Put this in your bong and smoke it: The allure of Amsterdam's nightlife goes far beyond legalized marijuana. Giggle, if you must, but the quaint canal city's food scene is currently flourishing; vast, clubby entertainment complexes are opening at a brisk clip; the sex industry continues to thrive; and yes, Virginia, there is the pot. But we'll get to that.
Perhaps the most noticeable new restaurant trend in Amsterdam is that of the shop/restaurant. The Dutch cleverly call them "browseries" (instead of brasseries -- get it?!). At these cafÃ©/restaurants, one can shop, as well as eat -- at the same time. So while sampling the salmon tartare, for example, you can eye everything from vintage sunglasses to modern furniture. Some of the newest are Latei (Zeedijk 143, ph: 625-7485) which serves antiques along with cous cous dinners; Brasserie (Rozengracht 219, ph: 521-8714) which offers a Mediterranean menu along with furniture, kitchen and bath fixtures, and Rijschool Overtoom (Overtoom 250, ph: 683-0419) where you can pick through vintage kitsch over espresso and regional Dutch specialties.
My actual mission in Europe's sin city was to taste dishes cooked with Amstel Light beer at some of the city's top restaurants. At first I was skeptical; whenever I cook with suds, I reach for a porter or a stout. But I found out what a less sturdy beer could add to a dish. At Le Garage (Ruysdaelstraat 54-56, ph: 679-7176, www.diningcity.com/asm/legarage/en), a mirrored, red-and-black three-ring circus with flamboyant owner Joop Braakhekke as its personal P.T. Barnum, the reservation list is a veritable "who's who" of Amsterdam. A former Dutch prime minister commanded a corner table, director Paul Verhoeven took up a two-top, and a reality show was filming at another table on the night of my visit alone. But when the food arrived, my attention was focused less on the scene and solely on the plate. A delicious chicken liver mousse became downright fluffy because of the added brew and a healthy bit of malt enlivened a braised rabbit. In the elegant trappings of Excelsior restaurant in the landmark Hotel de L'Europe (Nieuwe Doelenstraat 2-8, ph: 531-1705), with its sparkling chandeliers and gilded artworks, conversation rarely goes above a whisper. For dessert, award-winning French chef Jean-Jacques Menanteau presented a sabayon of light beer, which brought a bitter touch to apples and ice cream. A nightcap in Freddy's Bar, named after the late Mr. Heineken, across the way, is a ritual for all patrons and a great place to enjoy a pint in its pure form.
But a visit to Amsterdam isn't complete without experiencing an
Indonesian "rice table," so I when I was "off-duty" I wandered into
Sampurna (Singel 498, ph: 625-3264 www.sampurna.com) near the
flower market. A rice table is a feast of dishes from the former Dutch
colony, eaten in order of spiciness. Within the bamboo-covered space, we
dug into stewy beef chunks in spicy coconut sauce, beef satay, fiery
chili chicken, crunchy fried tempeh, vegetables dressed in peanut sauce
and much more. Diners can opt for vegetarian or fish heavy set menus as
well; all add up to the ultimate munch-out.
One-stop partying is the all the rage in Amsterdam nightlife, with massive emporiums featuring food, drink and dance spaces, each with a separate vibe, but all under one roof. The Mansion (Hobbemastraat 2, ph: 616-6664, www.the-mansion.nl) is one of the most popular, with a dance floor downstairs, modern Chinese restaurant on the top level and a backlit replica of the Sistine Chapel ceiling looming over the bar. Odeon (Singel 460, ph: 521- 8555, www.odeonamsterdam.nl ), formerly one of the city's first concert halls, is a sleek, chill cafÃ© open by day, and a hopping restaurant and dance club by night. Don't miss the sumptuous bar with floor-to-ceiling original 17th century artworks. Sunbathing is encouraged at Onassis (Westerdoksdijk 40, ph: 330 0456, www.onassisamsterdam.nl ), the spot to go in the summertime for its riverside outdoor terrace. In addition to the bar and beach club theme, Onassis serves modern Italian cuisine. The Zen-styled Rain (Rembrandtplein 44, ph: 626 7078, www.rain-amsterdam.com), decked out in purple and bamboo, also has a cocktail bar, dancing to global music, and a chic Asian fusion restaurant. A tip for all: dress smart, act cool, bring dough. Many of these clubs have cover charges and selective door policies. And yes, potheads can light up in these establishments, but it's always polite to ask first.
Back to the weed, then. It's not a crime to smoke pot in Amsterdam. Now that "coffeeshops" have been officially sanctioned by the Dutch government, they've been drastically transformed from the dingy, sketchy storefronts of yesteryear to stylized, comfortable and clean places to hang. A few notables include the 2005 Cannabis Cup winner for its "Willie Nelson" strain, Barney's Coffeeshop (Haarlemmerstraat 98, ph: 625-9761, www.barneys.biz ). Barney's also has a full-service restaurant and bar. Subterranean Extreme Amsterdam (Huidenstraat 3A, ph: 777-2799) has an extremely nice staff, big screen TVs and free Internet. Brightly colored Rokerij IV (Elandsgracht 53, ph: 623-0938, www.rokerij.net ) is Indian-themed with Subcontinental artifacts, games, and books. Smokey (Rembrandtplein 24, no phone, www.smokey.nl ), while touristy with gruff bouncers, is popular for its pool tables and outdoor cafÃ©. Divey The Doors (Singel 14, ph: 626-3900, www.coffeeshopthedoors.com) pays homage to Jim Morrison and his contemporaries with a classic rock soundtrack, while also offering booze and pinball. Looking for shrooms? You'll have to go to a "Smart Shop" for that. The popular Magic Mushroom Gallery (Spuistraat 249, no phone, www.magicmushroomgallery.com ) also has an art gallery for trippy appreciation.
Whether you're horny or not, the red light district is worth a walk through just for the images of magenta neon throwing an alluring, otherworldly aura on the darkened streets as scantily clad women pose in storefront windows. For sex shows, Theater Casa Rosso (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 106, ph: 627-8954, www.casarosso.com ) is clean, safe, and unintimidating for "non-working" women. Expect to see live, if rote, sex acts usually set to music, and crudely fascinating parlor tricks. The PIC, Prostitute Information Center (Enge Kerksteeg 3, ph: 420-7328) is an interesting stop for the sexually-curious to learn the inner workings of Amsterdam's sex industry. Randy Roy's Redlight Tour is a 90 minute walk that gives humorous highlights of the area. Call 06-418-53288 to reserve.
In addition to providing a great time, Amsterdam's nightlife brought to light a surprising epiphany for me: New York City is downright prudish in comparison. How ironic it is that we were was once known as New Amsterdam -- this place where drugs are illegal, smoking cigarettes is banned, the sex scene is underground and dancing is relegated to clubs with special cabaret licenses only. The Dutch are pleasure seekers, just like us, but they have an inbred modesty that allows them to enjoy the sensual aspects of life without being gluttonous pigs about it. And their celebrated permissiveness won't allow them to feel guilty either. Leave it to them to make even New Yorkers seem uncool.
www.specialbite.com: An opinionated guide to Dutch
www.specialnite.com: Guide to nightlife with user reviews.
www.seethru.co.uk/zine/guides/amsterdam: Comprehensive guide to everything Amsterdam. Has a great section on coffeeshop etiquette.
www.amsterdamhotspots.nl: Restaurants/bars/nightlife listings.
www.coffeeshop.freeuk.com: Exhaustively detailed coffeeshop directory.
PHOTOS BY HERNAN F. RODRIGUEZ