Gezellig: The allure of Amsterdam’s brown cafés

It doesn’t take long to settle in and feel relaxed in the Netherlands. It seems like everywhere you look, people are having a good time. There’s such a strong emphasis on making things cozy and convivial that the Dutch designated their own untranslatable word for it: gezellig.

Take Café Hoppe in Amsterdam, where locals and tourists alike spill out onto the sidewalk on Friday afternoons to enjoy a borrel: a gathering for drinks, snacks and conversation. People crowd around high tables on standing-room-only patios as chatter and cigarette smoke fills the air. Inside, beautiful dark wood, which characterizes all of Holland’s famous brown cafés, lines the walls and floors of historical rooms lit by candles. These cafés are cozy and charming precisely because there’s no pretentious attention to décor: effortlessness is part of the appeal.

The secret, of course, is that there is nothing effortless about creating what’s required for a setting like this. The charming buildings that house these cafés date back to the 15th century and have been influenced by hundreds of years of history and design. Even a drink requires effort: The beer is expertly poured and presented, albeit not to all North American tastes, with two fingers’ height of head atop every glass as a rule.

Café culture is not unique to the Netherlands, but gezellig works precisely because there’s a shared understanding between customer and barkeep: This is the atmosphere they are both hoping for and expecting with every visit and transaction. By each spending a little energy to achieve this ambiance, the result feels uncomplicated. The same can’t always be said for North America, where strict drinking laws keep people from socializing beyond bar premises with drinks in hand, and there can be a hesitance to share tables let alone mingle with strangers.

There’s no real tried-and-true formula to achieving a gezellig atmosphere. A big part of the charm of the best of these brown cafés is how unique they are from one another. Amsterdam’s Café In ’t Aapen, for example, is full of unsettling monkey-themed art (“aap” means ape). Café ’t Smalle’s terrific canal-side patio, meanwhile, doubles as a dock for thirsty boaters. And in Utrecht, Café Olivier is built into an old cathedral. With its soaring ceilings and wide open room, it’s an unlikely candidate for gezelligheid, but it works beautifully all the same. Indeed, it was in 2014 voted one of the best bars in Holland by Misset Horeca, a local trade magazine, but still portrays no air of trendiness, and though it’s bustling, my wife and I had no problem finding a spot on a busy Friday night.

While the hippest North American bars tend to base their reputation on lineups, even the most popular cafés in Holland usually have a spot or two open. The Dutch aren’t prepared to wait in line when there’s a perfectly suitable — and equally gezellig — café around the corner.

Justin Go is the chef and founder of BorrelTO, a pop-up restaurant in Toronto featuring Dutch snacks and comfort food

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