Amsterdam, that lovely well-preserved city of dreams with its quaint canal houses, artistic legacy and liberal social policies, has hardly been considered a food destination over the years.
But along the way, something happened, and the city has come alive with exciting food destinations focused on natural wine.
Some look to the north and see what happened in Copenhagen with NOMA and its New Nordic revolution, while others look to the Bistronomie scene of Paris with its free-flowing natural wine and scruffy interiors.
I would argue it’s a mix of both with a bit more polish thrown in for good measure.
The last time I was in Amsterdam, the natural wine scene didn’t exist and there really wasn’t much in the way of a food scene either.
The intervening years took me to places where culinarians hovered over precise plates and oohed in quiet reverence at the handiwork of master chefs, cities that were food mad like Paris, London, Copenhagen, Lima, and my hometown of New York.
One could argue the modern culinary scene would not be what it is without natural wine, that oft-misunderstood category of winemaking that is more than organic yet essentially undefined.
While organic is clear with the wines always being certified, there are certain practices allowed that disqualify some of them from being natural.
For a wine to be natural, the winemaker goes beyond the terms organic or biodynamic to make wine that ferments with native yeast – aka wild fermentation – and has zero to very minimal added sulfur, as opposed to the small amount of sulfur all wine has naturally.
People who drink natural wine tend to care deeply about ingredient sourcing and that is where chefs come in. If a restaurant focuses on natural wine, you can almost bet that they are working with only the best organic produce and meats.
This is the great revolution of the modern restaurant, supporting techniques that are in some cases millennia-old, like the winemaker who eschews tractors and works the land with horses or the diver who retrieves scallops and sea urchin by hand.
And yes, it is happening everywhere and you can try to keep up with it by downloading the handy Raisin natural wine app here.
Where to Eat and Drink in Amsterdam
But I digress as we are here to talk about where to eat and drink in Amsterdam. A recent visit showed off the city at its greatest, overflowing cafes, early happy hours and glistening canals full of pleasure boats.
The “Venice of the North” really is magical. Our list of places to visit reads like a wine geek’s who’s who of hotspots. BAK, Choux, Bar Centraal and Glou Glou were at the top of the list, along with a celebrated restaurant located in the middle of a park.
De Kas exists in an alternate dimension where you dine for hours in the middle of the day in perfectly kept gardens full of flowers and vegetables in the middle of Frankendael Park.
If you happen to catch a glimpse of a distant building, simply shift your chair a bit and one of the soaring trees is sure to fill in the view.
The cooking highlights what is in season and grown on-site in the gardens and greenhouse, as well as on their organic farm outside the city.
Needless, this is a must visit in the warmer months when the vegetables are excellent. A beet soup, for example, was exquisitely smooth and garnished with lovely edible flowers.
Lunch is a bargain considering the location – 3 courses are €35.50, 4 courses are €45 – and the extensive wine list has lots of affordable wines, both natural and conventional.
Afterward, wander the gardens and inevitably one of the staff will pass by with a pile of herbs, eager to answer any questions.
The docklands of Amsterdam were long-neglected but a spate of new development, as well as smart repurposing of shipping warehouses, has led to a revitalization.
One complex on the waterfront’s edge just 15 minutes from Centraal Station houses offices, art galleries and, on the top floor, the terrific restaurant BAK.
It is a slightly surreal journey to find BAK, which entails being buzzed into the building, taking an elevator to the third floor and following a hallway past offices closed-up tight to the entrance of the restaurant.
The night we were there, the owner was doing triple duty, manning the front door, pouring wines, and, well, owning the joint. We didn’t know that, yet, when we walked in but soon, he and my wife were deep in wine conversation.
The list is excellent with many options by the glass and, as a bonus, he was willing to open some of the bottle selections for us to try as much as possible (ask nicely, minimum 2 glasses to open most).
We settled in for a terrific dinner – the finest ingredients of course – that was also incredibly affordable as well at €65. Pro tip, when reserving ask for a table near the windows for the best views.
Choux was another surprise, recommended to us by the owner of BAK for its outstanding selection of natural wines. There’s a bit of a “where the heck are we going” vibe to the journey which takes you east of Centraal Station.
Here you can do everything from 3-course prix fixe to a tasting menu with “of the moment” ingredients.
Seafood was particularly strong on our visit and some ingredients come from their very own urban garden which now covers 60 square meters.
The charming staff helped us navigate through the ginormous list of natural selections with plenty of options by the glass. Key quote from my wife – “I want everything.” Good thing then you can buy most of the bottles to go.
Glou Glou and Bar Centraal
Glou Glou and Bar Centraal both belong to the same group and here natural wine is taken to Parisian extremes. Both places bustle, need better service and lack creature comforts.
Both are wine bars with Bar Centraal having more of a food component. However, much like Paris, if you engage the locals enough (and have some knowledge of what you want), the service turns on a dime and you start tasting, chatting, and understanding what they are going for.
The day was warm and sunny when we hit Glou Glou and every outdoor table was taken by locals straight from the office.
The wine bar is scruffy, to say the least, and the food menu is fairly basic but it’s all about the natural stuff here. We preferred the tight bar where you could engage the bar staff and taste pretty much anything that is open.
By contrast, the following day we arrived for Saturday lunch at Bar Centraal, which is far from central to anything, and there was one lone server taking care of us and an ever-rotating cast of characters outside.
She chalked up many a kilometer between the bar and the row of tables on the sidewalk while we enjoyed our meal. The produce was exceptional – a simple dish of peas and potatoes was mind-blowing – and the wine list leaned toward white and rose. Apparently, it’s slammed at night, so we were happy to have a quieter respite.
Or Just Drink Wine
Amsterdam can sometimes feel like a little slice of paradise and if you can’t make any of these spots, we recommend you grab a bottle from the local shop and find a quiet canal side nook to enjoy the things dreams are made of.
Van Diemenstraat 40
Ten Katestraat 16
De Ruijterkade 128
Tweede van der Helststraat 3