Bar Whiplash

You can’t really encapsulate Amsterdam’s nightlife scene in any one vibe.  There’s a wildly disparate variety of bars, clubs, and concert halls to discover, and on one night in July I set out to find just how broad the spectrum of options really is.

I started off at Hotel Twentyseven, a boutique spot right on Amsterdam’s Dam Square and pretty much dead center in the city.  I should’ve known what I was getting myself into—this place is swanky.  My jacket and bag disappeared into a velvet curtain-obscured coat check the second I walked in the door, and when I asked where I could find the hotel bar, a concierge (in black tie) pointed to a dark wood door to my left—not the bar, but the elevator which I could use to get to the bar.  General rule of thumb: the door to the elevator is wood, things are off to a good start. I took the elevator to the fourth (or third, if you’re European) floor, and entered the bar. Before I even go into the cocktails, it’s worth taking some time to describe the bar itself. The thing is a work of art.  It’s sumptuous, almost to the point of being overwhelming and tasteless, but not past it.  

When you get into the bar, you’re immediately presented with a palate cleansing mocktail.  And by “mocktail,” I don’t mean “cocktail-but-without-alcohol,” I mean something that was created from the ground up to be as complex and sophisticated as a cocktail but without needing alcohol to give it an extra kick.  It sets the mood, and gets you comfortable enough to check the menu. The wild variety of cocktails within (divided into showbiz themed sections—think “lights, camera, action”) range from expensive to shockingly expensive.  There’s no full-sized cocktail that costs less than an entire meal might at a mid-range restaurant in the city.  On the other end of the spectrum, there are an assortment of cocktails that by themselves cost far more than a night in the actual hotel would—and the hotel is an award winning, five-star establishment.

Eventually I squeezed out some contrived set of adjectives and liquor names that sounded good to the ear but probably didn’t mean anything, and the waiter disappeared.

In the spirit of the Let’s Go ideal—inexpensive, hip, and unusual finds—I probably should’ve leapt up from my chaise and sprinted for the door.  But at this point I was committed to see what all this fuss was about; it was time for me to order a cocktail. Now I don’t know much about the whole mixology business, but it turns out that I didn’t have to.  My waiter came over and thus began one of the more squeamishly pretentious conversations of my life: we had to figure out not what I wanted to order but what I was thinking I wanted to order.  The conversation about what to have next all but bored into my subconscious to uncover my hidden desire for a glass of dry, sour, champagne-forward je ne sais quoi… or was it something sweet, refreshing, and gin-based that I was looking for?  I had no idea! Eventually I squeezed out some contrived set of adjectives and liquor names that sounded good to the ear but probably didn’t mean anything, and the waiter disappeared. A short while later, out came some gorgeous looking glass of something-or-other, I think I was told it was inspired by Freddie Mercury’s favorite drinks, and I was left alone with my thoughts and my rapidly shrinking budget.  I ended up ordering another drink—something coffee based and hot, which I didn’t realize was the case until it was too late and I’d gotten in over my head—before I paid my bill and launched myself out of the hotel and into the cool, plebeian night air out in the real world.  

It was time for the next event.  I should mention, before I continue, that the bathroom at that last bar had bidet-toilet combos, and this should be an investment that everybody makes for the good of the people.  You just can’t go back after trying one of those.

Anyway, my next spot was a slightly different type of spot.  It was called Café the Minds, although café is a bit of a misnomer.  In Amsterdam, cafés frequently turn out to be nightclubs, restaurants turn out to be cafés, and coffee shops don’t specialize in coffee at all.  

The beer—not the gross, watery stuff you might associate with a dive but instead a surprisingly comprehensive array of local craft brews—is cheap, and the beards are long and occasionally graying.

So here I was, around the corner from the hotel, in Café the Minds.  This time, it wasn’t a café but a bar. And not just any bar, but a dive bar.  A dive dive bar.  A punk dive bar.  I felt like Icarus—I flew too close to a velvet-covered, martini-flavored sun and plunged down into an ocean of black leather, cheap beer, and the Ramones.  I don’t want to misrepresent the Minds. It’s a really really cool, extremely authentic spot. It strikes you as the last of its breed—a gritty, noisy little joint where the massive punk CD collection competes with liquor bottles for shelf space, and screeching guitar fills the speakers throughout the evening (although, according to them, you might occasionally find old-school country being played late at night).  The beer—not the gross, watery stuff you might associate with a dive but instead a surprisingly comprehensive array of local craft brews—is cheap, and the beards are long and occasionally graying.  

The café was a welcome change of pace from the bar of Twentyseven.  Whereas the latter establishment was one of glitz and glamour, the Minds struck me as one of radical tolerance and local eccentricity.  You could be anyone from anywhere, and upon taking a stool at the café you’d be treated the same as your fellow patrons sitting at the plank.  To say that it feels friendly is a stretch, but unlike Twentyseven it lacks any pretense.  Its relative lack of hospitality feels more genuine than the warmth of the staff at Twentyseven—at the hotel, they want to make you feel welcome and taken care of because it would be classless of them not to, but at the Minds they don’t care because they don’t really care all that much who you are either way.

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