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52: 32 - Urban Espresso Bar

Name: Urban Espresso Bar (Or UEB for short)
Address: Botersloot 44a, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Owner: Jo McCambridge
Served by: Dunya

Despite the fact that the Dutch are one of the world’s biggest consumers of coffee, they do not have a long history of dedicated coffee bars (not to be confused with the coffee shops, for which the Dutch are famous). In fact, 15 years ago, you would have struggled to find somewhere to get a good espresso. It took an Australian, Jo McCambridge, to lead the way by opening Urban Espresso Bar (affectionately known as UEB) in 2001 in the heart of Rotterdam. And needless to say, UEB, both in terms of the coffee and cafe design, was a pioneer for what is now a burgeoning coffee scene in both Rotterdam and the Netherlands.

So what’s good about UEB?

UEB is in the centre of Rotterdam, on a cross street that connects the market square with one of the main shopping streets. The building where the cafe is housed dates from the fifties and although it is a small place situated in a row of shops, the simple yet effective red neon sign is a beacon for coffee lovers who pass by.

Once inside, it is apparent that the space is small, and yet it doesn’t have the feeling of being overly cluttered. The restricted use of colour and materials helps immensely in this regard. The cafe, which bisects the building, benefits from the generous windows on either side, in combination with lovely high ceilings. Both east and west facing aspects allow for plenty of light and the space is divided into three parts, with tables and chairs at either end separated by the kitchen area. Along the wall directly opposite the kitchen are a series of high stools for those in waiting for their take-away coffees whilst the generous timber doors on either side of the cafe make for easy access, facilitating the flow of traffic.  During the warmer months, outdoor tables and chairs are placed along the footpath in front of the cafe and on a larger terrace out the back, creating a dynamic streetscape and attracting more patrons. 

The use of the Swiss sans-serif font type Helvetica and Scandinavian inspired interior has proved very effective in expressing quality whilst remaining accessible to a wide range of discerning customers. White walls and grey epoxy floors are offset by basic varnished plywood tables and black-painted wooden chairs and low stools, and despite the size, there is quite a lot of seating available. Along the front window of the cafe is a cosy window seat with green leather cushion, while at the back is a large reading table with two stunning vintage desk lamps with moveable arms.

The kitchen area is separated from the dining areas by plywood panels, similar to the tables. A glass vitrine has been built into the service counter to entice customers with the home-made cakes and cookies, and three glass shelves above the prep area are stacked with crockery, glassware and food ingredients form a nice backdrop to the counter stage whilst the wall opposite the kitchen is mirrored to give the feeling of more space. This deliberate combination of white, black, metal and wood, has subsequently been replicated by many of the more recently opened cafes in Rotterdam, yet none have dared or been able to keep their design as minimal as UEB.

The great thing about UEB is the timeless simplicity and the focus of the design - it is by no means ostentatious but rather understated, almost brand less, letting the coffee and food take centre stage. On the UEB website, they, themselves, refer to the decor as clean and sober. This apparent ‘brand-less-ness' is therefore, ironically, one of the defining characteristics of UEB. The less is more approach is also conveyed by the menu and business cards. With the use of Helvetica, the menu items are simply listed on a laminated oblong card, while daily specials are highlighted on two blackboards at either end of the cafe, one written in Dutch, the other in English. While there is no logo, per se, the cafe is commonly referred to by its initials (UEB), which appear on the business card in white font on an orange background. One of the advantages of a minimal of branding is that it doesn’t discriminate, catering to a wide demographic, as can be seen from the clientele. It was only with the opening of a second Urban Espresso Bar (UEB West) in Rotterdam in 2011 that there became the need to differentiate between the two, which brought about the ever so slight distinction of the ‘East’ and ‘West’ cafes.

What could be better about UEB?

No beating about the bush, the place is small and this is where the main issues lie. Despite having doors on both sides of the cafe, the ventilation is not all that great, meaning it can get quite steamy in winter and a bit airless in summer. By giving customers all the window space on either side, the kitchen/prep area ends up being an awkward shape and takes up quite a bit of room, dividing the space and making it difficult to manoeuvre for both patrons and staff. The limited prep space within the kitchen and the high demand for the good food makes it difficult to maintain order and cleanliness. And the gorgeous high ceilings are a devil in disguise, reverberating every sound, making it very noisy at times.

Several features, such as the lighting, which consists of three box pendant lights and two round wall lights, and the small clock on the wall, seem incidental rather than being integral to the simple design. As the lights are not very effective as a light source, they may as well not be there.

And lastly, as with many of the cafes in Rotterdam, they are unfortunately not open in the evenings…

What’s its thing?

UEB is everything you expect from a top notch espresso bar - a place to meet friends, a place to chill and perhaps its greatest claim to fame, the cafe that introduced the flat white to the Dutch!

Defining Design Details

  • Brandlessness - simplicity at its finest and done so well that it is in of itself a form of branding
  • A basic palette of white, black, metal and wood - need we say more!
  • Big windows - and the fact that they have taken advantage of both east and west aspects
  • Reading lamps - Yes they’re both functional and pretty cool.
  • Bright red neon sign - becoming a bit of lost art - so you never lose your way ;)

It goes without saying that this is a very special edition of Project 52 : our first overseas entry and the first entry not written by either Katie or myself.  But most special about this entry is that this one has been written and photographed by my sister Hayley Every, and her partner Egor Kloos – so Super Tectonics sends a massive thank you their way for putting this one together.  We love being introduced to the Urban Espresso Bar and can’t wait to see it hopefully next year as Katie and I are scheming to make our way over to Rotterdam mid year, and perhaps also Berlin, and maybe Norway, and potentially Denmark… :)