From classic spots to modern restaurants, what to expect at an authentic Danish lunch.
Come to Copenhagen, she said. And take your top off. Your sandwich at least. Here, the ubiquitous lunch dish is called smørrebrød – a Danish open-faced sandwich – and scandalous it’s not. Copenhagen is a tasty town try a piece or two, or more. Offerings of these gorgeous sandwiches washed down with carefully curated and house-infused snaps will convert the curious.
And whether you prefer the old-school vibe of an iconic café or the upscale design aesthetic of a more modern restaurant – the Danish capital has you covered. But you should still don your own top. I’ll share some smørrebrød etiquette, what to expect on menus, and where you can try it. Come along and see what you’re missing. Skål! Cheers.
How to Pronounce Smørrebrød in Danish:
Don’t have the Danish ø on your keyboard? You’ve probably been searching for “smorrebrod” instead. Cheers to you – ahead of the curve and already knowing what to eat when visiting. But that special Scandi vowel makes all the difference in pronouncing this tricky Danish word. Click below for a listen. It’s close to smuhr-broht. Good news though, nearly everyone in Copenhagen is fluent in English and you can still enjoy this dish without ever having to say it in person. “Tak,” much easier to pronounce, means thank you in Danish – a good one to learn.
A Brief History of Smørrebrød
You’ll find smørrebrød tucked inside every Danish school child’s madpakke (lunchbox) and offered for lunch at every company canteen. But Denmark’s most iconic lunch has medieval roots – once simple and rustic fare designed for this growing agrarian nation to eat easily outside in the field. An effective means for repurposing leftovers from last night’s dinner. At it’s most basic smørrebrød = smør + brød. Butter plus bread.
Begin with the Rugbrød | Rye Bread
And it really all begins with the bread. A special Danish loaf called Rugbrød – literally translates to rye bread. But take memories of any New York-style deli meals out of your head. A loaf of Danish rugbrød is dense, chewy, and a little seedy – delicious and healthy – especially when not mass-produced, but made from scratch.
A little tangy from a fermentation process similar to sourdough – for some, it’s an acquired taste. But rugbrød is truly the perfect base for all sorts of Danish sandwich recipes. Tradition starts by layering your thinly cut slice with cold creamy butter or old school style – a smear of animal fat to keep it from getting soggy under what’s going on top.
#6 | A loaf of rugbrød, this dark rye bread, could be used possibly as a weapon if needed. It’s that dense.”
– 65 Things I’ve Learned Living in Denmark
Rural Meal to Refined City Lunch Plates
From rustic roots to highfalutin folk’s fare, the simple sandwich was elevated to fancier plates in the 19th century as the country industrialized and people moved to the cities. Some of the spots featured on this list – Lumskebugten, and Schønnemann – have been serving up similar lunches since the mid-1800s.
Modern Smørrebrød Meets New Nordic Cuisine
As societies change, trends fade and even the fancy Danish sandwiches fell out of fashion. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that a group of chefs around Scandinavia came together with an intent to focus on locally sourced and seasonal ingredients presented in innovative and modern ways. If you’re a foodie, you’re probably already familiar with the tenets of New Nordic Cuisine.
Outside the annual Easter lunch or Christmas Julefrokost, many Danes wouldn’t deign to eat this dish [smørrebrød] when dining out. It was something you made yourself at home. Until about 10-15 years ago.”– Copenhagen Serves the Most Beautiful Sandwiches in the World
Enter Adam Aamann, a Danish chef who sought to elevate the simple sandwich once again. By applying these New Nordic ideas to Danish open-faced sandwiches, Adam reinvented the lunch classic, in the early 2000s. And lucky for you, he has several restaurants where you can sample the reincarnation.
Try the Akvavit or Snaps
While I’m not one to push day drinking, if you want to experience a truly authentic Danish lunch – make sure you plan for a taste of the snaps. Or akvavit. In Denmark, the words are interchangeable for a potato or grain-fermented strong liquor. There are many varieties distilled with as many different herbs – all usually served icy cold in small stemmed wine glasses filled to crowning the rim.
Most restaurants also offer special house-cured snaps flavored with seasonal ingredients that pair perfectly with your meal. Just ask your server to determine what flavors you like and how you might take it. I prefer mine crisp and not sweetened. If in town around Christmas, don’t miss the julesnaps. Spiced and delicious. It is common at lunch for Danes to enjoy a glass of snaps plus a cold draught beer or glass of wine. Those numbers go up if celebrating a special occasion. Make time to enjoy yourself and plan your way home.
Insider tip: Gammel Dansk has a very strong taste, more akin to bitters. Probably not the best taste for first-timers.
What to Expect on a Smørrebrød Menu
Whether traditional or new wave, there are certain items you can expect from every Danish smørrebrød menu. First off – herrings. Sild as they are called here. The cold clear waters that surround Scandinavia have been providing the smallish silvery fish since the time of the Vikings who found them easy to catch, clean, cure and preserve. This is the most iconic of smørrebrød dishes. You’ll find it pickled, smoked or marinated on your menu to order. Often served with capers, red onion and raw egg yolk. Don’t knock it until you try it. A perfect blend of tastes, textures and colors.
Other seafood options include smoked and cured salmon or fried plaice (a flat white fish) always served with remoulade sauce. Also popular are hand-peeled shrimps. These are small pink shrimps often from Greenland and served with mayonnaise, hard-boiled eggs, and probably on white bread. You’ll see it listed as Æg og rejer, eggs and shrimps.
Don’t fancy seafood? Don’t fret – there are plenty of picks for you at a Danish lunch. Chicken salad is a good first timers option and not as basic as you’d imagine. Beef tartare will always be served with red onions and raw egg yolk, a favorite of my husband’s. Other meat options might include roast pork or roast beef and possibly some poached duck. Or get really Danish and try the leverpostej – liver paste – Denmark’s version of paté.
Vegetarians in your group? Lots of options for you as well. From fresh seasonal vegetables to locally produced cheeses with tasty fruit compotes on top. My favorite is always the Danish new potatoes – small, boiled and slightly waxy – they have a richness and texture that is perfect on a sandwich. Especially when dressed up for your plate. So now knowing what you might eat – let’s go over some etiquette before you get started.
Smørrebrød Etiquette and Rules
- Don’t pick up the smørrebrød. Always use a knife and fork.
- Before eating, raise your glass to toast each person in your group. Look them in the eye and say Skål! Cheers!
- A typical Danish lunch will include 2-3 pieces of smørrebrød.
- These are served in a specific order. Herring course is first. (Don’t knock it until you try it.) The other seafood comes next, followed by meat or vegetable dishes. Always finishing with cheese. (Exceptions to these rules for vegetarians.)
- When presented with an opportunity to pile up your own sandwich – herrings ONLY go on rye bread, but other fish like smoked salmon, fried plaice, or shrimps can adorn thicker slices of white bread.
- Each piece should combine a mix of colors, flavors, and textures.
- Never put cheese with fish.
- Never put mayonnaise or remoulade with your salmon.
- Roasted onion should not top smoked fish.
- Change your plate when moving on from the fish course.
- Go to a restaurant where they’ll handle it all for you. Except for the eating of course.
- Relax, enjoy, and don’t take it all so seriously. It’s fun and delicious.
Copenhagen’s Best Places to Sample the Smørrebrød
With a better understanding of the history, evolution, and customs that surround this iconic Danish frokost – let’s get to the good stuff. Where to taste a real smørrebrød lunch. Every year the Danish newspaper Berlingske puts out a list of the City’s Best Restaurants and Businesses. Nominations are voted on by the public and announced at a big ceremony each year. Byens Bedste list always includes the best smørrebrød in the city. The winner for 2022 was Restaurant Palægade. An impressive win considering the other top-notch contenders – Selma, Restaurant Møntergade, Lumskebugten, and Boulevarden. I’ve included them all below except the newcomer Boulevarden. If you’ve been let me know how it is. It’s definitely on my wish list for my next visit.
The recommendations presented here have all been personally tested. As a birthday tradition, we pick a couple new spots to try each year. I’ve divided them into “The Classisks,” – that’s Danish for classic – and “The Modernists.” Each has its charms and offers delectable dishes. If you want dark wood, brass fittings, nautical paintings, and Royal Copenhagen dishes – stick to the more traditional at top of this list. If you prefer dining amid sleek Danish design and lighting and tasting more innovative flavors – move on down the page. Better yet – pick one of each and compare. Guaranteed, at any one of these spots, it will be a delightful experience.
Insider tip: Book ahead, these are popular spots for a reason. Most offer online booking. Click the links to their websites and make a reservation.
Strandgade 50, 1401 København K, Denmark
A perfect introduction to the Danish lunch experience, the Christianshavn Færgecafé is worth the effort to get to. Tucked on a side canal that connects the Christianshavn canal to the main Copenhagen Harbor, you can sit atop a former ferry boat, right on the water. Or step inside the old school café on the corner and order a battery of snaps.
“Vi elsker snaps!” We love snaps they say and offer et lille or et stort batteri, a little or big taster of 5 different types. Or go for the “Norden Rundt,” where all five flavors come from Scandinavia. Eats here are more traditional and the helpful friendly staff will help you navigate the menu. Plan ahead to experience their popular Christmas lunch or julefrokost if visiting in November or December.
Esplanaden 21, 1263 København
One of the oldest restaurants in Denmark, Lumskebugten has been slinging sandwiches since 1854 and still tops the city’s best lists. A 2022 Byens Bedste smørrebrød nominee – they keep the hits coming. If you watched Mads Mikkelsen’s “Druk” (“Another Round” in English) you may recognize the location from the last scene of the film. No spoilers here, but it’s a fantastic movie.
So is lunch at Lumskebugten. Come summer months, tables outside on the little plaza let you soak up the sun while enjoying your herring. Popular with corporate types as it sits across the street from Mærsk Headquarters, but relaxed enough for everyone to enjoy it. One of my favorites.
Brolæggerstræde 12, 1211 København
Set on a quiet corner in Copenhagen’s Indre By, or historic inner city, Restaurant Kronborg takes tradition up a notch. Service is impeccable if not a little bit cheeky. It is old and classy and full of locals taking their lunch. I adored it. Clean Scandinavian flavors are beautifully presented. Their cured salmon with green apples on top so lovely. But my favorite was the Christiansøpigens pickled herring – perfectly spiced and delicate. So nice. Don’t knock it until you try it. (Both pictured below.) My husband, who doesn’t always seek out Danish herrings even agreed.
Wash it down with a small sip of house-cured snaps poured from pretty jars and it’s an impressive frokost (lunch.) In fact, Restaurant Kronborg only does lunch. Street side tables lose a little of the charm, come summer. Book ahead for the main dining room as this place is popular.
Hauser Plads 16, 1127 København
Not the oldest, but definitely one of the top vintage Danish lunch icons, Restaurant Schønnemann prides itself on giving you a top-notch “luksus” (luxury) experience. You’ll definitely need to make reservations. Step back in time, down inside their cozy space on Hauser Plads – a block from the King’s Garden and Rosenborg Slot.
Fresh ingredients classically styled – try the æg og rejer, eggs and hand-peeled shrimp or beef tartare with raw egg yolk on top. All washed down with draught Carlsberg beer – don’t miss their unique Royal Copenhagen tap. Coffee and a little kransekage, are a traditional end to your meal.
Toldbodgade 2, 1253 København
I’m told that the Danish Queen orders takeaway from this Nyhavn Canal spot. Skip the tourist stops along the canal itself and find Told & Snaps just down Toldbolgade. Simple decor and a long dark wooden bar greet you when you step down from the street. Here, it’s traditional Danish food done right. Tons of specialty snaps to choose from, all cured in-house using seasonal flavors to match the available ingredients on the menu.
Don’t expect as much hand-holding for the less experienced, but feel confident that you are still welcome here for an authentic meal out. We visited near the Christmas season and enjoyed the smørrebrød of roast port flæskesteg, served with braised red cabbage and plenty of pickles. Toasting with julesnaps. Selvfølgelig. Of course.
Niels Hemmingsens Gade 19-21, 1153 København
Adam Aamann may have single-handedly brought back the elevated Danish lunch. Step into any of his Aamanns restaurants to sample some of the most beautiful sandwiches in the world. Mic dropped. The smørrebrød here is made relying on fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients. Everything used in his recipes is sustainably sourced – made from scratch in-house and celebrates decidedly Nordic flavors and cooking techniques.
Aamanns’ specialty is the smørrebrød. And it is literally edible art. These sandwiches are simply beautiful. And sooo delicious to boot. For fans of no fish, don’t miss their version of chicken salad – not as simple as you’d think. While there are several Aamanns to choose from, my favorite is 1921. Gorgeous Scandi design and lighting make it a special occasion the minute you step inside. This place will always top my recommendations.
Christiansborg Slotsplads, 1218 København K
If you know a thing or two about New Nordic Cuisine, you are familiar with the name Claus Meyer. One of Noma’s “founding fathers,” the Meyers name means tasty dining in every iteration here in Copenhagen. Looking for lunch with a view? Don’t miss Meyers i Tårnet, Meyers in the Tower. The tower of the Christiansborg Slot, the historic seat of the Danish Crown, is now home to Danish Parliament.
Rub elbows with the cast of characters who maneuver the true Borgen. (Fans of the Scandi drama will recognize the building.) Upscale lunch offerings in an iconic space. Bonus? Take the free elevator up to the top for epic views of the city after you’re through with your lunch.
Møntergade 19, 1116 København
A city’s best nominee for 2022, Restaurant Møntergade sits on the same named street, not far from fine shopping and historic city exploration. An elegant modern space – Møntergade ties to tradition with the iconic blue and white plates and white linen service. Friendly, engaging staff serve unique takes on classic sandwiches.
If celebrating a birthday, go with Danish tradition and you’ll get a flag at your table. Skål! Tillykke! Cheers! Congratulations you’ll hear from your neighbors.
Landgreven 3, 1301 København
Restaurant Koefoed is a little taste of the Danish island Bornholm in the middle of Copenhagen. Step below street level down into this cozy minimalist spot on Landgreven. From the photos of Bornholm that adorn the walls to the Bornholmer akvavit to the island’s most famous dishes, you’ll soon be smitten to visit.
Don’t miss trying the “Sol over Gudhjem,” which means sun over Gudhjem – an idyllic Danish island town with views of the Baltic. In this dish, the herring is smoked and topped with slivered radishes, red onion and raw egg yolk. Every year Gudhjem hosts a contest for the best version of this sandwich. Good news for you – no ferry ride required to taste it.
Palægade 8, 1261 København, Denmark
Let me introduce you to Palægade – the winner of “Byens Bedste Smørrebrød” for 2022. The city’s best – voted on by locals – is an impressive accolade when you consider the fellow nominees. It’s definitely worth it.
Restaurant Palægade has come back like a literal phoenix from the ashes after a March 2020 fire destroyed much of their gorgeous space. We have been lucky enough to experience it both before and after. What remains? A delicious space full of Danish design and good taste. Come for the atmosphere, innovative seasonal cooking, and specialty house snaps. A winner winner in my book.
Rømersgade 20, 1362 København
Last but certainly not least, Selma is an adorable friendly space to enjoy a Michelin-level lunch. Iconic Scandi wallpaper by Josef Frank for Svenskt Tenn adorns the walls and warms the space with color-complementing chairs. It’s a good preview for your lunch to come. Awarded a “Bib Gourmand” for their cutting age takes on traditional food at good prices – Selma takes seasonality and presentation seriously.
Depending on when you visit, you might enjoy your herring cured with fresh beets like the beautiful magenta number in the photo below. Or elderflower-infused fish come summer. Run by a Swedish chef, but partnering with Danish craft beer giant Mikkeler, you can be assured that your draughts will be as original as your meal.
Map of Where to Find These Top Spots
Trying to plan your site-seeing route and where best to book your smorrebrød lunch? Take a look at the map to get a sense of where to find each of these top-rated restaurants.
Come to Copenhagen, she said. And I’ll say it again. And don’t miss the beautiful and tasty Danish open-faced sandwiches. They make come topless but scandalous they are not. Did I miss a favorite on your list? Lay it on me in the comments below. Have questions about menus, bookings, and expectations? Happy to try to answer. Cheers from here. And skål!
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