“What would the Amsterdam street scene be without the brown café?” PvdA party leader in Amsterdam Lian Heinhuis raised the alarm about the current situation of the “bruine kroeg.” She launched a proposal in February to protect and preserve the city’s historic brown cafés.
The traditional Dutch pub, characterized by its dark, cozy interior, wooden furniture, and low lighting, has faced significant challenges in recent years, including increasing rent prices, changing consumer preferences, gentrification, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, many of these establishments are at risk of disappearing. According to data research analyst Jeroen Slot, the number of cafés in the city has declined by about a quarter over the past 12 years, and this decline is even stronger among brown cafés.
Lian Heinhuis wants the municipality to recognize the symbolic importance of these establishments. She argued that these traditional Dutch bars are not just places to drink; they are an integral part of the city’s social fabric and cultural heritage. Because the city is changing, they have become more essential than ever, she said.
“The city is internationalizing, tourism is growing, rents are skyrocketing and the monoculture in Amsterdam shopping areas is increasing,” she wrote in the proposal. “These changes can lead to the disappearance anchor points in neighborhoods, causing residents to experience a loss of a sense of home.”
The initiative sets out to list each brown cafés in the city and register them as municipal monuments, with a special authenticity status. The municipality would also be responsible for setting up an investment fund that could support potential new owners so that the establishment does not fall into the hands of wealthy investors or large hospitality corporations that could potentially turn an acquired café into a tourist destination or “juice bars and hip restaurants with prices that many Amsterdammers cannot afford.” The proposal is largely about “protecting the ‘brown’ atmosphere,” but it also sends a message to potential buyers that the municipality is eager to protect these types of pubs.
“A brown café: you can’t lose that,” Mike, a bartender at Hoppe, told NL Times. The brown café is a gathering place where everyone can meet and exchange, no matter who they are or where they come from, he said. “Here come regulars, tourists, and students. It’s a great mix, and everyone interacts with each other. That’s necessary for the well-being of a city.” This is also a place to feel at home, he continued. “People have a nice feeling here, the place feels familiar, because they see the same faces, and nothing has changed. That’s why people come here.”
“Everyone is welcome in a brown café,” said Peter, bartender at Café Pieper. He stressed that the pub plays an important role in today’s society. “People need a place where you are recognized, and where you know people.” However, the proposal will not actually change anything, according to him. “It’s just for show.” He explained that the municipality is not doing enough to fight the real problems that lead to the disappearance of the brown café. “Neighborhoods are changing. Rents are becoming unaffordable, and there’s less social housing, so ordinary people are being replaced by another type of people who might not go to the pub as much. That’s called gentrification.”
Peter fears that a special status might even be counter-productive. “A monument status only brings extra burdens and costs.” He is not the only one with this concern. Peter, son of the owner of Café Hegeraad, wondered whether this will really bring do anything. “It sounds good on paper, but what does that mean for us in practice? How will the municipality determine what is allowed and what is required in a brown café?”
For Romy, bartender at Eik en Linde, residents should look at the symbolic aspect of the proposal. “It’s a good idea because it raises awareness, but in practice, nothing is really going to change.” However, she warned that this special status should not be exploited by opportunists to turn the brown café into a cash machine. “It’s important that we don’t commercialize it. The last thing we need is a ‘Best Authentic Brown Café Tour for tourists!”
Protecting traditional pubs has become a global trend. Barcelona, for example, has a list of 220 stores that are protected as part of the city’s cultural heritage of the city, including 11 “bodegas” with an important social influence on the neighborhood. Similar trends are also evident in England, where pubs are protected and recognized as an essential part of the common identity. In France, Paris cafés are seeking UNESCO intangible heritage status.
Romy said she sees this global trend as a sign of growing concern for our cultural heritage. “Times are changing, and it’s a good thing. Not everything has to be as if it was better before. At the same time, it is good to show what constitutes Amsterdam’s culture, and what we can be proud of.”