One of our dear friends is a native Dane. For years, we’ve admired his impeccable style and been the lucky beneficiaries of his incredible culinary skills. Because of him, we have always yearned to travel to Copenhagen and experience that same style and gastronomy on the macro level. Now that we live within a relatively short, relatively inexpensive flight of Denmark’s capital, we decided to do it. We took a few days during the kids’ Autumn half-term break and made for the spires and domes once inhabited by the likes of Hans Christian Andersen and Niels Bohr.
We realized after booking the trip that this would be the first time the kids would accompany us on a “sightseeing” tour. By sightseeing tour, I mean, a vacation centered around eating, drinking, and people-watching, with (maybe) visits to the few museums or tourist attractions that we deemed absolutely vital to the experience (ie, the Mona Lisa in Paris, or the David in Florence, or the Coliseum in Rome). This is the type of vacation for which Jeff and I, and probably most parents of youngish children who are of sound, rational mind, leave their kids behind. We save the family vacations for active, outdoor-oriented type stuff, like beaches and mountains, where we are less likely to hear “I don’t want to look at another dumb painting” or “I’m tired” or “Can you take me to this busted-up old bathroom so I can go pee, and while doing so realize that I also have to go poop, which will be traumatic for all of us and be the REAL unforgettable thing about this vacation.”
Beaches and mountains being absent from our Copenhagen tour, we opted to base the trip around some “kid” activities, and try to make the grazing-and-imbibing part a little more peripheral. This was made possible by the fact that we went in late October, and where I must impress upon you that if you plan to take an eight- and six-year-old to Copenhagen, go at Halloween. It is probably one of the most apropos times for a family tour around a moody and atmospheric old European city with thousands of years of history. We (ok, I) had lots of spooky fun imagining ghosts roaming among the old palaces and misted courtyards and narrow cobblestoned alleys. Then we hit Tivoli Gardens – and this beautiful amusement park laid a Halloween feast before us.
Near and dear to the Danes’ hearts (Disney tried to buy it a few years ago and was roundly told off), Tivoli is truly the park that offers something for everyone. The rides are mainly tame…except for one of the highest carousels in the world, which sends riders 80 meters up into the air with nothing but a swing seat and a meager lap bar to separate you from the elements. In our family, a 43-year-old and an 8-year-old braved this ride – one guess as to who was more frightened when it was all over. Most of the other rides were more quaint than thrilling. There’s even a 100-year-old roller coaster operated by a brakeman – a guy who basically sits in one of the middle cars with a wooden hand brake and rides up and down the creaky wooden peaks all day.
Another day we went to Den Bla Planet, the largest aquarium in Northern Europe. Fish in Copenhagen: a visual feast as well as a culinary one, which I’ll get to in a bit. The aquarium is one of endless examples of well-planned Danish architecture and design and it looks like an undulating wave of mercury broken loose from an old thermometer. It’s especially cool when viewed from the air as you’re flying in.
On one of our walks around the city, we even found a little park which, instead of the usual jungle gyms and swing sets, boasted a few large, climbable pieces of fruit. Besides being a haven of Danish whimsy for children in the middle of a neighborhood, this little playground was also fronted by a couple cafes with outdoor seating. Even though it was cold (Copenhagen is basically in the North Pole), the outdoor chairs were all covered in fleece blankets that you could wrap yourself in while you observed your children laughing and running and climbing up a giant banana bunch. The best part – the cafe served cupcakes, hot chocolate, and of course, beer. Something for everyone, indeed.
Of course, we had to eat (the grazing-and-imbibing part of the tour). A quick note: many parents will reel off a litany of rare and amazing foods that their young children love to eat – sushi, tripe, filet mignon – nothing is too exotic or expensive for little Junior, and intrepid, seasoned diner that he is, he’s a pleasure to have along on, say, a visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant. He practically has his own Zagats review system, and his napkin is always soundly in his lap. Well, my husband and I are not those parents, and our kids are not (usually, though there have been exceptions) that kid. We don’t just naturally assume that our offspring will be welcome anywhere and eat anything. This could be a product of our semi-strict, middle-class upbringings, or our Catholic humility. Actually, it’s probably an acute sense of obligation to protect our fellow citizens from what we know goes on in our house every night. Regardless, we were a bit tentative about dining with the family in highly-rated, well-regarded restaurants.
But what choice did we have in Copenhagen, the latest and greatest foodie capital in the world? Were we supposed to let our kids’ preference for chicken nuggets and grilled cheese, along with their almost pathological tendency to decorate tabletops with liquid drops shot out of straws and spilled salt-and-pepper-grain smiley faces, deter us from sampling what has become known as some of the best cuisine in the world? No, we could not. So we did some research into restaurants that were rumored to offer the ubiquitous “New Nordic” cuisine, but were casual enough not turn us away when our family of four showed up. Bror was on the schedule for our first night, and we were relieved to be led to our table without so much as a raised eyebrow from the host when we arrived.
Getting seated with a smile, though, was only the first hurdle. The next was figuring out what to eat. At Bror, for instance, we were informed by the waiter that standard operational procedure every night is for patrons to select their own appetizers, but to be “surprised” with a main course chosen at the chef’s discretion. I’m sure most New Nordic diners get a thrill up the spine when they hear they are going to be served a surprise main course, and if we’d been traveling sans our little darlings we may have felt similar. But we’d perused the menu by this point, and seen things like “raw pickled pike perch” and “bull’s balls,” bluntly stated, just like that. “Bull’s balls.”
“So, you say you’re going to surprise us,” Jeff said carefully to the waiter.
“Yes, sir,” he responded.
“But we have these two,” said Jeff, waving in the general direction of the children, who were of course using their straws to blow bubbles into their sodas. “Food surprises don’t work too well for them. Can you make an exception for them?”
“I will speak to the chef, sir,” said the waiter. “I’ll see if he can do something more beef-oriented for them.”
“Um, just as long as it’s not the bull’s balls,” I squeaked. “Can you ask him not to involve the bull’s balls? I don’t know if they’ll eat the bull’s balls.”
The waiter smiled. “They are one of the most delicious things on the menu,” he said fondly.
“Of course, of course,” Jeff said. “But, you know…no. Not for them.”
“No testicles!” I added with an awkward laugh. “Ha, ha.”
“So, yeah, if he can do something, like, fried, or a burger, or something,” said Jeff. “Or they can eat bread.”
The waiter hurried off and Jeff and I exchanged a look, tacitly acknowledging to each other that yes, we were the a-hole parents who brought their kids to a fancy restaurant, and now we were also the a-hole Americans who were demanding off-menu items like burgers to satisfy our pedestrian, isolationist taste preferences. (Junior and his parents would be appalled.)
And so this was the trepidatious kick-off to our New Nordic with Kids tour. The biggest “suprise,” though,was that my children made me proud. The chef did whip up sliced sirloin for them, but they were overcome with a sense of adventure during our meal and the four of us tried everything from fried pork dusted with a white vinegar powder, to pork cheek served with a cucumber jelly, to beet salad drizzled with a warm butter emulsion. There is literally nothing they would not try – and most of it was met with “that’s sort of good,” at the very least, if not an outright “Mmmmmm!” The Danes love their fish – I guess being situated practically right on the North Sea has something to do with that – and even this was eaten in various forms and states of doneness, with gusto. They tried the raw pike perch (in a pumpkin sauce, no less!).
With each restaurant visit we became more emboldened as we found that our children, in Copenhagen, were actually treated like human beings – no one looked at us askance when we next went to Aamann’s, or Madklubben. Indeed, at each arrival, the children were presented with sheaths of paper and crayons to engage them in the great Danish tradition of design and self expression while they indulged in the culinary delights.
When I wasn’t chowing down on the beautifully presented and prepared New Nordic cuisine, I found myself jonesing for a Philly cheesesteak – made worse by the fact that I knew I would be utterly unable to find one. (It takes a certain kind of tastebud to hanker for greasy shreds of fried meat covered in neon-orange melted cheese, and the refined Danes don’t have it.)
However, their native Smorrebrod sandwiches are offered in abundance, and what a multi-layered tower of delight the Smorrebrod is. (Primanti Bros. lovers, take note – this is the Danish version.) One had meatball covered in potato salad and topped with cucumber slivers, one had slices of ham covered in ham salad and topped with beet slices. All served with giant tubs of Tuborg beer, of course, for the grown-ups. (Kids grew fond of the many fruit-flavored sodas on offer.)
Talking about all the eating, drinking and children-related activities, I’ve almost left out one of the best things about Copenhagen: the style. The clothes, the boutiques, the citizens – all drop-dead stylish in a very comfortable way – made for excellent people watching and shopping inspiration. The Danes seem to have perfected the creation of textiles and fabrics in nuanced shades of beige and cream – even their reds and blues are rendered neutral with an infusion of dusky, northern-light gray that leaves the original shade a mystery.
Strolling the Stroget or riding their bikes all over town, the Danes were decked out in beautifully cut coats and gorgeous shoes. We supplemented the people watching with a visit to the Danish Design Museum for more evidence of the long history of style in Copenhagen, and were greeted at the front door by a giant red Eames chair.
The Danes call it “hygge,” a sense of warmth and contentedness that they get from moments with friends or family. After spending a few days in this beautiful city, we get it. We can’t wait to go back!