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I have just returned from a long weekend in Amsterdam. This was my first time there and it was great to share it with my Dutch friend who showed me a insiders guide to the city.

It really is a beautiful place with lots of streets over the bridges to browse and little places to discover plus loads more that I am sure I missed. You feel a real sense of history here with the old Dutch buildings lining the canals and the sandy ground giving way underneath resulting in some precarious abodes.

We went on a bit of a research trip and it was fascinating to see just how far the international brands predominate. It is difficult to discover anything new when the streets are lined with the same places you see internationally across all ends of the retail spectrum from Hugo Boss to MacDonalds. I also wanted to see how the design was influenced locally and once again was disappointed to see so many cafes and eateries conforming to the same pseudo industrial look that pervades so many cities nowadays. We pondered what the new look should be, as I am a little bored of chalkboards, upcycled lights with Edison bulbs and recycled wooden crates.

The 2012 showcase Starbucks

The 2012 showcase Starbucks

Mind you, it was refreshing to see for myself the showcase Starbucks that was designed in 2012 as the precursor to more individual and less branded coffee shop chains. The attention to design was refreshing picking up on local Dutch cues and even two years later, it is cosy and inviting.

SLA's salad bar is encapsulated in a glass free conservatory feel frame

SLA’s salad bar is encapsulated in a glass free conservatory feel frame

Decor is pared back and natural and the kitchen is open to peak into keeping that natural honest tone

Decor is pared back & natural and the rear kitchen is open to peak into keeping that natural honest tone

There were two outlets that particularly inspired us. Firstly SLA. It means salad and is indeed a salad bar. I am told that the Dutch approach healthy food in a more holistic way. They better understand grains, superfoods and often link spirituality with healthy eating. SLA encapsulated these principles without falling foul of being too worthy. They just kept everything clean and simple in design. The menu is small: soup, salads, juices & sweets made in their kitchen and there is a good make-your-own section allowing you to pick and choose what you want, from the leaf & veg, to the grain, the dressing and the toppings. The choice of grain include things like black quinoa and amaranth. The choice of home-made dressings include superfood ingredients such as spirulina, pomegranate vinegar and spelt syrup. They are all tasty and healthy at the same time, which can sometimes challenge even the best cooks. We came away believing this concept would go down well in yummy mummy land.

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Each counter merchandises a different recipe and recipes are changed weekly

Each counter merchandises a different recipe and recipes are changed weekly

The other place that was new to me was Bilder & de Clercq. They tell me that this concept was inspired by a place that the owners saw in Berlin but whatever the driver was, it is interesting to see this retail outlet made up of bespoke counters that pull together ingredients for different dishes. Recipes are printed on easy to follow leaflets and ingredients are weighed out, assuming an element of store cupboard ingredients will be at home. Everything you could possibly need to make the dish is merchandised on each counter including kitchen utensils, recommended wine matches and of course the product itself, both chilled and ambient.

Simple signage and clean VM make it easy to shop including the wine recommendations and any store cupboard ingredients you may need to top up with

Simple signage and clean VM make it easy to shop including the wine recommendations and any store cupboard ingredients you may need to top up with

I think it was the care and attention to the visual merchandising that really clinched it for me. Whether I would spend that sort of money on a meal that I still have to make at home is another thing, but clearly enough people are buying into the concept as it recently expanded to two outlets. I am sure as convenience continues to be a key driver that more cities will develop this idea.

La Place is still worth a look and see

La Place is still worth a look and see

Other retail offerings that were worth a nose are La Place which looks a little tired so many years on but still shows the potential for a fresh food offering with open production, simple counters and made-to-order service. There are also a couple of PapaBubble shops in town. And you really have to go and see the hammock shop at the flower market. Sadly, I couldn’t squeeze one into my hand luggage!

Lovely jars of pesto, mustard etc. are refilled by regular locals

Lovely jars of pesto, mustard etc. are refilled by regular locals

The weekend markets remind me just how good organic produce can be presented. And the green footprint is enhanced with fill your own stalls of condiments, milk and yogurt. Lovely old pottery pickling jars of home-made pesto make the best of the herbs and it is common practice to bring your own jars to be filled. All very lovely.

Harking back to the pancake houses of old...

Harking back to the pancake houses of old…

Restaurant wise: we didn’t get to De Kas so I will have to go back for that one. We really wanted to eat the local specialities, by visiting Brown Cafes, partaking in Dutch apple pie, croquettes and also pancakes. I went to the oldest pancake house in town: “Upstairs Pannekoekenhuis“. The vertiginous stairs take you up to a tiny little room that has been serving pancakes made on two gas rings since 1962 in this typical Amsterdam house dating back to 1539. They say this is the smallest restaurant in Europe with only 4 tables so it is advisable to book, although I managed to get a seat at the counter giving me prime viewing of the kitchen and the cook.

Amsterdam is highly recommended and a place I know I will return to so that I can discover even more.

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