When friends found out I was headed to Amsterdam, there was no shortage of advice as to what I should do with my time. One of the many suggestions was, “Go to a coffee shop.” Of course in Amsterdam, “coffeeshop” (spelled as one word) has an entirely different meaning than in North America.
Dutch coffeeshops are licensed to sell cannabis to adults 18 and over, although things are changing for visitors. On Jan. 1, 2012, non-Dutch residents were banned from cannabis cafes in the southern part of the Netherlands, with Amsterdam and the rest of the country adhering to the new law starting in 2013. Apparently the government is trying to crack down on “unruly drug tourism,” as stated in Forbes.com. The only pot I encountered during my three days in Amsterdam was the aroma of it wafting through the air as I departed the train at Amsterdam Centraal to walk to my nearby hotel. My travel mate and I both looked at each other, laughed and said, “Welcome to Amsterdam!”
But there was a coffee shop — two words — that was on my must-see list: Starbucks: The Bank. Before I got there, I filled my days in this city of 780,559 inhabitants with walking and crossing the countless numbers of the city’s 165 canals — all the while dodging the 600,000 bicycles that clog the streets day and night.
There was something refreshing about these handsome bikers, fashionably garbed, tooling around in the upright position with baskets of bread, groceries, and spring tulips. And no, they don’t wear helmets, an American accessory that they surely must scoff at.
I went on a 75-minute canal boat ride, spent hours at the Van Gogh Museum, had broodje kroket (croquettes with mustard and brown bread) at Cafe Americain (its Art Deco interior is a historic landmark), and went to a zany improv club one evening called Boom Chicago. Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s answer to Vancouver’s Stanley Park and New York’s Central Park, was packed on a Sunday morning with walkers, bikers and skaters. I joined a small parade led by a colorfully garbed band called Fanfare Van De 1E Leifdes Nacht, who led families through the park following Palm Sunday services at a nearby church.
My afternoon list included Foam Amsterdam, a photography gallery with an exhibition of photographs from The New York Times; Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis, a historic canal mansion; and the Tassenmuseum Hendrikje, the largest bag and purse museum in the world. Fortunately, they were all in fairly close proximity to Starbucks: The Bank.
As the Seattle-based coffee company’s first European concept store, The Bank is located in the vault of the historic Amsterdamsche Bank, a landmark building on Amsterdam’s Rembrandt Square. Although I got lost getting there (I didn’t take a right at Amsterdam’s 150-year-old floating flower market), I finally spotted the famous Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn looming high above the square. A butter market in its former life, the public space is now lined with hotels, cafes, restaurants and pubs where you can enjoy authentic Dutch music.
Starbucks must feel right at home here, as one of the square’s restaurants is named Rain (“food, drinks & people”), a mere umbrella toss away from the entrance to the largest Starbucks store in Europe. It’s also the third Starbucks in Amsterdam.
The familiar green and white logo was on one of the windows, with an inscription in Dutch: De perfect espresso vind je hier (“the perfect espresso can be found here”). Walking through the automatic glass doors, splayed out below me was what appeared to be more of a movie set than a coffee house. Envisioned as a theatre space (specifically a “Slow Coffee Theatre”), the 4,500 square feet are spread out over several levels, with the 57-foot coffee bar serving as its main stage. The multi-level community areas will eventually serve as mini stages for local music, poetry readings and other cultural events.
More than 35 local artists and craftspeople were involved with the transformation of the space from a bank vault to a hipster bean shop. Under the direction of Dutch-born Liz Muller, Starbuck’s Concept Design Director, the space was envisioned as a place to celebrate local history and tradition “while looking to the future by giving it a sense of theatre and discovery.” Muller was also the creative force behind the first three Starbucks concept stores that opened in Seattle starting in 2009.
Starbucks: The Bank made its debut on March 9 and the line was long on Sunday afternoon nearly a month later — probably two-dozen deep. It was cited in a recent New York Times article as an example of how Starbucks can create more of a trendy, neighborhood feel in Europe. The “audience” was a mixture of locals and tourists, with languages ranging from Dutch and English to German and French. Babies in strollers, young couples hunched over iPads and pods of people chatting quietly filled the multi-tiered venue. The line moved quickly, and I placed my usual order of a single tall nonfat latte. I also selected one of the sweets at the counter, asking if it was made on site. It wasn’t, but many of the goods are, and it was fun to see Dutch treats such as stroopwafels (two thin waffles with a caramel-like syrup filling in the middle) as part of the mix.
Prices were a bit steeper than at home, with my tall caffe latte coming in at 3.10 Euros ($4.05). I tried to use one of my Starbucks cards, but their system wasn’t yet translating our cards, so the friendly barista gave me 30% off.
I settled in at one of the long communal tables. Non-smooth jazz was playing, a dog barked in the background and the young woman next to me worked on her Mac PowerBook. On the table in front of me was a log filled with “first pop” coffee beans … I wasn’t quite sure what to do with those.
The interior is wholesome rustic meets ski lodge, with a floor to ceiling mural that honors the history of Dutch coffee traders; recycled Dutch oak used through the space; antique Delft blue tiles; and a ceiling sculpture created from 1,876 hand-cut wooden blocks. I somehow missed the wall clad in recycled bicycle inner tubes, and also forgot to make a visit to check out the loo. Paying homage to its weather, there were bumbershoot stands with “wet umbrella” signs in English and Dutch (“natte paraplu”), and the usual request to pick up your mess (“Dank u for bussing”). Oh, and colorful fresh tulips at the coffee bar.
So how was the coffee? Tasted just like home.