Everyday Dutch things: cafés & coffee in the Netherlands

If you talk to an American about Europe, at some point, you will talk about one of two things: how old and beautiful the buildings are in European cities, and how the cafés in Europe are just fucking adorable.

Why do you think I moved to the Netherlands?

The Nieuwegracht in Utrecht, lined with old buildings and bicycles.

As an American, I dreamt of living in a beautiful old apartment with huge windows and going to cafés in my spare time. After years of wishing, my dream came true when I moved to the Netherlands last year.

With the current coronavirus crisis, things have, of course, been different here. I absolutely miss my time sitting in cafés, reading a book, and drinking cappuccinos. Or simply catching up with people while sitting by a widow overlooking the canal or cobblestone streets.

Because that’s right, that’s what Dutch cafés are like. They are picturesque as fuck.

Since cafés can’t have crowds of people sitting at their tables for hours anymore, they’ve had to make a lot of changes. And these changes were not natural for the Netherlands. I’m going to start with the one big change that I noticed.

In the Netherlands, getting coffee to go is just not a thing like it is in the US. I know, I know, it doesn’t make any sense. I for one can’t start my work day without a fresh latte macchiato. It just doesn’t feel right.

But no, Dutch people don’t like the idea of a “coffee to-go”. A huge part of the Dutch social life and culture is to actually sit in a cafe while drinking your coffee. To the Dutch, getting a coffee to go is a waste of money. My girlfriend Sara always says this. Why buy a coffee then, if you’re not going to drink it somewhere nice? You could just make one yourself.

When Sara and I had Dutch friends of hers visiting the US, one of the things they wanted to do was get coffee at a cafe, and then walk on the streets with it. Wow! I was surprised that this was such a new thing for them. They were giggling the whole time they had their coffee cups in their hands.

I thought it was cute. But the funny thing is that now I see people with coffee cups everywhere on the street in the Netherlands. I really had to get used to this! Now that coffee to go is the only way cafes can still somewhat stay in business, they’ve figured out a way to offer it.

But yes, they literally had to “figure out” how to do this. The whole idea of putting coffee in a cup and taking it with you seems so strange to Dutch people that I often get a to-go cup without a lid here. I have to ask for the lid separately! And no, they don’t just have sugar, milk, and lids put to the side for you to take, like they do at American cafes.

This brings me to the second difference that I had to get used to. In the Netherlands, like most European countries, you can’t just order a “coffee”. THIS MAKES NO SENSE I KNOW.

In the beginning, I would often go up to the barista and just say, “Hi, can I have a coffee, please?” And the barista would look at me like I was asking him to make coffee out of tea leaves. There was always so much confusion because it would take me a second to realize my mistake.

You always have to order a “special” drink. An Americano is as close to a regular American coffee as you’re going to get here. And the funny thing is that Dutch people actually think that us Americans drink Americanos all the time. Hahaha, no. It’s just drip coffee. There’s a difference.

And as much as I rave about the cute little Dutch cafes, jury’s still out on good Dutch coffee. The first thing is that I’m always a tiny bit annoyed (still) that the sizes are so small. I’ve gotten used to my nice, large American sizes, and I almost want to introduce them here to the Dutch.

Coffee (a koffie verkeerd) in Amsterdam.

But fine, good coffee doesn’t need to come in big sizes. But that’s where I’m surprised at how many places in Amsterdam or Utrecht don’t actually have good coffee.

Don’t get me wrong, I know American diner coffee is shitty coffee. But that’s meant to be shitty. I’ve found in my experience in going to different proper cafes in the US—and I’m ashamed to admit I have a lot of experience with this—that the coffee there tends to be pretty good.

In Amsterdam, for instance, I’ve had amazing coffee at a brown cafe where they mostly just serve alchohol, and really shitty coffee at actual cafes where coffee is their speciality. But I guess people have different tastes.

The atmosphere in Dutch cafes, though, cannot be beat. I am looking forward to getting back to sitting cozily by a cafe window once all of this is over.

A word of warning for those of you folks who haven’t been to the Netherlands, don’t go looking for coffee in coffeeshops. Apparently, you get coffee at cafes, but weed at coffeeshops. You’re usually in a very different mood if you want to go to a coffeeshop.

Somehow many people know this about the Netherlands already. I missed out on the memo in the US. So when I first visited the Netherlands, I repeatedly mentioned to Sara that we visit this coffeeshop that we kept passing in De Pijp.

The place was called “Mellow Yellow” and it was yellow on the outside. I KNOW, how did I not get the hint? But yeah, she kept thinking I wanted to get high on our dates. Nope, turns out I was just “een beetje dom” (a little dumb).

But because coffeeshops are reserved for something else, I get the sense that especially in Amsterdam, the Dutch have decided that it’s also important to spruce up their cafes a bit. So in my first week in Amsterdam, I went to a cafe that was also a plant shop (Wildernis), a cafe that used to be a theatre which now has cool beanbags and shit (Coffee & Coconuts), and a cafe that is a boutique clothing store (Cottoncake).

If you’re looking for interesting places to get coffee, Amsterdam’s not one to disappoint.


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