Small Bites, Big Flavors: Amsterdam Tapas Bars

Small bites yield big flavors at such fine Amsterdam tapas bars as Envy, Olivar, A la Plancha, and Bar Boca’s. All offer communal, interactive meals featuring small, tapas-style dishes with big international flavors. Throughout Amsterdam, bistros are popping up with small plates menus, perfect for group outings or sharing with friends.

381 Prinsengracht
If artful cuisine served in sleek yet homey ambiance appeals, it would be sinful to miss Envy, a chic pearl on Prinsengracht, honored for the sixth consecutive year by Michelin. You’re not likely to commit gluttony at this Italian deli-inspired tapas bistro, unless you opt for a tasting menu by award-winning Chef Michael Wolf. Starring such delicacies as pig cheeks and lacquered eel, plus cold dishes, deli meats, cheeses and desserts, these feasts are great for special splurges. In Envy’s narrow interior, a world of food preparation opens, with chefs preparing culinary masterpieces in full view of diners. Perched on high stools at a long wooden table, we lusted after sausages, cheeses, oysters, jams and wines showcased in 26 oak-finished refrigerators with gleaming chrome handles. While nothing is for sale besides menu offerings, the display inspired us to dive into Dutch raw oysters served with a shot of shallot vinegar and lemon garnish. A selection of Dutch sausages followed, seasoned with wine-preserved garlic, rosemary, lavender, black pepper, chili and fennel. The Envy concept came to owner Bert van der Leden after he visited many Roman delicatessens that offer samples of their products. In that tradition, Envy proudly serves sausages by Brandt & Levie, run by three former chefs who traveled around Italy searching for the best meat shops’ secrets. The chefs-turned-butchers now make their own sausages just outside Amsterdam, using Dutch pigs and fine herbs.
Leidsekruisstraat 12-14, 1017 RH Amsterdam, Netherlands
Dutch restaurants are not renowned for their customer service. But at Yumi Sushi off Max Euweplein, you control when and what you’re served because you fetch your own selections from a rotating conveyor belt. Plates are color-coded according to price and the bill is calculated by counting plates. At €2.25‒6/plate, you can rack up quite a bill if you’re not careful. But the food is fresh and delicious (nothing stays on the belt for more than two hours), and you can be in and out quickly if time is an issue. The concept is not new, but it’s especially nice in Amsterdam, where hospitality personnel are paid more than servers in America, thus typically don’t exert themselves for tips. Here, you’re on your own at the bar, where fresh offerings come around immediately after they’re prepared by Dutch and Asian sushi chefs as you watch. The interactive component adds to the fun. The sleek, contemporary restaurant is adjacent to Leidseplein, so you have an overview of the people parade through big windows that keep the place bright. It’s not the most gezellig dining option in this bustling area, but it’s a great spot for a fast, no-frills (if somewhat pricey) meal. At tables, €12–40 menus come with miso soup, rice, dumplings, 12–40 pieces of sushi, and fried bananas with ice cream—a better deal than the rotating sushi if you don’t mind the chef’s selections. Hot dishes like chicken yakitori, breaded shrimp, gyoza dumplings and grilled asparagus also can be ordered at the bar.
Warmoesstraat 129, 1012 JA Amsterdam, Netherlands
Cocktail bar-restaurants typically excel at one or the other, rarely both tipple and nibble. Four month old Tales & Spirits, located in the beating heart of Amsterdam, manages to succeed on both fronts. The cocktails are both creative in name and flavor (I opted for a Fallen Lady with vodka, deep fruit flavors and a dusting of chocolate and pepper), affordable and strong for the initiated cocktail lover. Spa still water is offered on the house with each drink ordered- a nice touch when the alcohol bill starts climbing. While I enjoyed my drink, it was the food menu that caught and held onto my attention. My truffle and wild sautéed mushroom risotto was impeccable in taste and size, leaving me sufficient room to test out one of their desserts of the moment. Most of the dishes on the menu are small so prepare to order several to share. And, of course, given the spot’s short order popularity, it’s wise to book ahead.
Rozengracht 106, 1016 NH Amsterdam, Netherlands
An instant Amsterdam hotspot when it opened on Rozengracht in spring 2015, Salmuera blends flavors from many Latin countries, fusing Mexican and South American favorites as its predecessor did with Asian fare. Set in the historic building that was the original Bols Distillery, most recently occupied by Chow, the lively bistro offers lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, all featuring grilled meats and seafood, ceviches, empanadas and other specialties of Mexico, Argentina and Peru. Named after the tangy brine that flavors and tenderizes meats in Argentina, Salmuera boasts a rustic charcoal asado grill, open kitchen, and upper and lower level dining areas. Whole suckling pigs roasting over an open charcoal fire, lots of dark wood, a bar with counter seating, and flickering candles add a gezellig vibe. When the weather cooperates, the restaurant’s vine-laced terrace is a great spot for al fresco dining and watching the passing scene on Rozengracht in the trendy Jordaan. Come for a romantic dinner or cocktails and “bites” like delectable Latin cheese fingers stuffed with melted Tres Leches cheese made with cow, goat and sheep’s milk; meat empanadas; Argentinean charcuterie and a street food platter featuring spicy chicken wings marinated in coffee and chipotle, Argentinean sausage roll, Peruvian potato tart, guacamole and an array of dipping sauces.
158HS Bilderdijkstraat
Although it’s in Amsterdam‘s Oud-West, you’ll feel like you’ve landed somewhere in the Far East when you dive into the Asian-inspired street fare at HappyHappyJoyJoy. The latest brainchild of Chef Julius Jaspers of TV’s Top Chef fame, as well as the inspiration behind such popular Amsterdam hotspots as Julius Bar & Grill, Supperclub and Nomads, features a fusion of Asian flavors in starter-size dishes with Thai, Malay, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Chinese and Korean influences. Bring a few friends and order two to four dishes each for an evening of tapas-style sharing. Choose from typical dim sum specialties like steamed dumplings and spring rolls. Or opt for bao buns, curry and noodle dishes, salads, soups and sweets, all spiced according to your taste. A selection of Asian sodas, teas and beers rounds out HappyHappyJoyJoy’s drink menu. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner, for dining in as well as take-out. But why would you want to eat at home when you can dine in buzzing surroundings in an upcoming Amsterdam neighborhood, with a view of sizzling woks and hissing steamers, under a ceiling of bright red umbrellas?
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
National Parks