The Fascinating History of Smørrebrød, the Danish Open-Faced Sandwich

One of the first things you’ll notice about any Scandinavian country you visit: they’re big on great local food. Danish food, in particular, is among the best in the Scandinavian region. Copenhagen has quickly become a culinary world capital, and one of its top draws is known as smørrebrød: “bread and butter”, or the open-faced sandwich.

You wouldn’t think the history of something as simple as a sandwich could be interesting, but the delicacy is on the rise in many cities today (even in the U.S.A. and Britain, where the unique presentation of the dish has customers wondering if someone ate half their meal)—and the story of how it got there is rooted in a few interesting crevices.

What is Smørrebrød?

Smørrebrød is now sold everywhere—from some of the best restaurants in Denmark to its street vendors. The basic idea behind the open-faced sandwich? A mixture of delicious ingredients piled high atop a single thick slice of bread (typically rye, chosen for its density), which is buttered to keep the juices of the toppings from sinking through the bread.

A Brief History of Smørrebrød

According to several sources, smørrebrød was first developed by farmers. They would pack numerous leftovers from dinner the night beforehand and place them on a ‘plate’: a slice of bread. These ‘plates’ would allow them to eat the equivalent of several meals in one sitting, important for a laboring farmer trying to keep their energy high.

The ‘plate’ would then be discarded afterwards. Over time, due to the discovery of the flavorful juices soaking into the bread, the plate began to be eaten as well (yum!).

Smørrebrød in Copenhagen

Generations passed, and the delectable sandwich slowly made its way into the heart of Danish gastronomes everywhere. Though it’s questionable who first offered the staple food to the masses, it’s clear that the tradition goes back over 100 years and has been popular ever since.

Restaurant Oskar Davidsen (1888)

At the latter half of the 19th century a now-famous wine shop owner opened a wine bar within his shop, and when his customers became hungry, his wife made a familiar dish—smørrebrød.

Oskar and Petra Davidsen created a list of open-faced sandwiches more than 170 variations long (and counting!) around 1901, and passed the tradition on through the family to their great granddaughter, Ida, who has spent her life traveling the world and made the Danish delicacy both a Hollywood and household name.

Restaurant Nimb (1909)

Constructing open-faced sandwiches in the 1870s—long before they opened Nimb—for one of their other popular restaurants, DIVAN 2, Louise Nimb and her husband William may have been the first to popularize what has been called the ‘Danish national dish’ to the public at large. DIVAN 2 was located on Tivoli Lake within Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens—the famous ‘pleasure garden’ and 2nd-oldest amusement park in the world.

Nimb became the first restaurant to offer a printed menu exclusively constructed of smørrebrød in 1909, after Louise and William made it part and parcel of Tivoli Gardens. Originally part of the Tivoli Lake installation—which included a ‘bazaar’ of arts and crafts and became known as ‘Nimb Terrasse’—by Knud Arne-Petersen (head architect/director at Tivoli), today it combines an Arabian castle feel similar to the Taj Mahal with Norwegian influences.

Aaman’s Deli & Takeaway (2006)

Although it has grown in popularity over the past century, smørrebrød needed a little push amongst the current generation to secure its hold on future growth. To keep the treasured national dish alive and encourage further innovation—which, as most of us know well, Scandinavians are famous for—Adam Aaman took a look into the past and created a new kind of establishment for traditional dishes.

Aaman’s is one of a series of culinary eateries owned by Adam that take very old Danish dishes and transplant them into the local culinary scene.

Exploring Denmark’s food scene for the culture

Amazing food is always on the menu within the Danish restaurant scene, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit Copenhagen, Denmark. Among them is a greater understanding of the way Danish culture works, an introduction to some of the most interactive historical sights Scandinavia (and Europe) has to offer—for instance, the above-mentioned Tivoli Gardens and castles galore—and the chance to use it as a jumping point for a more thorough exploration of the countries that surround it.

So when you plan a custom trip with us that includes Copenhagen, make sure you experience the local culture with a food expert on one of our food tours. Walk through the city with a guide, taking in sights and stories about Copenhagen’s fascinating history together with samples of some of the world’s finest cuisine—including smørrebrød!