Financial Times List to smørrebrød in Copenhagen
Curated by Richard Milne
Long before new Nordic cuisine made Copenhagen a must-visit for international foodies, there was smørrebrød.
Known in English as open-faced sandwiches, smørrebrød are a true Danish institution, found everywhere from children’s lunch boxes to motorway service stations. In Copenhagen, they are also what the business and political elite eat if going out for lunch.
“Smørrebrød is our religion,” Karim Nielsen, general manager of Copenhagen’s Hotel Sanders, tells me. Everyone from chief executives to chefs at Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurants has their own favourite smørrebrød place that they worship at, and other places rarely get a look in.
Smørrebrød are perfect lunch fare — you can choose to have one, two or three to suit your appetite, and it’s easy to be a carnivore, pescatarian or vegetarian. The days of the sandwich simply consisting of bread and a single topping dumped on top are very much over; most of the restaurants here involve up to a dozen ingredients per dish, plated elegantly. Expect to pay around DKr150 (about £18) per smørrebrød, more for certain of the more flamboyant creations. Booking is essential, even though many places do have two lunchtime sittings, with the first starting at 11.30am or noon.
Danish tradition is to start with herring, perhaps move on to prawns or plaice, and finish with beef tartare or chicken salad, all washed down with a beer or (towards the end of the week) some snaps (Scandinavia’s equivalent of schnapps). There is also huge variety between establishments, with modern upstarts challenging places that are centuries-old.
This is pure lunchtime power dining. Most of these restaurants offer more normal dishes at dinner, and the elite turn elsewhere. But for lunchtime in Copenhagen, these are the places to be, starting with the most radical newcomer and ending with the arch-traditionalist. A wave of reinvention has swept through the smørrebrød world in recent years as young chefs, many with fine-dining experience, have extended the idea of just what a Danish sandwich can be. The atmosphere in most of these places is relaxed and service tends to be brisk, but they are still restaurants, not glorified cafés.
It took a Swede to show Danes just what smørrebrød could be. Chef Magnus Pettersson, complete with tattoos of a cucumber and fish on his arms, came from a fine-dining background and has little patience with the classic Danish way of doing things. “This is the least traditional smørrebrød place you will find,” he says, smiling as he explains that no Danes work in the kitchen at Selma.
Pettersson’s manifesto is to focus on the quality of produce, with each smørrebrød underpinned by huge amounts of technique. One of the best-sellers at Selma is the vegetarian, and very non-traditional, grilled celeriac smørrebrød. It is utterly delicious. And gorgeous to look at, with an emulsion of cep mushrooms, combining with the celeriac, Sicilian pistachios and ume kosho (a Japanese condiment of fermented plums and chilli) to stunning effect.
Selma is not so iconoclastic as to completely ignore the classics — herring and beef tartare are on the ever-changing menu, but with modern twists. Service is relaxed and customers range from business people to tourists, in a homely room accentuated by the floral wallpaper. The homemade aquavit is well worth trying — I particularly enjoyed the brown-butter one. It is perhaps little surprise that Selma became the first smørrebrød restaurant to receive a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide. Smørrebrød,
The default choice of the business elite, Palægade is the best place to spot the captains of Danish industry. Among all the dark suits dining in jovial conversation, a waiter explains that most lunchtimes there are billions of kroner present. The style of both the dining room and food is very much a mixture of modern and classic — bold contemporary art complements the more traditional bistro feel of the tables, which are rather cheek by jowl with each other. Service is relaxed and friendly but efficient.
The smørrebrød are often based on the classics all Danes know and love but then zhuzhed up. Shrimps with boiled egg and fish roe becomes shrimps with a deep-fried egg and caviar in the hands of Palægade. The result is certainly rich but well balanced and tasty. There is also not only its own snaps but also an exquisite dessert trolley.
Palægade had a brush with disaster when it burned down just before the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, but has proved to be just as popular since reopening a year later with an entirely new staff.
3 Aamanns 1921
Aamanns was the first restaurant to bring some artistry to smørrebrød. What started in 2006 as a small-scale attempt to revitalise Danish sandwiches has become a mini empire with several establishments serving food as pleasing on the eye as on the palate. 1921 is the flagship space, with its high ceiling and wooden furniture reminiscent of a modern church. What would be the altar is instead a bar with a row of 20 snaps, about 15 of which are house-made — flavours include everything from horseradish and lovage to grilled lemon and, of course, rye bread.
Located close to Copenhagen’s main shopping drags, the restaurant has perhaps the most diverse customers of all on this list, with a big dose of tourists offsetting the business diners. Tables may be close together, but there is still a high-end feel. Executive chef and co-owner Maxim Surdu explains how they updated the classic and often rather heavy chicken-salad smørrebrød by mixing it with yoghurt, honey, mustard and mayonnaise topped with pickled raw onion, apple, celery, kale and crispy chicken skin. The taste is very elegant, the look displaying a certain panache.
Talking to chefs everywhere from fine-dining restaurants to bakeries, one smørrebrød place came up more than any other: Møntergade. Run by the team behind Palægade before it burned down, Møntergade is an attempt to return to the traditions of smørrebrød but done to the highest standard with the best-quality ingredients.
The dining room itself is airier than its competitors thanks to huge windows and decent space between tables. There are plenty of business guests but they don’t overwhelm, and the second lunch sitting in particular has an even more relaxed vibe as rival chefs get their fill of smørrebrød.
All the classics are represented with multiple types of herring, plaice, shrimps and tartare, while a daily specials board offers more innovative sandwiches. I tried a fried duck terrine with pickled onions and mustard mayonnaise on rye bread that was somehow both crispy and relatively light. As an outsider, smørrebrød might not quite be a religion for me but this is my personal favourite.
Having started in 1877, Schønnemann is one of Copenhagen’s oldest smørrebrød restaurants, and it has been at its current location for more than a century. Some of the staff look like they have been there only marginally less time. The focus is very much on the classic smørrebrød, done in the traditional way, on crisp white linen tablecloths and brisk service.
The menu is extensive, with 14 different herring sandwiches and more than five tartares. Choosing from all the options can be tricky, so they mark the most traditional version with “the classic” — a useful way to narrow things down. The classic tartare comes with horseradish, capers, pickle and raw onion, as well as the egg yolk in a carved shell; the classic potato sandwich is adorned with a dollop of mayonnaise, a few slices of crispy bacon and a lettuce leaf. There is far less artistry than at the other four restaurants, but with some places in Copenhagen seeming to prioritise style over substance Schønnemann is a chance to experience smørrebrød in a way all Danes would recognise.
6 Sankt Annæ
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