Kicking off our series of nightlife guides to the world’s best cities, UTB editor Duncan Rhodes puts his liver, and life, on the line during one blurry night in Amsterdam.
As we walk through the cold and damp autumnal evening, flanked by low-rise terrace flats, the occasional pocket of noisy drinkers spilling out of a pub to smoke a fag, I feel like I’m wandering through a quiet pocket of Wandsworth or Kensington. Except of course for the bikes. They are everywhere, racked up on the pavements in rows of five, ten or even twenty, leaning up against every wall, lamppost and tree. If it wasn’t for this morass of spokes and saddles spreading everywhere over the urban landscape I could easily mistake my surroundings for London.
In fact I’m in an area of Amsterdam called De Pijp, a former working class district that has become one of the centres of the Dutch capital’s nightlife. “Before it was a bit of shifty area,” say my friend Hans, a resident of De Pijp for 15 years. “This district is really busy now, really popular. It has the highest concentration of bars and restaurants in Amsterdam, and a lot of young people with money are moving here. People come from all around town to drink in De Pijp even when they don’t live here. Unfortunately this also means suited people talking about their cars, but generally it is still a cool place to hang out. During summer there are lots of terraces for drinking and there is a real village atmosphere. You always meet people you know.” As if to prove his point a cute girl walking in the opposite direction waves and hollas at Hans.
It’s past 9pm, late for dinner by Dutch standards, when we get to Bazar, a huge Moroccan restaurant on Albert Cuypstraat (which incidentally is also the home of the Albert Cuyp market by day, where cheap clothes, fruit and veg and the odd chocolate penis are all sold). The restaurant probably won’t sit well with staunch Christians, who might find eating Arab cuisine in a former church a little hard to stomach, but for Epicureans like myself and Hans it’s the perfect way to start a night out. I order the Ghorak, which turns out to be a vast Moroccan stew in lavash bread topped off with chicken wings, rice and salad. It’s twice the size of my stomach and costs less than 10 euros. As we wash down our meals with some beers, I ask Hans if the international crowd here at Bazar is a fair representation of the district.
“This is a very cosmopolitan area,” he explains. “In De Pijp we have restaurants cooking more than 80 different cuisines from around the world.” This large gastronomical diversity is part in thanks to the cultural diversity of the district, which includes a large Turkish population, as well as plenty of folk from Suriname and Indonesia – two of the former Dutch colonies.
With its famed good looks, tolerance, high quality of living and high levels of English, Amsterdam has also proved a popular destination with the American, English and European thrill-seekers. When Hans introduces me to his Portuguese friend Diego in the nearby Kingfisher Bar, I find out a little more why many ex-pats end up staying longer than they intended.
“The Amsterdam people are very friendly and they are very open- minded. They accept you how you are. So it doesn’t matter where you are from, what you are doing, or what your religion is – if you are gay or not.” (I knew I shouldn’t have worn the pink T-shirt). “I always felt really good here. I always say it is very easy to come here but it is very difficult to go back. I love Portugal, I love Lisbon, and I love to visit family and friends. But every time I’m in Lisbon I miss Amsterdam.”
As I quiz Diego on the local club scene, Hans brings another round of beers to the table and unashamedly starts chatting up the demure, olive-skinned brunette sitting opposite Diego who I’d assumed was his girlfriend… but turns out to be his sister. I’m not sure which is worse. When she leaves I can at last throw open the topic I’m dying to know more about. The local women. What are they like compared to the Portguese girls, I ask.
“Before midnight Dutch girls are better, but after midnight Portuguese,” says Diego, with a hint of disappointment. “The Dutch girls, sometimes they act like they are crazy but when you end up together you discover they’re actually quite shy. The Portuguese women are more passionate.” It’s not all bad news for me though. “The good thing is that it’s easier to impress a Dutch girl,” he says, although something tells me the rules that apply to handsome Portuguese playboys might not apply to pint-sized English pissheads.
I’m keen to get some more tips off Diego but Hans wants to take me to the other side of town to a bar called Struik, “one of the hippest places in Amsterdam.”
“Are the trams still running?” I ask.
“We’re not going by tram,” says Hans.
“Taxi?” I say inspecting the contents of my wallet.
“Remember you are in Amsterdam my friend,” says Hans walking over to a nearby lamppost, towards a typical steel-framed black city bike. He pulls out a set of keys and proceeds to struggle with the lock.
“Errr is this safe?”
“Relax, I’ve been driving my bicycle when drunk for 20 years.”
I hesitatingly perch on the uncomfortable rear carrier, with one leg dangling either side of the bike, pillion-style, as Hans takes off with only a couple of minor wobbles onto the roads. My front view consists solely of Hans’ back, but from my periphery vision I see taxis and other traffic zoom past dangerously close to us. One slip and we’re dead, I think, desperately attempting not to fidget with my hands clamped on the frame behind me to stop me falling backwards. Every tiny bump in the road is like a paddle in anger to my arse, but eventually we arrive – safely – at Struik.
Struik is my kind of bar, and with its hip but unpretentious vibe it certainly wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch 10 years ago. Hans informs that the graffiti art on the bare bricks walls changes every few months, whilst the DJs specialise in funk and hip hop music, even organising hip hop and r’n'b karaoke nights on occasion. The bar also is engaging a new trend in Amsterdam of throwing open its kitchen to the public: the idea is that anyone can be the chef for the day and can invite their friends down for a meal which they themselves cook in Struik’s kitchen. As the chef du jour you have to buy your own ingredients and publicise the event yourself but you get to keep most of the cut from your own cooking. Hans assures me that one American guy regular works the woks to sizzle up the juiciest Brooklyn Burgers this side of the Atlantic.
Just when I thought I couldn’t like this bar any more the bartender, who seems to think it’s hilarious that I’m from London, tells me my round of beers is on the house (we’ve already sunk the gin and tonics Hans ordered). Good man.
It’s getting late, but there’s just time to call on one more bar before we hit a club. Lux is close by but we’re still going to have to go by bike. This time I try the preferred local method of sidesaddle. Hans pedals off first and then I’m supposed to make a running jump onto the back of the bike. I brace myself for a fall, but somehow we manage to stay upright. In fact sitting sidesaddle on the carrier is no more comfortable but at least I get to admire the canals, churches and various other night-lit landmarks as we go. Several other equally inebriated drink-cyclers pass us by, and there’s already a bevy of bikes chained up outside Lux when we arrive. A strong gust of wind knocks five or so over.
“It’s called bike dominoes,” laughs Hans, at this apparently common phenomenon.
Lux has a classic London pre-club vibe to it, except perhaps the vintage soft porn on the walls. We find a space in the basement level, and whilst Hans chats to some friends he knows, I use the opportunity to get talking to some young students (in the name of nightlife journalism). One of them is chaperoning her 18 year old brother out for the night. Christ I feel old. Still they’re going home early for lectures, whilst me and my fellow thirty-something drinking buddy aren’t going to finish the night without a spot of clubbing.
By now it must truly be dangerous to be out on a bike, but at least I’m drunk enough to no longer be worried. We arrive on Rembrandt square safe and sound around 1.30 and make our way into Studio 80. It’s rammed. And the music is too hardcore for my liking, but a) we’re on the guest list and b) Hans’ mate is behind the bar. A free vodka and red bull later and the tunes are seeming more palatable. It’s certainly a good atmosphere for a Thursday night but the club consists of just two rooms tonight. The main dancefloor and the smoking room. A disgusting lungful of tobacco later and I decide tinnitus is the lesser of two evils. Besides it’s already 2.30 and I haven’t made any headway with the, supposedly easy-to-impress, local lasses. I spy a cute blonde whose All Saints-esque black glasses give her an intellectual air.
“You’re a little short for a Dutch girl aren’t you?” I shout at her, seductively.
Thankfully she ‘gets’ my irony and playfully punches me in return. I could be in here! However whatever I manage to drivel out next in the way of conversation was obviously less inspired and she decides the other side of the dancefloor is suddenly much more alluring. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow for the Van Gogh museum anyway, I tell myself…