Rotterdam Central District


‘This is the heart of the city’
“A couple of years ago, when you biked through Kruisplein at 9 p.m. on a Monday night, the streets would be deserted. Along the train tracks in the morning where Biergarten now stands, you’d be likely to step on discarded heroin needles. And there used to be a night shop here where the drug runners would gather and cause trouble.”
Nikki van Dijk sits here now with her eleven-week-old daughter on her lap. ‘Here’ is Ayla, a Mediterranean restaurant for ‘lunch, brunch, bites and dinner’ at Kruisplein. “I’m still on maternity leave,” tells Nikki laughing, because: can you ever really take time off when you’re running three businesses? Together with her associates Roeland Flierman and Tijmen Meijer, Nikki manages Biergarten, The Suicide Club and Ayla. All three located in Rotterdam Central District. So, why did they choose this particular area to do business?
Blank canvas
“It was a combination of momentum and our desire to start a place with international allure,” Nikki explains. “The area around Rotterdam Central Station was developing very quickly. We could feel the energy here, and the possibilities. As if it was a blank canvas. At the time, we were already catering there with Mess, at the corner of the Schieblock.”
“When we heard about the plans for the Luchtsingel, we grabbed our chance to launch Biergarten. The plan for Ayla had already been worked out, but we weren’t yet able to make use of the entire building. Then, we decided to use one section to open the Ontbijtbar as a pop-up business and, meanwhile, we’ve set up The Suicide Club on the rooftop of the Groot Handelsgebouw.”
World city residents
All three businesses are focused on the people living in Rotterdam or visiting the city to experience the world city culture. “I really believe that there is a kind of world city code that you recognise when you travel a lot. In that respect, I hardly notice the diffe­rence anymore from, for example, Amsterdam. From Central Station, you can reach the capital city within forty minutes. And flying to Barcelona is almost easier than driving to Groningen. Our focus is on the Rotterdammer, who sees himself as a world city resident. The first visitors we received at Biergarten were the early hipsters and expats. They had their international orientation in common. The hospitality industry in Rotterdam was, for the most part, typically Dutch: you could choose between ‘uitsmijters’ (fried eggs) or champagne at the chic Rotterdam places. The simplicity of Biergarten – a parking lot in the sun, beer in big mugs and food from the barbecue – appeals to a lot of people. It works like a magnet.”
“That worldliness demands long opening hours, which means taking a risk as entrepreneurs in this country with its strong ‘dinner-at-six culture’. Yet, at ten o’clock at night, businessmen from Barcelona or London still want to be able to enjoy a full meal. We had to work hard for it but, finally, those are the people that are now coming to dine in Ayla.”
Typical Rotterdam
World city culture or not, Nikki feels that Rotterdam does have a unique decor. Typically, a city is built up starting from its centre, but Rotterdam is working to rebuild its centre starting with the outskirts of the city.

“It takes 100 years to build a city, they say, and we’re now about to ­enter the final twenty years. The generation of my grandparents began with post-war reconstruction after the bombing and now my peers and I are continuing this work. Slowly, but surely, we are completing the city centre and that begins here around Central Station. This is the heart of the city. That is what draws me to this area. It is my ambition to contribute to the development of the city. The muni­cipality has set its sights on a mix of businesses that will liven up the area and on creating a 24-hour culture at every corner of every street. We play a role in that with our restaurants and bars.”
“The city’s natural rhythm has changed over the past few years. It’s really noticeable. All the major cultural and creative spots are now situated along the canal that runs from Kruisplein up to the Veer­haven. These spots were there already, but they were not yet ­connected. The area is becoming increasingly interesting for other entrepreneurs. No, I don’t feel that we have a monopoly position in the area with our businesses. Rotterdam Central District belongs to the many who have helped to make it what it is today. Sure, we have paved the way for others who also want to settle here. Generally speaking, that would be the downside of being a pioneer. But this area is developing so quickly that we have managed to secure our businesses while still leaving enough space for new entrepreneurs.”
Plans for something new
The big question, of course, is if the Mess Group is going to cook up a new business in RCD. “We have plans for something new, but it won’t be in the city. No, not even in the outskirts. We are looking across the border. We strongly believe in the culture of the global city. But I can’t tell you more than that, the plans are still taking shape.” •
19 november 2019
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