Back in the day – long before Brexit was even an apple in David Cameron’s eye, before Instagram and Snapchat became all-consuming vehicles for self-absorption, even before Rollende Keukens and pop-ups were over-subscribed by bearded hipsters in tight trousers. Long before all these things, Café de Klos was renowned for one thing: serving the best ribs in Amsterdam. I’d known this for over a decade, and yet I’d never been. That is, until last Saturday night.
It nearly didn’t happen, though: when we first arrived, we were told we’d need to wait two hours for a table; given that it was already gone 8 o’clock, we were about to cut our losses and head home for takeaway. But then the waiter seemed to change his mind: “if you sit at the bar, you’re looking at about 45 minutes.” We were in.
Klos has (sensibly) bought the pub on the opposite side of the street – Genootschap der Geneugten – which acts as a holding pen for patrons waiting for tables. It also means they can make money from the beer you’re inevitably going to drink while passing the time instead of letting that cash go to a competitor pub nearby. Entrepreneurialism: I like it.
When we did make it to the bar in Café de Klos itself, it turned out to be huge – no wonder we had a better chance of sitting there than at a regular table. We also had a good view of the kitchen (including the red-hot coals that were endlessly stoked to grill all the meat) and the rest of Klos’s brown café charm. Service was friendly and efficient, and we’d ordered and moved onto drink #2 in a matter of minutes.
Between us, we split two varieties of ribs (smoked and regular), a buttery baked-jacket potato, and the lamb cutlets, which the barman advised us to order medium to well-done. I was sceptical, but intrigued. Turns out, he was right about the cooking time for the lamb chops – they were well seasoned, moist and tasty.
Both the smoked and the unsmoked ribs were chewy – nowhere near the just-about-to-fall-off-the-bone point that most BBQ-ers are aiming for these days. The smoked ribs were particularly leathery, with an almost raw, pink hue that was more Miss Piggy than smoke ring. The regular (unsmoked) ribs had a better flavour and texture, but were missing that sweet-meets-sour-meets-umami note that meat still in possession of its fat and bones requires. Plus, both sets of ribs came with two sauces: a creamy, garlicky variety that was fairly tasty despite being processed; and a kind of thousand-island dressing that I’ve seen before advertised as “whiskey sauce”. I’m not sure what this was supposed to be, but either way it was unmistakably stale.
In short, the whole ribs experience was perhaps just as you’d expect from a place whose reputation stretches back generations: like we’d stepped into a time machine that had returned us to 2006. I have no doubt that these really were the best ribs in town back then. But now we have Pendergast. We have Bulelani. Hell, I even smoke baby-backs on my own Weber kettle better than that. Amsterdam food has come so far in the past 10 years – and it feels like Café de Klos has somehow failed to keep up. To say that this Amsterdam institution is riding on its former glory sounds crueller than I’d like it to, because I enjoyed the atmosphere and the experience despite all of this. But I can’t help believing it’s true.
Fortunately for Café de Klos, what I say will doubtless have very little effect on the place’s reputation – and hence on whether it’s full of carnivorous customers every night. The people writing on Trip Advisor and Yelp are still in the main convinced that they’re having the best ribs experience Amsterdam has to offer – and they’ll probably continue to do so. Plus, ribs aside, Café de Klos is still delivering much in terms of its location, efficiency, ambience and general vibe. But for the true BBQ connoisseur reading this, know that you can do better – much better – when it comes to food in Amsterdam.