Where to Eat Copenhagen’s Signature Sandwich

Carey Jones goes in search of smørrebrød and finds the Danish art of hospitality

By Carey Jones

Published on January 21, 2016

It was only September in Copenhagen, but you wouldn't know it from the crisp, wintry snap in the air and the restaurant signs imploring customers to book their Christmas lunch parties. I'd already had to find a thicker sweater and a second scarf. I'd just bought a few hand-painted Christmas ornaments from a shop fully decked out in red and gold, whose cheery proprietor was dressed to match. And in the afternoon's wan light and chill wind, no restaurant had ever looked as welcoming as Restaurant Kronborg.

Before coming to Copenhagen, I knew of the smørrebrød as the Danes' preferred open-faced sandwich, ubiquitous across Denmark. As are the sandwiches of so many nations, the smørrebrød is an obvious product of economy—a sturdy rye-bread trencher layered with any and every foodstuff readily available: Last night's chilled roast beef, the season's pickled herring, a quick scramble of eggs and the smoked fish on hand. And as with the sandwiches of so many nations, smørrebrød are a beloved national pastime, far evolved from their eminently practical roots.

What I didn't know is that Copenhagen has an entire genre of restaurant—generally decades-old, charmingly old-school taverns—dedicated wholly to the dish. Many lie below street level, with low ceilings and elderly waiters; they're lit by candlelight or an open hearth and come with extensive lists of smørrebrød and, equally important, the ever-present Scandinavian spirit aquavit; sometimes a straight shot of caraway firewater, often tempered and flavored with local fruit and herbs.

While most culinary tourists froth at the bit for their reservation at Noma or AOC, with their New Nordic foraging and whimsical plating, I found myself far more enchanted by these warm, weathered taverns, which I'd heard described simply, and charmingly, as "lunch restaurants." Writers have dedicated books to them. (Jacob Termansen's Lunch pays particular homage to them.) History breathes from their walls. Yellowed photos and weathered signs on the walls are relics from days gone by, not affected modern designs. Chalkboards have a dusty sheen from the memories of menu specials past. The rough wooden floor's smooth patina is decades in the making.

"Long after we have tired of foraging in the woods, and we are no longer amused by making rhubarb taste like licorice," writes Danish author Jacob Termansen in his book Lunch, "the world of these traditional lunch restaurants will still stand, unchanged by the onslaughts of changing times and tastes."

With a feeling of snug timelessness, Restaurant Kronborg is not unique in Copenhagen; nor is it the best-known of these lunch restaurants. Rather, it’s a perfect example of the form. My server, an older gentleman, seated me next to the fireplace and talked me through the elaborate menu. “Aquavit?” he inquired, in a tone that wasn’t really a question. Well, of course. Choose one for me. “Would you like a small pour, or a reasonable one?” (Hard to answer that inquiry with “small.”)

He brought me an aquavit infused with hawthorn flowers, a spirit rounded and complex and leaving a bit of a tingle behind, with none of the aggressive bite of most aquavits I've drank. To eat, a smørrebrød of smoked eel and egg. The hefty rye bread was a meal in itself, and between that rye, soft-scrambled eggs, and smoked seafood, the flavors were faintly reminiscent of a New York appetizing shop—comfort food in an unfamiliar country. Small sips of aquavit proved a good pairing for such powerful flavors; the spirit slices right through.

The Danes often speak of a concept called hygge, one of those remarkable and all-but-untranslatable terms you come across when traveling. "Coziness" is the fallback translation, but that's insufficient, not really communicating the depth of hygge or its centrality to Danish culture. Cozy, but something more; cozy with intimacy. Keeping warm with cocoa on a snowy night—that's hygge. A meal with friends that stretches on for hours into the night. One of those homes that just feels inviting. Christmas, unsurprisingly—and Danes start their holiday celebrations in November—is the most hygge of all.

These well-worn smørrebrød taverns embody hygge like nothing else. Eating lunch alone, as I did on that cold afternoon, isn't exactly the height of hygge. But lunch next to a crackling fire, the comfort of a hearty sandwich and just enough aquavit to pinken my cheeks, the server stopping by to ask, "Is it lovely? Is your meal lovely?" and topping off my aquavit glass with a sly wink—very hygge indeed.

Where to Have Your Own Hygge Experience

Restaurant Kronborg
An atmospheric tavern that serves as a perfect introduction to the world of smørrebrød; there's no faulting the smoked eel or roast beef, but herring deserves particular consideration, whether pickled herring, pan-fried herring, marinated herring, or curried herring.

Restaurant Kronborg
Brolæggerstræde 12
(+45) 33-13-07-08

Restaurant Schønnemann
Classy, venerable (dating back to 1877), and wildly popular, Schønnemann is a piece of Copenhagen history, with excellent sandwiches to boot. Reservations essential.

Restaurant Schønnemann
Hauser Pl. 16
(+45) 33-12-07-85

Øl & Brød
More hipster smørrebrød outfit than old-school tavern, with excellent modern takes on the sandwich—culinarily impressive and beautifully decorated, but distinct, in the way that a modern pizzeria restaurant can rarely compete with a decades-old coal-fired joint for atmosphere.

Øl & Brød
Viktoriagade 6
(+45) 33-31-44-22

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