Amsterdam Food Scene

Amateur chefs in Amsterdam are cooking up a storm in all manner of unusual places - from living rooms to canal boats. Just remember to book early

Featured June 11 Words by Katie Binns
Photo: Mark Kuipers/hollandsehoogte
Amsterdam Food Scene

If you want to secure a table at Saskia Bongaerts' restaurant any time soon, you may have to manage your expectations - or at least pray for a last-minute cancellation. With its fine-dining organic menu, not to mention the modest pricing (four courses with drinks cost just €35 per head), it has become a firm fixture on Amsterdam's gastronomic trail and there's currently a two-month waiting list.

The eaterie is located in a quiet neighbourhood, just a few kilometres from the main tourist district, amid an array of art galleries and bike shops. It's a particular favourite of the city's bohemian set, who obviously appreciate the quirky décor - all oversized chandeliers, mismatching furniture and colourful artworks hanging on the walls - as they have been patronising the restaurant for more than a decade.

So far, so unremarkable, you might think. But Bongaerts is no ordinary restaurateur - she is the founder of one of Amsterdam's first huiskamer eateries. In case you were wondering, huiskamer means "living room" - and that's exactly where Bongaerts has been entertaining her guests since she started her business. Renowned for its dinner party atmosphere, strangers are invited to sit side by side at communal tables at Saskia's Huiskamer (203c Albert Cuypstraat, 1073 BE Amsterdam, tel: +31(0)628 62 98 39), and the conversation flows as freely as the wine.

Bongaerts first started cooking for friends in her student halls of residence 11 years ago. "It began as a dinner for friends," she explains. "Friends brought their friends and before I knew it, I was cooking four-course meals twice a month for 20 people in my living room!" Alongside old family recipes, she cooks up a host of French and Italian classics. Dishes include gilt-head fish with zeekraal (samphire), asparagus risotto and steak tartare. "The most popular dish is the guinea fowl with Parma ham stuffed with mascarpone, artichokes and thyme," she says.

Of course, such supper clubs are nothing particularly new - all across Europe, canny amateur cooks have been setting up shop in their own homes, inviting members of the public in to sample their dishes, with varying levels of success. However, in Amsterdam, the scene has evolved further. Ad-hoc eateries are now popping up in venues such as boats, art studios and even former squats. They span a broad culinary range, from fine-dining experiences to more meagre - yet equally as delicious - fare.

It's difficult to say how big the scene is, as much of it is word-of-mouth only and restaurants often arrive and disappear in the blink of an eye. However, well-established haunts such as Saskia's have been around for over a decade. Tinda van Smoorenberg is another succesful amateur. She opened up her home kitchen in 2000 and cooks Dutch, Asian and Mediterranean cuisine, using local produce wherever possible for her guests at De Ij-Keuken (51 Koperslagerij, tel: +31 (0)206 711 728). A four-course meal with drinks costs around €45, but she's willing to experiment. "I prefer when people have special requests," she says. "It keeps me sharp and creative. I used to cook a Rembrandt dinner with a 17th-century menu and told stories about Amsterdam from that time. Once I cooked using only aphrodisiac foods for a bachelor party!"

So just why are these restaurants so popular? Cees Brinkhuizen, founder of Tafel van Twaalf (34 Javalaan, tel: +31(0)35 623 7259), believes huiskamerrestaurants tap into a basic need to socialise. "Where better to meet people than at the dinner table?" he asks. "It's a more relaxed setting [than a normal restaurant], the cuisine is often better, you meet interesting people and you always have a special evening."

It's a sentiment with which Louise Harris, part-time resident of the city, agrees. "They recreate the cosy, friendly vibe of a Dutch dinner party," she says. "The three- or four-course meals are very affordable and you can't help but make some local friends, as everyone sits around the communal table." Harris admits she goes to Saskia's to meet hip, in-the-know Amsterdammers. "Last time, I found myself wedged between a journalist and a multilingual architect, and left with several email addresses, countless city tips and an impressed friend who I'd taken with me."

Despite their ad hoc status, many of Amsterdam's huiskamerrestaurants are increasingly popular - and securing a reservation can be extremely difficult. Because they are located in living rooms, often they can only cater for a limited number of people. However, there is an alternative: why not sample Amsterdam's burgeoning squat-restaurant scene?

Most of these places started life in the 1980s as volunteer-run kitchens. Set up in abandoned buildings in some of the city's less salubrious areas, they were created to help cater for those affected by the severe shortage of affordable housing in the city. But as these districts have become increasingly gentrified, so the restaurants have become popular with a wider range of diners - particularly creative crowds, drawn by high-quality vegetarian meals and a unique dining experience.

De Peper (301 Overtoom, tel: +31 (0)204 122 954) is one of the most well known. Run by an arty collective, it features a cinema, art gallery and sound studio, as well as the restaurant, which has an international flavour. Dishes include pumpkin soup, sunflower seed and potato wedges, and black beans, rice, squash and stir-fried bok choy. Soup and a main costs €6-€10.

George Dean, a member of the collective for 13 years, believes De Peper is unique. "Squat restaurants are not often organic," he says. "But we serve and promote cheap organic produce as part of our aim to challenge the way people think about food - it should be available to everyone. There are also no waiters at De Peper, as we want to involve guests and remove any aspect of the service industry from their culinary experience."

Einde van de Wereld (61 Javakade, tel: +31 (0)204 190 222) is another squat restaurant and its location is even more unusual. In fact, you could call it a moveable feast, as it is located on a floating barge, called Quo Vadis, docked on Java Island.

"The eastern dockland area was a deserted place in the 1980s and attracted squatters, sailors and houseboat owners," explains Claud Biemans, who runs the restaurant and is a long-time local. "The area has seen a lot of change - the riots of the 1980s saw mass eviction of squats and urban redevelopment in the 1990s - and the menu has changed with the times, too."

Nowadays Einde van de Wereld uses organic meat and as many other organic ingredients as possible. You can choose between a vegetarian (€7) or meat (€8) dish. The food is simple - think vegetable burgers, lamb curry, Greek salad, wild salmon - and the bar stocks organic drinks including fruit juices and beers brewed in the city.

There's just one thing we advise - as you can't make reservations, be sure to show up early. It may not be entirely in keeping with the laid-back spirit of this type of restaurant, but when the food's gone, it's gone - and it's even more difficult to aff ect an air of Bohemian insouciance on an empty stomach.

The Best of The Rest

If your first choice is full, try these huiskamerrestaurants instead

BAKER AREND, 8 PLANTAGE DOKLAAN Every Wednesday evening, this squat serves excellent pizza and bread, which is no small feat, as good pizza is hard to find in Amsterdam. They have a few tables if you want to eat in and enjoy some organic elderberry wine.

THE FRIDGE, 111 FREDERIK HENDRIKSTRAAT DJs play an interesting mix of music, while the cooks use exotic ingredients. The bar stays open late. Open Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

DE ERSTE KERAMIEK KAMER, 208-2 CHURCHILLLAAN When it comes to huiskamerrestaurants, it doesn't get any cuter or cosier than this place, which also hosts ceramic painting workshops for creative types.

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