Amsterdam: Making Friends at Café Lowietje

The bartender introduced himself as Rick as he set down two draft beers. It was early afternoon on a Saturday and we shared the pub with only a few other customers. Rick told me and my husband that the pub had been in business since 1954, but he’d owned it only for the past couple of years.

Lowietje’s is one of many traditional Dutch pubs, or “brown cafés” (bruin café), so called for their dark paneled decor, decades of nicotine which stains the walls, and friendly local bar atmosphere. Brown cafés are scattered throughout Amsterdam, and before I even heard the term, I realized it was my favorite kind of place—an unassuming bar to belly up to, drink a cold drink, and shoot the breeze about not much at all.

Lowietje’s lived up to the congenial reputation of a brown café. After a few minutes of small talk, Rick proudly explained the pub’s claim to fame: it was often featured in a much-loved detective series called “Baantjer” (based on a series of detective novels written by Appie Baantjer), which was set in Amsterdam and televised for 12 seasons. In the series, Detective De Cock had a knack for solving bizarre murder cases and frequently cracked the case while sitting at Lowietje’s, so a lot of the program’s iconic scenes were filmed there. De Cock frequently roamed the city in search of perps and witnesses dressed in his baggy beige raincoat and gray flannel fedora, and Rick said fans of the series still come in to see the hat, which permanently resides at Lowietje’s.

Rick insisted we return the following evening. A locally famous singer would be performing, and he promised we’d be glad we came back. When we returned the next night, it was like stepping into another pub entirely. All the tiny café tables were full and the bar was three people deep. A man with graying hair and a V-neck sweater was set up at the end of the long oak bar, singing a song that made me think of “Beer Barrel Polka.” Everyone in the room was singing along to the Dutch lyrics loudly.

At first, I felt like I was crashing a family reunion. My husband and I had been exploring Amsterdam all day. We were tired and hungry. There was no room really to stand, much less drop our backpacks in order to look less awkward and feel more comfortable.

A man who was holding a beer in one hand and twirling a lady around with the other caught my eye, and gestured to a space behind him on the floor, where we could put our bags.

“Where are you from?” he shouted amidst the noise, and introduced himself as Gary. “This is my wife, Erica.” Gary had stopped dancing and Erica gave us a quick wave and smile as she continued to dance and twirl on her own.

Once we had beers in our hands we settled in a bit. There was a call-and-response going on between the audience and the singer, and I didn’t need to understand Dutch to see that it was mutual, light-hearted teasing.

I noticed the pub’s decor in a way I hadn’t the day before. A lot of heavy dark wood marked it as a brown café, but there was a cluttered cheerfulness that brightened it up, too. Green and white striped wallpaper covered the walls, which were plastered with photos of smiling patrons. One wall was dedicated entirely to “Baantjer” news clippings and photos of the actors. Colorful stained-glass lamps hung down from the ceiling, and heavy red drapes framed the windows.

Another round of beers magically appeared, courtesy of Gary. He translated the lyrics of a ballad for me that the singer was now performing, which were, “I’d rather be broke in Amsterdam than in Paris with millions.”

“Amsterdam is the best city in the world,” Gary said, even though he’d had to move his family to the suburbs because the city had gotten so expensive.

The songs and the beers kept coming. We bought Gary a round during a Dutch version of “Oh Marie,” and he reciprocated a couple of songs later. Rick spotted us through the crowd and sent us two more. Luckily Grolsch is not a strong beer and the glasses were small, but still, we were drinking on empty stomachs.

A friend of mine had recommended Lowietje’s. He’d been in Amsterdam a few months before and his hotel had sent him there in search of bitterballen, which are deep fried balls of minced meat, and a quintessential Dutch pub snack. I didn’t see any bitterballen at Lowietje’s but at one point, Rick came around the bar offering snacks to his singing, drinking customers. On one plate were round slices of a pale sticky meat that I guessed was liverwurst. I opted for the sliced meat on the second plate, which looked like salami and turned out to be beef tartare. It was cold and salty and went down pretty good on my empty, beer-filled stomach, but I don’t have plans to eat it again any time soon.

You know you’re having a good time at a pub when you’re trying to leave but you can’t because your new friends keep buying you beers and plying you with raw meat, but we had to go in search of dinner. As we were leaving, the singer was starting a new song. He used his synthesizer to play the opening notes of “O Sole Mio,” a drawn out orchestral introduction which gave the crowd time to recognize what he was about to sing. Suddenly everyone was calling out “O Sole Mio!” and cheering. Gary pulled Erica close and they began to slow-dance cheek to cheek. The scene was like a rock star playing his greatest hit to a sold out crowd. We finished our final beer, said goodbye to our friends and slipped out to the sounds of this local singer, bringing down the house.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *