Whatís In A Name?

August 1998

After a few days in Amsterdam I began to take notice the names of the restaurants we had visited. In general, they seemed to have some relationship with their history or surroundings – I donít think we saw one named after the chef. And now that I recall those that were unimaginative, e.g., La Roux, La Rive, I realize that they were in hotels.

Perhaps the most obvious one was Het Tuynhuys – The Townhouse – although the original function of this townhouse-turned-restaurant was a stable. The prosperous merchants constructed their townhouses along streets fronting on the major canals. Eventually other townhouses marched completely around the block, leaving a garden area in the center. The wealthy would also buy the lot on the street behind the garden to construct their stable. Although there is no indication of the gardens from the street, the restaurant terrace was nicely situated in its midst.

It almost seems like cheating that the Dutch name is so similar to English, although maybe that's only once you know what they are. The transposition of the letters in "The," though, to make "Het," is a little eerie.

The "'t" in 't Swarte Shaep is an abbreviation of het, the remainder being "Black Sheep." As far as we could determine, such a sheep doesn't have the connotations we're familiar with, but just refers to the more distinctive members of the flocks that used to graze in this area, which is at the edge of the original city.

Then there is the Restaurant de Gouden Reael, reael being the Dutch spelling of real, a Spanish coin, and gouden meaning golden. This restaurant is on the waterfront and the name refers to the time when Spain ruled the area. Reael is also the name of the family that constructed the building, originally a warehouse, and whose gable stone includes a likeness of the coin. However, the name is otherwise unusual, since the gold coins were escudos; reales were silver. Perhaps it referred to the family's prominent position as mayors and members of the local council during Amsterdam's Golden Age.

Les Quatre Canetons seems rather straightforward, except for the French name; there are ducks enough in the canal in front of the restaurant. (And although Betty Lou bit into a piece of buckshot in her fowl, it was pigeon in her salad. Evidently this was not uncommon, since the waiter seemed unabashed, even after having initially joked that we may have noticed that there were fewer pigeons in the Dam Square than yesterday. Incidentally, the square is named for where the original dam across the Amstel river was built, leading to the cityís original name of Amsteldam – since slightly modified.) However, the real reason for the restaurantís name is much more involved. The restaurantís address is 1111 Prinsengracht. In Dutch, the word for one is "een," while "eend" is duck. Sounds like a Dutch punster at work. (And "gracht" means canal – in addition to the Princeís Canal there is the Kingís Canal (Keizersgracht), but actually the most prestigious one – where the merchants built their showpiece townhouses – was the Herrengracht, the Gentlemanís Canal.)

On Sunday we went into the countryside to a Michelin two-star restaurant, The Bokkedoorns. (We had already enjoyed the two-star restaurant in Amsterdam. Although the food, service, and ambiance – on a terrace along the Amstel – was as elegant as to be expected, its name, as previously mentioned, was the rather prosaic La Rive.) This time the Michelin let us down a little with its description of the location: it just noted that it was in Overveen, which is two kilometers west of Haarlem – and off the Michelin map of Haarlem. (The Michelin Red Guide shows the locations of all the hotels and restaurants they rate for cities that are large enough for them to provide a map. It would be too large to carry if there were maps for the thousands of smaller towns they cover.) A change of trains in Haarlem soon delivered us to Overveen, whose small station was not staffed (there were automated ticket machines) and there was no phone in sight. We figured it wouldn't be too far so we started walking towards the center of town. Coming upon a man walking his dog we asked him for directions.

One good thing about visiting smaller countries is that, since they can't expect everyone to learn their language, other languages are also taught at an early age. For pragmatic reasons, the first foreign language is usually English. The dog-walker told us it actually was a half-hour walk further west and he was heading in that direction for a ways; and in fact that only two weeks before he had visited Washington, D.C. with his wife. In previous years he had separately taken his son and daughter there – we didn't learn any more about the dynamics of that situation. (And we found that almost everybody we engaged in conversation had been to the U.S. within the past year. Even an elderly Jewish woman we met at a bus stop – she had been in hiding in Amsterdam during the Second World War, but with better luck than Anne Frank – had been in New York City a few months ago.)

So we began a leisurely stroll, but after forty-five minutes we began to get concerned. If the train station had rented bicycles, as many do, there would have been no problem – swarms of cyclists passed us on their way to the North Sea resort of Zandoort on that warm summer day. We began to worry that we would arrive late enough that our reservation would be given away; and that we would have to walk back in the bargain.

We began to ask other people if we were still heading in the right direction. The first couple had no idea; they were from France and were enjoying a cycling holiday. The next man, seated on a bench along the path said he lived in the area but had never heard of the restaurant. Finally, an energetic walker reassured us – sort of; he told us it was only another mile! He did have an impish gleam in his eye, and within five minutes we were there. (After a leisurely lunch on the terrace the Maitre d' was able to arrange for a taxi back to the station.)

Nobody we had previously asked knew what a Bokkedoorn was, and when we heard the explanation we realized why. The area where the restaurant was constructed, amongst towering dunes near the North Sea, had previously been home to herds of wild goats, or Bokks. (Actually, Google Translate revealed more precisely that a bokk is a buck, in this case a male goat.) At that time, the vegetation consisted mostly of thickets of thorns, or Doorns, through which only the Bokks could penetrate. Although we saw no sign of present-day Bokks, occasional flocks of ducks would swoop onto the adjacent pond, and a pair of Border Collies enthusiastically chased sticks thrown from the opposite shore.

Then, there was de Jonge Dikker, located in one of the few remaining windmills in Amsterdam, or actually in a nearby suburb. The waiter explained that "Dikker" meant fat in Dutch (it does sound like "thicker"), which this particular windmill had earned by its much larger than average girth. And the "Jonge?" That was because another restaurant had previously been there, and when they took over six years ago, they wanted to distinguish it, so they called it the Young one.

There were a couple of other restaurants whose names didnít fit the theme but that had their own interest. We never did find out why the Keyser restaurant across from the famous Amsterdam Concertgebouw (concert hall) was a "Bodega," but it has been a favorite Amsterdam eating place for eighty years. It wasnít very busy for lunch though; two elderly gentlemen playing chess in the corner seemed to set the pace. We asked the waiter about a huge but rather mediocre painting of several women in animated conversation that dominated the wall across from the entrance, expecting to be told that at least one had some relationship to the long-since-deceased owner. No, although it was a bequest from his estate, it was just the product of some – deservedly – unknown local artist.

And then there's the Sichuan Food restaurant, which I've mentioned in a previous note. Who would have believed that we'd be eating Szechuan food in Amsterdam? But Michelin gave it a star so we couldn't resist. And we're glad we didn't miss it – it's by far the best Szechuan food we've ever eaten. It's the only such restaurant in all of the Netherlands, and the courses are individually prepared as carefully as in any French restaurant, or as Betty Lou reminded me, of a Chinese banquet presentation.

A few doors away is The Garlic Queen. Unfortunately, even two weeks wasnít enough for us to be able to also try their unique cuisine. Although you may have guessed that each menu item, from soup to dessert, includes garlic, Queen refers to their location in a prominently gay area of Amsterdam.

Finally, there was the restaurant associated with our hotel, one of a limited chain. After having a delicious light supper there one evening we wondered why it hadn't been included in Michelin, and learned that it has only been open for a year. Since the hotel was undergoing renovation that included their breakfast room, we were notified that breakfast would be served there for the next several weeks. (Perhaps I've already mentioned that for $16 per person we skipped the Continental breakfast.) One woman read the announcement and declared that she didn't know if she wanted to eat in Byse (rhymes with "mice.") You may have already realized that the restaurant was Bice! For the rest of our stay one of us would occasionally ask the other if we felt like eating in "Byse."

© Copyright 1998 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved