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"Our history is in these walls"

Copenhagen’s old “bodega” drinking dens have been closing in droves, and many feel an important piece of Denmark’s past is being lost. Now several bars are evolving, in the hope this may help them survive

  • Jan Støving, bartender at Esrom Kroen, Nørrebro “This used to be a hole-in-the-wall bar with heavy curtains, checked tablecloths and plastic flowers. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The new owners decided that if they opened a bar where they’d want to drink, perhaps other people would want to drink there, too. We serve regular Danish beers and bitters, but we specialise in classic cocktails and long drinks. And we now have real flowers.” Esromgade 4B, +45 2061 5639

  • Harry Milan, bartender at McKluud, Vesterbro “We’re popular with the student crowd, who don’t want to go to a fancy place for a drink. People want dark places where they can play dice and drink cold beer. Although the younger generation isn’t drinking as much, I think that in 20 years you’ll still see McKluud here, with the same look and the same carpet.” mckluud.dk

  • Kristoffer Piilgaard Porner, manager, Mesteren og Lærlingen, Kødbyen “The area used to be full of slaughterhouses and this was the watering hole for the butchers. But when they started to move to the suburbs, a lot of creative businesses started moving in and the bodega got new owners. Legend has it that all the old tables here had knife marks in them because the butchers brought their knives with them after work. They carved up the tables – the dancers here have carved up the floor.” Flæsketorvet 86, +45 3215 2483

  • Lars MATELL-Hyllested, co-owner, Rosengårdens Bodega, Indre By “In terms of decor, not much has changed here in the past 80 or 90 years. But the concept has changed. We turned it into a Danish beer bar with more than 35 different Danish beers, nine on draught, from a range of breweries, small and large. We change them with the seasons and according to whatever we stumble across when we’re out looking for new beers. We also introduced food – smørrebrød at lunchtime and hot dogs all day. And we banned smoking. The morning after our final day allowing smoking, we counted how many cigarette butts we’d collected that day. There were 1,572.” Rosengården 11, +45 3312 4625

Text by James Clasper Photography⁄Johan Bävman

Ask the barman at Rosengårdens Bodega nicely and he may show you the bullet embedded behind the bar. The hole in the wall of this nicotine-stained, central Copenhagen dive was left by a member of the Danish resistance movement on 20 April 1944 – one of several shots fired at a Gestapo snitch known as the Horse Thief. His liquidation was a “birthday present” for Hitler.

“Our history is in the walls here, quite literally,” says David Jacobsen Turner, the author of While the World Waits, a 2010 book about storied Danish drinking dens such as Rosengårdens Bodega. “No one can convince me that a place like this isn’t as important to Danish history as many a castle we’ve preserved.” 

His analogy is apt. Once bastions of working-class culture, Denmark’s traditional bars are in decline, and supporters like Jacobsen Turner are justly worried. This year, Horesta – the body that represents the Danish hospitality industry – reported that these watering holes, commonly known as bodegas, saw an 18 per cent decline in customers between 2011 and 2013, and the majority of those that survive are struggling to stay afloat.

Rising rents are partly to blame. So too is the growing popularity of wine and cocktails, neither of which tends to flow fast in bodegas. Drinking at these haunts tends to centre around generic ales accompanied by shots of Gammel Dansk – a bitter Danish liqueur that’s less loved than tolerated. Food is rare, too: you might get “three unspecified sandwiches” – better known as smørrebrød – or a hard-boiled egg, if you’re lucky.

Many feel the whole concept of a bodega is dated. A cross between a dive bar and an English pub, the lights are low and the prices lower; the decor is old and the denizens older. Smoking is even permitted still, thanks to a legal loophole for bars smaller than 40m2. (Legend has it the law was dreamt up by three politicians propping up the bar in – where else? – a Copenhagen bodega.)

Danes have several names for these traditional watering holes: værtshuse (roughly meaning hostelries), brown bars – the ones with nicotine-stained walls and ceilings – and bodegas. Why the Spanish name? Some say it stems from the 1970s, when suntanned Danes returned from fortnights in Spain with fond memories of the local tapas bar and sought to replicate the vibe at home. If so, it’s an ironic name: bodega barflies are more bleary-eyed than Balearic.

In any case, many bodegas predate package holidays. Some, like Hviids Vinstue, are centuries old. Founded in 1723, it gave refuge to émigrés fleeing the French revolution – an early example of the clandestine charm of the bodega and of the melting pot of customers they typically attract. Jacobsen Turner says that not only are they places “where you can hide from the world”, they’re also among the few remaining spaces “where you can see the young student, the elderly journalist, the working man and the tourist having a good time together”. 

For their admirers, then, something is lost whenever a bodega closes. “I die a little inside each time it happens, because I feel it’s the lifeblood of Copenhagen, to some extent,” Jacobsen Turner says. 
“It’s not that I want everything to be stuck in the » 1950s, but the new tenants, the new businesses, they can’t contribute in the same way. If Rosengårdens Bodega closes, it’ll be turned into another café that doesn’t have a history.”

Thomas E Kennedy agrees. The American writer is one of the best chroniclers of Denmark’s bodega culture. His characters are forever nursing spiritual wounds in seamy watering holes. In his 2006 novel Kerrigan in Copenhagen, the eponymous hero sets out to visit one hundred of the capital’s drinking dens for a book he has been commissioned to write.

“He has no idea what might happen in each of the places he visits, what adventures he might encounter, what dark nights of the soul he might descend to, what radiant bodies he might win with a flattering tongue,” Kennedy writes. Discovery, desire and despair – these, he suggests, are the dishes of the day at Copenhagen’s storied “serving houses”.

The author, who moved to Copenhagen in 1972, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of its bars – and can reel off a list of those that have closed. “Long John’s is now a dress shop and Stephen à Porta became a McDonald’s,” he sighs. “Three smørrebrød washed down with a glass of beer was once the workingman’s lunch. Today, they all drink Coke.”

Jacobsen Turner says the fortunes of the bodegas mirror those of the Danish working class. Many bodegas were built in the late 19th and early 20th century to cater for labourers packed into high-density housing in Denmark’s rapidly growing cities. The diminishing of the working class has taken its toll on the bars that once served them.

“Fewer of us have working-class jobs,” Jacobsen Turner says. “And Danish men today would rather take care of their children than sit in the pub with their co-workers. So there’s been a cultural change – and it’s not one to moan about.” 

More to the point, the traditional business model of the bodega – “selling cheap beer and relying on people drinking all day” – no longer works. “Their customers are dying off or adopting a healthier lifestyle.”

In truth, though, it’s a category error to treat all værtshuse, brown bars and bodegas alike. Despite the alarm bells, there are still hundreds of traditional bars across Denmark, and many aren’t just clinging on – they’re prospering. In particular, historic Copenhagen bars such as Hviids Vinstue, Bo-Bi Bar and Palæ continue to lure crowds drawn to their antique charm.

Some bodegas have seen a recent surge in popularity among young people, especially students. Some say the renaissance began amid the financial turmoil of 2007/8, when young people flocked to traditional bars in search of cheap drinks. Jacobsen Turner wrote his book in 2010, the high-water mark of the bodega’s trendiness. He says people got bored with all the lookalike bars and cafés, making it “kind of countercultural to go to these places”.

Another change in bodega culture: owners seeing which way the wind is blowing. Some have simply sold up and passed the torch to a new generation. Take Mesteren og Lærlingen (The Master and the Apprentice), a bar in the city’s meatpacking district. For years, it was the haunt of slaughtermen who knocked back beers after a hard day’s work. Today, under new owners, it still serves lager, but also a range of cocktails, which are more likely to be drunk by the denizens of nearby restaurants and art galleries.

Likewise, Dyrehaven was once a bar with a rough reputation (its nickname was Syrehaven, or “Acid Park”). It got new owners in 2008. They kept the elegant wood-panelled bar, added thrift-shop decor and started shuttling decent grub from the kitchen. It soon became one of the trendiest spots in town.

Another bodega that has recently rung the changes in dramatic style is Esrom Kroen. Its owners sold it in early 2015, after 45 years in business. The new owners kept the name and the graffiti outside, but gave it a makeover last summer – renovating the lavatories, giving the walls a fresh lick of paint, and installing elegant lighting. Gone, meanwhile, is the dated collection of Danish pop albums – replaced by a playlist that tilts towards Motown and obscure Northern soul. And the drinks? Classic cocktails, naturally.

Bartender Jan Støving stayed on after the change of ownership. “They couldn’t have found enough wild horses to drag me out of here,” he says. Having worked at numerous bars in rapidly gentrifying Nørrebro, he welcomes Esrom Kroen’s evolution from grim bodega to sassy speakeasy. And he’s not alone. “Some of the diehard customers, some of whom have been coming here since 1974, still drop in and think it’s cool that young people are coming here now and that their old bar has actually become – and I hate the word – hip.”

Other bars, including Rosengårdens Bodega, have banned smoking as part of their reinvention. Lars Matell-Hyllested had worked in hospitality for 30 years when he took over Rosengårdens Bodega three-and-a-half years ago. With major construction work taking place nearby and harming business, he decided to shake things up at the 142-year-old bar.

“We had to reinvent ourselves and decided to keep it simple, do it well.” That meant stocking an ever-changing range of Danish beer, serving smørrebrød at lunchtime and improving the level of service. “In the old days you could hang around the bar and do absolutely nothing besides open beers,” Matell-Hyllested says. “That doesn’t work any more.”

Jacobsen Turner welcomes these changes, but warns that the reinvention of the bodega is no more than that. “A city needs to carry its age with it,” he says. “You need some things that don’t change, that you can use to measure the changes elsewhere. Outside things are changing, people are dressing differently, different kinds of food are becoming fashionable, but these places are unique – and, once they’re gone, they can never be restored.”

Everyone should find time to visit at least one bodega. Nurse a pint if you can handle the smoke. Opt for a snaps if you can’t. Just don’t go on an empty stomach. If that sounds grim, don’t worry:
fun can be had, often in the form of a barroom classic such as backgammon and billiards, or an eccentric dice game such as Snyd (also known as Liar’s Dice). Of course, if you’re in Rosengårdens Bodega, check out that bullet hole while you can. It might not be there forever.
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