Café the Plaza: Celebrating 25 Years of Tradition and Dutch Specialties
► A Q&A with Chef Ron van der Put of Café the Plaza
Chef Ron van der Put’s Dutch specialties for breakfast, lunch and dinner – plus a sunny patio and a host of weekly and annual events – make this downtown restaurant popular with locals, travelers and expats alike.
— By Amie Watson
— Photography: Kenneth Theysen
In the casual restaurant at the back of the Renaissance Marketplace in Oranjestad, a group of thirty-year-old Dutch men in polo shirts are sipping espressos while two older ladies – who look as though they have a date with the beach – are getting their burgers packed to go. A group sips wine in the sunshine on the palm-lined courtyard outdoors. A young couple slips into a comfortable black booth below one of the giant television screens while two more sit at the bar below dangling Edison bulbs in black cages.
After twenty-five years, the Café has its regulars, says Chef Ron van der Put. “People feel at home here and they come year-round. On a Tuesday, they say ‘Hey, let’s take a cup of coffee at Plaza!’ and that’s been happening for twenty-five years.” Some of the staff has been around a long time too, he says, nodding to a server who’s been working here for about twelve years. “She knows everything – the guests’ names, their professions, where they are from – this is typically Café the Plaza!” he says.
Van der Put himself has only been at the restaurant six months, but he’s been on Aruba for eleven years. He and his wife married here, then spent the next seven months back in Amsterdam dreaming of beaches and sun before deciding to try moving here for a year. They never left.
Already, Café the Plaza feels like home to him, as it does to its regulars who know exactly what to expect, he says. Most customers are Aruban locals, but residents and tourists alike come for the affordable breakfasts of American pancakes, breakfast wraps with eggs and cheese and fresh orange juice. Then they come back for the Sunday Dutch stamppot: mashed potatoes with vegetables and sausage inside. They also come for the meat and cheese croquettes, the tosti (think panini-pressed grilled cheese sandwiches with ham) and the frikandel sausage sandwiches.
A menu steeped in twenty-five years of tradition has a lot of stories to tell. So Chef van der Put graciously stepped out of his kitchen to talk bitterballen, live music and some of his favorite annual events.
AW: What are bitterballen and 12 uurtje?
RVDP: Bitterballen are crispy deep-fried balls with a thick stew of meat inside. You melt butter, add flour, then meat, and then you bread it and fry it. 12 uurtje means 12 o’clock in Dutch. It’s a lunch dish. It’s basically a croquette served with mustard, so it’s like bitterballen but longer, and it comes with three slices of bread, an egg and salad.
AW: You have live music on the patio every night, all-you-can-eat ribs on Wednesdays and a bunch of special events. What’s your favorite night?
RVDP: I love the Tuesday quiz nights, and Friday nights with nasi fried rice, chicken sauté and peanut sauce. And I love the nights when Amy Sorinio performs. She’s a professional singer from the Philippines who lived in Holland for many years. She has a broad repertoire, from pop to classical. And when she sings, she comes to your table and gets you involved.
AW: Who comes to quiz nights?
RVDP: A mixture of Aruban locals, Dutch and tourists, but it varies because we have a lot of expats and military who are stationed here for a year or two, and they’ll come every week until they have to leave. They like it because it’s welcoming and a good way to get to know people. And it’s bilingual: English and Dutch.
AW: What annual events do you have here?
RVDP: This year we’re starting to host the Strongest Man in Aruba competition, which is happening over four nights. They compete in dead lift, clean and jerk, where they lift the weight over the head, truck pulling, and there’s the stone of strength. But instead of a stone they have to carry 50-liter beer barrels and put them on an elevated platform. On Dutch Herring Day, on May 24, we celebrate the first barrel of herring caught in Holland and Denmark by eating raw herring in salt, like sashimi. There’s also King’s Day on April 26, which is celebrated by Dutch people but also by Arubans since we’re part of the Dutch Kingdom.
AW: What’s special about your location?
RVDP: When a cruise ship passes, the whole view from the restaurant is one big cruise ship and it feels like the island is moving and the ship is staying in place. Since Aruba is a safe island, ships leave at 11 p.m. instead of 5 p.m., so at night you see all the lights in the rooms. And being in the Renaissance Mall, there’s free parking, a cinema, and lots of shops with a cozy ambiance.
AW: What’s the story of your wedding in Aruba?
RVDP: I asked my wife to marry me after thirteen years of being together. We didn’t want the typical cliché wedding. So when I decided to visit a friend in the marines who had been living here for three years, I thought maybe it’d be nice to marry on Aruba. So on our wedding day we were standing on the beach and, all of a sudden, the rain started. It was almost like a miracle. It rained cats and dogs for ten minutes, then it stopped. The wedding dress was soaked. Romantic, right? It almost never rains on Aruba! I have a picture with the dark clouds and both of us holding a glass of Champagne.
AW: Why did you decide to move to Aruba permanently?
RVDP: That trip I took two thousand pictures and when I got home I spent seven months looking at them all, on my laptop, with the drapes closed. I love the atmosphere here and the feeling that if you come five minutes late, it’s not the end of the world. I wear a chef’s uniform, but on my day off I’m wearing shorts and not worrying about what jacket I’ll need. I go to the beach and I remember that some people have to fly ten hours to get here. And for me it’s ten minutes.
AW: You have a pan-fried grouper fillet with Creole sauce on the Café the Plaza menu, but I hear you’re a bit of a tuna expert.
RVDP: I love deep-sea fishing. My first time, I was with some friends from the marines. We had three boats and since marines are always competing, we were trying to see who could catch the most tuna. When we got to the shore, we said we’d caught two. Then the second boat said they’d caught eleven. But then we showed them the other twenty-two we’d caught! So we went back to the marine base and had a big, spontaneous barbecue for all the guys. I cooked twenty-four tunas! It was so fresh, you only needed pepper and salt, maybe some butter with herbs, and some beer. That’s Aruba as well – no agendas. Tonight there’s a party. Be there!
Lloyd G. Smith Blvd. 9