For dinner, I have art. And caviar. And lobster. After two days of looking in appreciation at Amsterdam’s finest paintings, sculptures and antiques, I decide to carry on the theme. That means heading to the artiest restaurant I know in the city, RED. Earlier in the day, I was on Spiegelgracht — known as “Art Street” for its endless galleries and craft shops — and looked through a window to see RED’s modern, backlit fresco on the ceiling. It was of a girl’s face, in super close-up, blowing a piece of bubble gum. The plush red and green décor, I saw, was sort of outrageous and piqued my curiosity. And given its extreme convenience to Museum Square, I knew that if it was good, I could recommend the bistro to other art-lovers on their European cruises.
So with the art of the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and Spiegelgracht still swimming in my head, it’s time for a celebratory meal to pay tribute to my marathon art walk, and to the spirit of creation that is everywhere in Amsterdam. RED’s menu is almost comically limited, but it contains everything I love — a little seafood, a little beef, lots of sparking wine and rich desserts. It does not try to compete with the art on its walls or on its storied street.
One Prosecco in, and I’m thoroughly enjoying my steak tartare with egg yolk, shallots and capers, then I’m charmed by the caviar presentation — three kinds, served with the traditional blinis and crème fraiche. I indulge in baked lobster and a chocolate soufflé. I realize that this is the first proper meal I’ve had in Amsterdam. Between running from museum to museum and from gallery to gallery, it’s been quick tastings of Edam, Gouda and Maasdam in the ubiquitous Dutch cheese shops, and Dutch pancakes in Café Hans en Grietje (also on Spiegelgracht, right past the canal tour boats).
So otherwise, I’d been on a diet of Vermeer, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. And trying to understand, through its local characters, Amsterdam’s love affair with art. I met Dennis LaSeur, owner of Laseur Antiquairs on Spiegelgracht, when I spotted a gorgeous Art Nouveau vase in his window. His antique shop specializes in Art Nouveau and Art Deco, Chinese works of art, Dutch Delftware and tiles — all decorative art and interior pieces. “Art and Amsterdam are intertwined,” he told me, ”not only through the Golden Age and all the great designers that worked here through the centuries, but mostly because of all the cultures from around the world that came and were brought to Amsterdam. That always resulted in something new.”
LaSeur schooled me on the quality of his Art Nouveau pieces — and the Amsterdam School, and why I must visit the city’s Tuschinski movie theater: “The Amsterdam School is a style designed in the roaring twenties, a time of hard work but also extravagance,” he explained. “At night the people would escape reality in parties and theater. When entering the theater, people would step into a magical fairytale world full of color. This you see in the lamps in my gallery: At night they really come to life and offer this magical feeling.” (When I visit the Tuschinski — which is located next to Henri Willig’s Cheese Tasting Attic, because this is Amsterdam and of course it is — I see Dennis is right. The theater’s façade is fanciful and ornate, bringing in several design styles. Magical.)
Recalling all Dennis taught me in a short time, and how knowledgeable he was, with such good taste, I text him from RED about the vase. Alas, it was sold. I order another Prosecco.
I also think about my friend Niccolo Barberis. He’s an architect and urban planner for the city, so when I spoke to him near his canal-side apartment in the Jordaan, we compared notes on Rembrandt’s epic painting, The Night Watch (1642), on view in Rijksmuseum. I noted that the Dutch master painted with light—brushing illumination on a spot on the floor, on a child’s dress, on a face. Niccolo agreed: “The use of light, in this case brilliant light, in a painting, affects and increases the degree of closeness you feel to the image.”
And given his role as urban planner, his thoughts went to the triumph that is Museum Square: “The square is a piece of art itself,” he said. “By standing in a green area, with important urban landscape elements such as fountains, statues and pavilions, the visitor is surrounded by amazing and different buildings, like the neoclassical Rijksmuseum and Concertgebouw and the more modern Van Gogh and Stedelijk museum. The decision of the urban designers to create a game of perspective and visual lines with respect to each building makes this place very suggestive and inspiring to any person in love with art and designing of cities.”
THAT MOMENT IN AMSTERDAM WHEN…
… I meet the curator who retrieved a pair of stolen Van Goghs. Nienke Bakker, senior curator of paintings, oversees the museum’s more than 200 Van Gogh paintings. Van Gogh led a life of some drama, but so did Nienke when she had to fetch some of the master’s works that had been stolen in 2002: Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen (1885) and Beach at Scheveningen in Stormy Weather (1882). Their return took 14 years, and Bakker was on the scene. “I was asked to go to Naples, where they were found, to identify them,” she recalls, “and I was the first one to see them again after so long.” Her joy, she said, was almost indescribable — and surreal. “Is this really happening? I thought. Now they are back on the wall, in the collection.”
Drew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.