Raising the Bar at Bingo! Restaurant
► A Q&A with Owner Mike van der Werk of Bingo! Restaurant
In the twelve years since Mike van der Werk and Frans de Rooij opened Bingo!, it has built a loyal following – which is difficult when you are located in a parking lot next to a gas station with nary a beach in sight. Yet the restaurant continues to draw in customers, thanks to its quality food, friendly service, and fun atmosphere.
— By Amie Watson
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
An inviting front terrace leads to a wood-paneled back bar area where an old chest sits below a dartboard so that kids can climb up to collect the darts. An un-tuned upright piano decorates the top railing overlooking the terrace. Photos and awards line the walls, each with its own story. “The pictures are from all the events from the last twelve years: Carnival, the World Cup, the UEFA European soccer championship,” says van der Werk. “That’s always a huge event. We get between six hundred and eight hundred people. I have a big screen inside, and outside we put four tents, an outdoor bar and kitchen, and three extra screens on the terrace… and it’s still not enough. We also have a framed award up there for the best cappuccino on the island. Maybe I’m a little bit strange, but I think coffee’s really important.”
While Bingo! started as a bar with a mean cappuccino, now both locals and travelers flock to the restaurant for good food at a good price. They inhale the baked grouper with lobster cream sauce and brandy. They lap up the braised-until-tender lamb stew with carrots, red wine, and thyme. And sometimes they even make it through the 14-oz. U.S.D.A. rib-eye steak – an enormous-sized serving that comes with baked potatoes and fresh vegetables. Then they come back every Tuesday for the weekly Dutch home-cooking and they beeline it to the terrace on game days to watch the world’s biggest soccer matches accompanied by a cooked-to-order burger and a cold beer.
But van der Werk says that what customers appreciate most are the service and the friendly atmosphere that his staff creates. “One of the reasons we’re known for great service is my manager, Nanet,” he says. “She’s been here from day one and she’s the friendliest, happiest person you’ll ever see.” He also tries to be a model for his staff by teaching them how to make customers enjoy themselves. “I tell the staff to be friendly and pretend they work in Disney World – everyone smiles at Disney World – because people sitting in a restaurant can feel if the spirit is good or not between the employees.”
Bingo! is also famous on Aruba for the special Dutch alcohol it imports from the hometown of van der Werk’s business partner. “It’s made out of thirty-two different herbs. It’s like Jagermeister, but smoother,” he adds. “We serve it as an after-dinner drink. We heat it up or serve it with coffee, with hot chocolate or on the rocks. People come in just for this drink.”
Before service started for the night, van der Werk took a rare breather to have a snack and talk about leaving the Netherlands, Bingo!’s annual go-karting competition, and how the restaurant got its name.
AW: What brought you to Aruba?
MVDW: I always say “The KLM”. I’ve been here nineteen years. My business partner and I were bartenders in the south of Holland. He moved here and I visited him on vacation. A year later, I came again and got offered a job downtown at the Café the Plaza where he was the bartender. I worked a total of seven-and-a-half years, then this place came up and I talked him into it.
AW: What was Bingo! like when it first opened?
MVDW: In the beginning we’d get about fifty people for dinner, and every night the bar was full until three, four, five in the morning. But back then we were the only place on this part of the island. Here, if a place does well, like we did, people try to copy it, which makes me proud.
AW: How has Bingo! changed over the years?
MVDW: Now we’ve got small portions and large portions, so you can order the main course as an appetizer and the appetizer as a main course. We’ve got a huge carpaccio and sometimes people come in and just order that. In twelve years, I’ve only gotten two complaints that we didn’t serve enough food. And I have a better chef now. I wanted it to be like a bistro, a casual place, but the food had to be really good, and my chef, Harold van den Burg did that. He’s the best chef on the island. We’ve also become more of a restaurant than a bar. But we still have our local people and the tourists we know – all the customers who’ve been coming for twelve years. I stand behind my place, my staff, my kitchen. People say it feels like coming home, and that’s what I like.
AW: What are your most popular dishes?
MVDW: The beef, pork, and chicken brochettes. They’re marinated and a little spicy. There’s the grouper – that’s always popular. We’ve got the best burger on the island. And we do a lamb stew instead of a lamb rack because a rack would be really expensive and we’re not the place for that. That’s important to me, that people come here and have a good evening, get the bill and feel good about it.
AW: You serve traditional Dutch dishes on Tuesdays?
MVDW: Every Tuesday night we have a Dutch specialty: vegetables, mashed potatoes, and gravy with sausage, meatballs or chicken. It’s $10 and we get a lot of people who come in for it every week. For that amount of money, they figure it’s better than going to the grocery store.
AW: What’s the story of the poffertjes dessert?
MVDW: The little Dutch pancake. They’re really small and they’re pan-fried with real butter and served with powdered sugar. I love it. It’s nothing fancy. It’s actually for little kids, but I get people at the bar who say “Mike, I want to know what the little pancakes are!” It’s something really familiar to Dutch people.
AW: Is the crowd mostly Dutch?
MVDW: No, we’ve got a nice mixture. People call us The Mocamba Place, The Dutch Place, because the other owner and I are both Dutch. But we’ve been here twenty and twenty-two years on the island. We’re not even Dutch anymore! Though last night some people thought I was Australian. Sometimes we play Dutch music because we get tourists from Holland. They go on vacation, travel 9000 km, and want to hear Dutch music.
AW: What’s the helmet on the railing over there?
MVDW: That’s a go-karting event we do every year with the staff and the customers called Bingo! Racing and Ribs. You pay your ticket and we bring some snacks and drinks and go to a track and race go-karts. Afterwards, we come back here and eat spare ribs. When you do go-karting in Holland, it’s competitive. But here the computer at the track won’t be working or one kart won’t be working. That’s the nice part because everybody’s like “I’m going to win!” and then it doesn’t matter. You see people going the wrong way. And the winner gets the hat, which is just a helmet with a miniature car on top that I spray-painted gold.
AW: How did you come up with the name Bingo!?
MVDW: It was a heavy night out. A good friend and I came home and we were watching a movie – I think it was one of The Naked Gun films with Leslie Nielsen – and it said Bingo!. And the next day I woke up and I called my friend and said “I don’t know why, but it’s Bingo!.” It’s a stupid name, but people talked so much about our name because it was so stupid that it wasn’t so bad at all. And now they say “It’s a genius name. How’d you come up with it?” It’s the same thing with our location, actually. People said it’s stupid to be in the middle of a parking lot next to a gas station. But we get a very decent rent here. That’s why we can charge decent prices. And now everyone likes Bingo!. I’m Mike Bingo!.