Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
It is Monday afternoon, the sun is shining, and I have a four o’clock appointment with the reportedly longest-working bartender of the very old Café Hoppe in Amsterdam. Café Hoppe feels like an old Dutch film: it’s a room with marble round tables and a large wooden bar. You wont’ find a hanging plant or hear music in here. Sand covers the floor, which has been there since the time period when it was considered appropriate for people to spit their nasty chewing tobacco on the ground.
Café Hoppe was founded in 1670 and has been an oasis for those looking for a good conversation and a stiff drink for more than three hundred years. The walls carry such a potent history, taking it all in makes me dizzy. If only they could talk to tell me their secrets.
Fortunately, 77-year-old Bernhard van den Haak is here to do the heavy lifting. He’s stood behind this bar for the last 28 years, and is not going to stop anytime soon.
Bernhard embodies one of the key features of the pub: a kindness that’s not very Dutch. If you order a pack of cigarettes, you will get an opened package on a saucer. And even though you can find the cafe in all the guidebooks, regulars dominate this spot.
Bernhard’s classic tie and neatly ironed shirt perfectly match with his pristine white, wavy hair. He shakes my hand and asks me what I’d like to drink. The minute I sit down, I’ve completely forgotten that I’m here to interview him. The man knows how to charm women. This is my new favorite bar.
MUNCHIES: Hello Bernhard. How did you end up working for Café Hoppe?
Bernhard van den Haak: I rented the snack bar next to Café Zwart for 21 years before this. When I didn’t like that anymore, I stopped, but then you do need to have something else to do with your life. I did nothing for three months and then I asked if I could work here. It was hard: I was 48—too old, actually. So I moved on and tried applying at other places, but then the manager at that time suddenly asked me whether I wanted to do a trial run. I started on December 4, 1985, my first day off was on December 17—my birthday—and then I stayed.
Why did you want to work in the catering industry?
At the time I had the snack bar, I always told my wife that I would love to work at Hoppe after a year or ten. I’ve always wanted that, and it eventually came true. I love hard work and the interaction with people, and I have a lot of affinity with this café. The hospitality industry is entertainment; it’s a part of who I am.
What was it like in here 30 years ago?
Hoppe itself hasn’t changed a bit. We switched owners once and the staff changes now and then, but we still do what we did back then: wear neat pants, dress well, and offer great service.
I’ve been working at the Spui since 1963 and in that time, it’s mainly the neighborhood that’s changed. In the past, the place was already full around noon, but that changed because of the newspapers that have relocated away from this area. The employees of those newspapers always used to come here for lunch or drinks. They still sat here at 5 PM and then called their company to say that they wouldn’t be coming back to the office that day. I don’t think you should try that nowadays, but it was completely normal back then. When the newspapers moved to other locations, the employees went to other pubs.
And what kind of people come here nowadays?
Old and young. On Fridays and Saturdays, this place is packed with students, but the atmosphere remains the same. Last week, a boy who comes here often told me that his niece from Ireland was in The Netherlands and only went to Hoppe. She has never had such a pleasant evening. As a woman, you should really come here by yourself sometime and sit in the old part; you will be warmly welcomed and everyone will want to chat with you.
You seem to really love this job.
People sometimes think it’s a strenuous job, but hard work isn’t bad if it’s fun. Some people also think I should retire, but I’m not leaving until the manager says he doesn’t need me anymore. Since last year, I only work once a fortnight. And of course there are a lot of students who also need to get a job, so they need the money more than I do. I’m doing this just for fun at this point, but students have to pay for their education and living space.
Do you ever come here for a drink or dinner?
Well, I only drink beer here. Sometimes I do go out for dinner at other places with my kids, but there are places where the service really annoys me. At other places, some people grab beers by the edge of the glass. It’s the same as licking someone’s hands, and I will tell them and send the glass back. But more than anything, it’s often the etiquette that bothers me. Back in the day, we used to take your coat before you were seated, but you don’t see that anymore.
Do you ever have celebrities visiting the cafe?
Do I have to give names? Yes, sure. But everyone knows that. I’m famous myself, didn’t you know that?
Yes, I am the Heineken man. I was on a lot of posters, standing with a beer coaster in my hand. There’s one on the wall upstairs, I’ll show it to you.
Nice! Besides you, which other famous people came here?
Herman Brood [a Dutch musician and painter] used to regularly come here in the morning. He drank piña coladas. Would you like one?
You’re a real charmer, aren’t you?
It’s all about entertaining people. See, you really fell for it [he’s right]. When you charm a woman by making her laughing and so on, then the guys around the bar feel that they can drink more. When I walk to a table to take an order, I look at the couple and already know what they want to drink.
I do have the restaurant industry mentality: as long as it’s alcohol, you swallow it.
Can you also guess what I drink?
I think you like a beer once in a while. No? No. You prefer something stronger. Whisky? You know what, if you’re going to drink a whisky, add one or two drops of water in there. It will make the whisky taste more subtle. You won’t need any ice. Try it.
What drink do you prefer?
[He raises his glass of beer] A beer. I used to drink brandy once in a while, but that’s it. And sometimes I drink a glass of red wine during dinner. I don’t like white wine. There was a time that I drank wine in the same way as beer, but that’s not very healthy.
At your age, do you still get buzzed every once in a while?
I do have the restaurant industry mentality: as long as it’s alcohol, you swallow it. But do you know what the funny thing is? I do not get drunk anymore. My wife sometimes says: “I can see that you have drunk too much, but you’re not drunk.”
What is the most memorable moment since you’ve worked here?
When I still had my snack bar, there was a boy eating a hamburger on the last day of his college life. He did not pay and just walked away because he knew he was never coming back again. That night, he did the same with a lot of bars. Four years ago, a man walks into Hoppe with his son. I look at him and say, “I know you!” I never forget a face. “I think you didn’t pay me for the burgers on your last day in Amsterdam.” And he says to his son: “I don’t ever want to see you do something like this, OK?” I think that was really funny. The guy has paid for his hamburgers, thirty years later.
Do you ever have to deal with annoying customers?
Every now and then, you have those customers: drunk people, rude people; people that don’t have money. One time, a guy that had way too much wanted to order another one, and I told him I wouldn’t give it to him. He got mad and said he would throw a rock through the window. I’m not easily impressed and said: “Perfect! Go ahead, that window needs a replacement anyway.” You can try that on me once, but I won’t forget faces.
Students always toss their coats on the bar stools, even though they can hang them here on the hallstand. Then they always want to argue with me, and most of the time, I agree with them. I do not have to be proven right. They’ll figure out that their behavior was wrong later on in life, and that’s enough for me.
Do you think this work will always be fun?
I will not stop until I really can’t do it anymore. I obviously can’t work full time anymore, and my memory, well, it’s not what it used to be, but that’s all part of life. On the Mondays that I work, I help in the kitchen until noon and then I start as a waiter and bartender. Once I get a table, I’m alive.
Do you have any advice for the new generation of restaurant industry workaholics?
I don’t want to interfere with that too much, because I don’t want to tell anyone what he or she has to do. I have learned something to most of the people that work here: clothing, hygiene and the basic skills of walking with a tray. Those are things that I value. And of course, always be friendly at the table and never walk around with an angry face. I always try to smile with my eyes, nothing more. There are also moments that I have a concentrated look in my eyes. When people ask me why I look so serious, I say, “I was thinking of my wife.”
This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES in May, 2016.