Just over 30 minutes by train from Schipol Airport, Rotterdam is the Netherlands’ second most populous city and Europe’s largest port. Viewed by some as Amsterdam’s poor cousin (they’re wrong!), two facets of the city stand out. The first and most obvious is a unique approach to architecture.
The city was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and post-war restructuring – in both civic and residential areas – has delivered an angular design blend of the beautiful and surrealistic. The second is that over 170 different nationalities live here, which means it has a food flavour and atmosphere that is as singular as it is widespread and vibrant.
I’m a huge admirer of food markets, both urban and rural, and so I was gagging at the bit to finally visit the city’s famous foodie landmark. The Markthal (Metro station Blaak) doesn’t disappoint, but before you enter you really have to stand outside it and look up. Opened in 2014, the Markthal’s futuristic design is sci-fi incarnate.
Operating as a foodhall shopping experience and accommodation, the tubular-shaped structure houses up to 100 shops/stalls as well as about 15 restaurants/bars and a sprinkling of sit-down coffee shops.
Admittedly, the range of food on offer is aimed at the higher earner, but the structure is astonishing. From the outside, it’s similar to a massive air hanger; inside, it houses the world’s largest work of art (by Arno Coenen and Iris Roskam) that spreads across 120,000 square feet of walls and curved roof.
Fit to burst with all manner of specialty food producers, from organic butchers to artisanal cheese makers, the Markthal is equal parts super-contemporary neck-strainer and the best European city-based food hall you’ll ever walk in (and under).
If you’re in search of something more grounded than the Markthal, head to the Fenix Food Factory at nearby Katendrecht peninsula (Metro station Wilhelminaplein). Accessed by a walk bridge just past the Hotel New York at Wilhelmina Pier, this is a low-key but no less enjoyable foodie experience.
It’s a bustling space adjoined by both vintage and designer clothing stores, and in the summer evenings is perfect to experience local artisanal fare, such as meat (Firma Bitjen butchers), fruit/veg (Rechtstreex), beer (Kaapse Brouwers), cheese (Booij Kaasmakers) and bread (Jordy’s Bakery).
Bring a fist of cheese and bread outside to the pier, order a glass of vino, and you’re set up for the next few hours.
To put a bit of lunchtime funk in your life, head to Ayla (Kruisplein 153), which reflects the cultural diversity of the city.
With a design aesthetic that references predominantly European and Middle Eastern locations (from Barcelona to Beirut and Istanbul to Casablanca), the food here is best experienced tapas-style.
We shared a range of plates that included Fried Baby Octopus Balls, Sliced Avocado with Crispy Mackerel, Grilled Pardon Peppers, and Oysters in Beurre Noisette.
The combination of food was gorgeous, and perfect for a flurry of fingers going every which way to get the offerings before they disappeared.
Other lunchtime options include two of the coolest restaurants in Rotterdam – By Jarmusch (Goudsesingel 64; Metro station Oostplein) and Alfredo Taqueria (Goudsesingel 204; Metro station Oostplein). You can possibly guess from the name of the former that it has edgy sensibilities.
Named after the US independent film director, Jim Jarmusch, this diner also references one of Rotterdam’s most famous architects, Hugh Maaskant.
Sleekly designed between functional/utilitarian and achingly hip (check out the impressive monochrome mural by local artist group, Bier & Brood), because of its all-day status you can get breakfast from 8am to (closing time) 4pm.
The classic of Pancakes and Blueberries is the one to die for, although other people swear allegiance to the classic egg breakfast, which complements eggs cooked to order with bacon, hash browns and toast.
Coffee refills? You don’t even need to ask.
From American diner to Mexican cantina. Alfredo Taqueria is a recent new kid on the Rotterdam food scene scene. Open from 11am to late enough (1am, Thurs, 2am, Fri/Sat), and located around the corner from By Jarmusch, this has become something of a byword for terrific casual dining.
One might regard as a downside that it serves fixed meals only from meat and vegetarian menus, but the quality on offer undercuts the potential negatives. Again – and because Rotterdam is design central – the décor is spot-on.
Inspired by Mexican architect Luis Barrágan and designed by city-based company IWT (Instability We Trust), expect clean lines running parallel with tranquil blues, browns, yellows and pinks as you select spicy authentic fare such as quesadillas, torta sandwiches and a wide variety of tacos. And, yes, seeing as you’re asking, a tequila or two from the cocktail menu.
Evening meals are undertaken when the day’s work is complete. You have put in the hours, you have washed the day’s stresses away and it’s time to relax.
I have two good options in this particular category. The first is internationally recognised, the second isn’t and is much more casual. Each has its merits.
Located minutes away from Kunsthal Rotterdam, Huson (Scheepstimmermanslaan 14; Metro station Leuvehaven) is at the top of its high performance game, and has been for over a decade. In recognition of this, Michelin awarded Huson and chef Mark van Wijngen its 10th Bib Gourmand in a row.
This is perfectly understandable, as the low-lit space is not only classy and silky, but the food achieves the level of unity many restaurants aim for but don’t reach. The food has a broad global reach with hints of Asia that add fragrance and tone.
While nowhere near as swish as Huson, Posse (Veerlaan 19a, located right beside Fenix Food Factory) nonetheless delivers an abundance of charm with its array of oddly mixed furniture, risqué Helmut Newton images, and a second-hand store approach.
It pitches itself as shop, restaurant, random art gallery and rootsy coffee shop, and it is all of these during the day. In the evening, however, it uses subdued lighting to cast a shadow over the collected bits and pieces, and focuses instead on delivering some of the best food in the city.
I had an exceptional starter of Figs with Parmesan Cheese and an even better Duck Breast Filet for my main. Throughout the meal the vibe, as they say, was dress-down-casual brilliant.
As was, let it be said, Rotterdam itself. You go there primarily for art and design, but the question to be asked is what happens when these principles are intelligently applied to the preparation, cooking, presentation and delivery of food? The answer is simple and obvious: expectations are exceeded, results are amazing. One word: visit.
For further information on food culture and experiences in Rotterdam, visit www.rotterdam.info.
Tony Clayton-Lea is a freelance pop culture/travel writer. His primary aim when traveling is to avoid obvious tourist traps, to make sure an intriguing laneway never goes undiscovered, and to unearth the perfect place for people watching.
Stay up-to-date with Tony’s writing by visiting his website, tonyclaytonlea.com.