“Maybe you can’t tell, but we’ve really done at lot.” And he is right. If you have never been to De Pijp before, you’d be forgiven for believing that owner Jilles van Werkhoven, 50, and his predecessors have made no changes whatsoever to the interior in the past forty years. And Van Werkhoven is the first to admit, with a smile, that even most of his regular customers did not notice all the cleaning, dusting-off and painting that had been done during the first lockdown. “It was our largest facelift in ages. We were closed for eleven weeks, so we were able to see to everything. And afterwards we reopened the business, hoping for the best. But yeah, that’s over now.”


De Pijp 2 – Amber Leijen
Image credit: Amber Leijen

The comments made by Prime Minister Mark Rutte during the most recent coronavirus-related press conference hit Rotterdam’s oldest restaurant as hard as it did every other restaurant. “This is a winter business. Obviously, people come here to eat, but they also come for the experience and the good vibes inside. We were about to enter our good months.” And they badly needed those good months, Van Werkhoven admits, because last summer was disappointing. “It was a really mixed bag. We’d hardly have any guests at all on a Friday evening, and then we’d have a full house on the Saturday. Of course, we could only sell 24 meals at a time, rather than 65, because of the social distancing regulations. That was tricky, because we still had the same expenses.”

During that period, Van Werkhoven had a hard time deciding what to do with groups of guests. Because traditionally, his restaurant is popular with groups, whether they be corporate people or students. “We had to be more proactive with students than ever. When people make a reservation for a group, we always ask who is coming, but this time we had to keep a particularly close eye on it. Most students follow the rules very well, but we did hear a few stories about students who didn’t. And we definitely have to assume our responsibility in that regard. So yeah, at one point we decided to stop admitting entire student flats, even when we were still allowed to admit groups of that size.”

Sandy mussels

It hurt him to do so, because De Pijp is practically synonymous with Rotterdam student life. The place has been popular with students ever since it was founded 122 years ago, and there has always been some informal bond with the university. That bond only grew stronger during World War II, after the original ‘Pijp’ was destroyed in the 1940 bombing of Rotterdam.

“In 1898 De Pijp was opened in Geldersekade, next to the Witte Huis. It wasn’t only a restaurant; it also served as a bottler for Heineken. Hence the name ‘Bierhandel De Pijp’ [De Pijp Beer Shop – ed.]. After the bombing, the then owner had to find a new venue for the place. During the war, the Germans confiscated everyone’s bikes. This location in Gaffelstraat in the Rotterdam city centre used to be a bike park, but it had fallen into disuse after the bikes were confiscated. So De Pijp moved into this place and never left.”

During the war years, a strong bond grew between the restaurant and the Rotterdamsch Studenten Corps, Rotterdam’s largest fraternity. Following some criticisms in an article published in the fraternity’s magazine, the Germans closed the society’s clubhouse. De Pijp became the students’ secret temporary headquarters. “It was safe here. Very few Germans came here, because there were hardly any women here. And if they did come in for a meal for some reason, the chef would pour so much sand over the mussels that they never came back for more.”

Place for frat boys

Eighty years onwards, the restaurant still has very strong ties with RSC/RVSV. First-year hazing rituals often end with a beer at De Pijp, and most of the wait staff are students, as well. Van Werkhoven himself also first visited De Pijp as a member of the fraternity. “I never worked here myself, but I did have my first beer in Rotterdam here. I kept coming back over the years, and when the restaurant was put up for sale in 2012, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.”

De Pijp 4 – Amber Leijen
Image credit: Amber Leijen

But even though the restaurant’s ties with the fraternity are strong, Van Werkhoven prefers to emphasise the ‘strong ties with all Rotterdam-based students’. “We are generally regarded as a place for frat boys. And maybe we are, but we are so much more than that. For instance, De Pijp has a close relationship with the Faculty of Economics. To this day, we invite the members of EFR’s board every year for an introductory lunch. And we’re quite popular with other societies, as well. And we love that we attract so many different people.”

Take-away food

Just like Rotterdam’s students are unsure what will happen in the next few weeks, in terms of coronavirus-related restrictions, so, too, De Pijp is insecure about the near future. So, just like the average student, Van Werkhoven has welcomed a bit of a distraction lately. “Originally, we were going to release our third book on the occasion of our 125th anniversary, but we spent a lot of time working on it over the summer.” The book will be entitled Hij ging als een ander mens De Pijp uit [He was a different human being by the time he left De Pijp] and it will be full of stories and anecdotes by regular customers, including some students. “We asked a lot of people to buy a page in the book. We now have a 200-page book featuring poetry and photos as well as memories. It will be released in mid-November.”

The book not only provided a distraction in these tough times, but will also bring in some much-needed cash. However, the book alone will not save the restaurant. “We can’t have another period in which we sit on our arses and twiddle our thumbs.” For this reason, De Pijp will do something it has never done before: open a temporary take-away and delivery service. “It’s not our cup of tea, really, because we can’t even ask our guests if they enjoyed their meals. Under normal circumstances, I’d say this is far too modern for us. For instance, we don’t have an online reservation system, either; people must call us to reserve a table. But we don’t have much of a choice now. And we know our food is good, so we hope this service will be a hit.”

De Pijp 5 – coronascherm – Amber Leijen
Image credit: Amber Leijen

In this way, Van Werkhoven hopes to survive the second lockdown and soon to be able to welcome his regulars again. At any rate, the restaurant has been ‘corona-proofed’, with a screen around the open-plan kitchen so as to create a barrier between the guests and the chefs. But despite those adjustments and novel services, guests do not need to fear that the atmosphere at the restaurant will change in any way. “De Pijp will remain De Pijp, no matter what happens.”