The Hard Rock Café of Dutch-Indonesian cuisine

Indonesian food is prevalent in Amsterdam (Indonesia having been colonized by the Dutch), and one of the most popular Indonesian restaurants in town is Tempo Doeloe. According to their website, “Tempo Doeloe” roughly translates from Indonesian to “the good old days” and they are known particularly for their rijsttafels. A rijsttafel is a bit like Indonesian dim sum. Along with generous portions of white rice, coconut rice, pickles, and crisps, you get several smallish ramekins of various dishes to share. Typically the dishes are arranged from mildest to spiciest, with the spicy end of the row approaching authentic Indonesian nuclear levels of hotness.

Tempo Doeloe was first recommended to me by a former coworker and nearly everyone in town is at least familiar with the restaurant. Anthony Bourdain visited Tempo Doeloe during an episode of The Layover, and it’s since become a favorite of travel guides, hotel concierges and, thus, of tourists. After making reservations, I was dismayed to see several negative reviews of the restaurant on Yelp. Lots of people enjoyed the food but had bad experiences with the staff. Cultural differences in customer service is another blog post for another time but, suffice it to say, there are differences and those differences often cause friction between customer and staff. A few of the more worrying reviews included surprise and unapologized-for order substitutions, forced order add-ons to hike up the bill, and general rudeness from the staff (particularly towards would-be patrons that hadn’t made advance reservations).

This isn't my photo, but this is the vegetarian rijsttafel that we enjoyed.
Rijstttafel from Tempo Doeloe. (Disclaimer: not my photo.)

With no small amount of trepidation, Trenton and I arrived for our Saturday evening reservations a few minutes early and prepared to be treated like crap. We were seated at a two-top wedged in front of the entrance to the kitchen in a narrow hallway that also housed the bar. Throughout the evening, patrons waiting for their table sat at the bar within spitting distance of our table, some opting to turn their stools away from the bar, presumably to better be able to watch us eat. The crap table and weird audience are really where my complaints end, though.

In fact, our server was very kind and attentive, and we had zero problems with service. We ordered a starter of corn cakes and a vegetarian rijsttafel to share (the listed price is per person – something to be prepared for) as well as bottles of white wine and sparkling water. There was plenty to eat, and the dishes were a nice mix of tofu, tempeh and vegetables, all mildly seasoned and yummy. We didn’t get any heat from any of them, sadly, but I think that’s more a failure on our part for not having specified a spiciness preference when we ordered. The food was good and not all stuffy. If you’re looking for artfully plated dishes that deconstruct and reinvent modern cuisine, Tempo Doeloe is not your place. If you want simple, richly flavored dishes that are more comforting than artistic, though, you’re in for a treat.

The only Dutch I heard spoken in the restaurant came from the staff – nearly all of the patrons were speaking (American) English, leading me to believe that Tempo Doeloe might be the Dutch-Indonesian version of the Hard Rock Café. Having to pay twice to share same dish made the bill seem overblown but, relative to any other nice-ish meal in Amsterdam that includes wine, appetizers, two mains and dessert, it really wasn’t that outrageous at just over €100. For a date night, we were happy to pay a little more just for the experience.  Tourist traps tend to make me squeamish, but, if you can put that kind of snobbery aside and are prepared to open your mind and wallet to a uniquely Amsterdam experience, I think you’d enjoy Tempo Doeloe.

Reservations are essential. Any tension that we detected from the staff was directed towards walk-ins who seemed miffed that there weren’t any tables available, or, if there were, only for a short time (eg “after one hour you must leave”). If you’re brand new to Indonesian cuisine and/or Dutch customer service, it’s probably worthwhile to do a little homework so you know what you’re in for. I happen to prefer the hands-off server approach, but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Tempo Doeloe is open for dinner from 18:00 – 23:30 Monday through Saturday. They are closed on Sundays. Tables fill up fast, so I recommend calling at least a few days in advance to make reservations.

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