Centuries before René Redzepi helped establish Denmark as a culinary powerhouse with his Copenhagen restaurant Noma, there was smørrebrød. The open-faced sandwich traditionally constructed from earthy Danish rugbrød, or rye bread, smeared with mayonnaise, and topped with fixings like pickled herring, boiled eggs with shrimp, or roast beef with fried onions and horseradish, has sustained the nation for generations. But until recently, few chefs would have ever considered serving it in a serious restaurant.
As new Nordic cuisine has encouraged locals to re-examine Denmark’s native ingredients and techniques, however, a cohort of young chefs have revived the venerable lunch staple, kicking off a wave of inventive, thought-provoking smørrebrød. They infuse their mayonnaise with oysters or charred garlic, bake rye bread in-house or swap it out altogether for fried sourdough, and add unlikely toppings like pumpkin, hazelnuts, or blue cheese. Last winter, the Michelin Guide awarded Copenhagen’s two-year-old Selma a Bib Gourmand Award, in part for chef Magnus Petersen’s imaginative smørrebrød.
Yet even as these chefs upgrade the age-old dish, they’re discovering why the sandwich was so popular in the first place, and revealing its status as a fundamental building block of Danish cuisine.
Smørrebrød has roots in the Middle Ages, but it became a lunchtime staple for farmers and factory workers in the 19th century. By the mid-20th century, it was a fixture of family life, a great way to use up leftovers or an easy meal made with frozen, store-bought ingredients. Outside of the home, it usually appeared in specialized pubs, where it padded diners’ stomachs for lots of beer, wine, and snaps (a local infused spirit similar to German schnapps).
In 2000, Mette Borum opened a traditional smørrebrød pub, Told & Snaps, in the bustling Nyhavn harbor, a few years before new Nordic cuisine took Copenhagen by storm. At lunch, you’ll often find the bar populated by diplomats, businessmen, and government officials, eating and drinking snaps beneath photos of Queen Margrethe and other Danish royals.
“I grew up eating smørrebrød,” Borum says. “My grandmother would bring out slices of good rye bread, pickled beets, and the remaining roast from the previous evening, and we would make our own ‘smørrebrød.’ I always wanted to recreate the experience, but using the best ingredients possible.” certainly falls into Copenhagen’s pre-Noma old guard, but with Borum’s insistence on premium ingredients and thoughtful execution, the bar was a turning point, a presage of the sandwich’s impending evolution.
During his years staging in French and Italian kitchens, and then working in Copenhagen, TV chef Adam Aamann found his nights were too busy to host friends for dinner, so he started experimenting with inventive slants on smørrebrød to serve at lunch. He turned his side project into a full restaurant concept in 2006 when he opened Aamanns Deli, where he serves a rotating selection of cheffy sandwiches, and then further expanded with Aamanns 1921 in 2017.
While pub sandwiches can feel heavy with meat or mayo, Aamann chose to focus on produce (fresh, pickled, and fermented) and scaled back on the unhealthy spreads to balance out the dish. Potato and tomato were common in traditional smørrebrød, but the chef branched out with toppings like cauliflower, pumpkin, and grilled cucumber. Even protein-centered sandwiches received fun vegetable-forward twists. Think marinated herring with balsamic vinegar, plums, raw onions, and creme fraiche, or beef tartare with hazelnuts, rye crumbs, pickled onions, and blackcurrants.
Today, lunch at Aamanns 1921 is a good way to gauge the current smørrebrød barometer in Copenhagen. On one recent afternoon, local Danes quietly nibbled and imbibed, until freshly tanned tourists burst in and declared to the hostess, “We came straight from the airport!” The waitress gently guided the newcomers through the menu, explaining the basics of smørrebrød, as well as how to eat it, how much to order, and how to pair each dish with snaps, beer, and wine.
Aamanns Deli and Told & Snaps paved the way for other Copenhagen restaurants to present their own breeds of smørrebrød to the world. Kompasset serves a crispy monkfish sandwich with mango mayo and espelette peppers. Selma offers a kale sandwich with lemon, chicken skin, and a poached egg. And Hallernes builds on rugbrød with crab salad, avocado, lemon, dill, and mayonnaise.
The once-neglected food is no longer just a convenient drinking lunch or a paean to grandmother’s cooking, but an extension of what it means to eat like a Dane in the 21st century. As Selma’s Petersen explains, “Smørrebrød embodies all of the best qualities of Danish gastronomy, in particular, its emphasis on seasonality, sustainability, and in some cases, fermentation.” It’s now easy to track the Danish seasons through fancy smørrebrød. In the summer you’ll find fresh chanterelles at Kompasset. Come fall, Selma features fresh truffles while Aamanns 1921 opts for pickled summer tomatoes. In the winter, cod roe stars at Hallernes alongside dill-infused mayo and herbs, and in the spring, Selma features new Danish potatoes with chives, crispy pigs ears, almonds, and dried lovage.
While chefs like Claus Meyer and Redzepi tend to contextualize new Nordic cuisine in terms of global trends, smørrebrød has provided a bridge between new and old, helping avant-garde and traditional chefs find common ground. “René Redzepi comes here all the time and loves to talk philosophically about food, and then he orders the curried pickled herring with snaps — two very traditional things,” Borum says. “There’s appreciation between the old and the new.”
Molly Hannon is a writer based between in Copenhagen, Denmark and Charlottesville, Virginia.