairs black quinoa with strawberry-infused cherries—the imagined result of throwing a seed bomb. From a faux earth of black lentils, tender green pea tendrils sprout—a poetic evocation of greenery shooting through urban pavements. The bill? You’ll be charged for the wine and asked to contribute what you find “fair” for the five-course tasting menu. Be generous—won’t you?
The Ultimate Rijsttafel
Rijsttafel (literally, “rice table”)—a feast of rice with myriad trimmings—is the colonial Dutch vision of an Indonesian banquet, more authentic to Amsterdam than it is to Jakarta or Bali. The current favorite is the new-school Restaurant Blauw, near the Vondelpark, which keeps its spicing just right while steering refreshingly clear of saggy “ethnic” clichés—no gamelan music; no sarong-wrapped servers. In a modern space decorated in Mondrianesque reds and a nostalgic portrait of the owner’s Javanese forebears, order the rice feast, and soon enough a slew of spicy stews and spicier condiments will land on your table. Here’s an intriguing egg dish with a chile-spiked sambal; a mini-stick of caramelized goat satay; pork-belly nuggets in a dark, syrupy ketjap manis sauce. Eat them with helpings of fragrant rice, dabs of vinegary-sweet cucumber atjar, roasted coconut sprinkles, and crunchy forkfuls of sambal goreng kentang, the addictive caramel-fried shoestring potatoes. After five minutes your mouth vibrates with turmeric and galangal, and throbs with chiles. Thank heaven for the soothing-sweet bite of plush pisang goreng (fried banana) that comes to the rescue.
The Italian Dream
Trends come and go, riverfronts and skylines transform, but scoring an 8 p.m. reservation at Toscanini, the urban-rustic trattoria of everyone’s dreams in the hip Jordaan district, never gets any easier. Start dialing now for the night when you’ll find yourself—hallelujah!—in the sprawling whitewashed, skylit dining room, draping petals of Friuli’s prized di Oswaldo prosciutto around skinny grissini or drizzling chestnut honey over slices of young pecorino. Here, regulars stroll from table to table double-kissing one another, pastas are always faultlessly elegant (grab the spaghetti pungent with lemon and bottarga di Orbetello), and the slender chops of Dutch lamb are a red-meat Platonic ideal. With a conspiratorial wink the waiter might pour you an edgy off-the-menu Nebbiolo. So who needs Venice, when after dunking biscotti del Prato into a sweet aromatic passito you can roam along Prinsengracht, the city’s most gorgeous canal? Seventeenth-century gables reflect in the moonlit water, lovers embrace on dark benches, and only the crazy bicyclists whizzing past at ungodly speeds threaten your happiness.