“Can I help you?”
“Oh, we were hoping to get a drink at the bar, but it looks like it’s full?”
The bar was incredibly inviting — hexagonal tile on the floors, dark wood at the bar and dark leather on the booths. Huge mirrors reflecting the electric light. A necessity in Stockholm in January, when the sun sets at 3:30pm and there are only 6 hours of daylight. It may seem CRAZY to travel to Sweden in January, but my friend Hen found cheap tickets, so we hopped a plane and set off for the Scandinavian north.
And you know, even in the winter, Stockholm is a beautiful city — crisp and clear and bright. It was cold, though. This is how my iPhone announced the weather one morning:
Frigid. The official weather forecast was frigid. Weather like that calls for one thing: frequent pit stops into shops, bars and cafes in order to warm up.
The shops in Stockholm close at 5pm — cocktail hour. The restaurant on the corner seemed the perfect place. We opened the door, ducked our heads past the “keep out the cold” curtains — and saw that the bar was packed. Filled to the brim. The dining room was empty, but this was clearly the type of place where a table was for dining — if you just wanted a drink, get to the bar. It seemed we were out of luck.
“Can I help you?”
The bartender came out to see what we needed. He was a large man (in hindsight, the only truly large man I saw in Sweden) with a hooked nose, two chins and piercing, deep-set eyes. The kind of man you don’t mess around with.
We explained our situation — hoping for a drink, but it looks like you’re full, so thanks anyway — and the bartender looked around his domain. “One moment,” he said.
(Everyone in Stockholm speaks perfect English, of course. It makes you feel ashamed of the American education system.)
We watched the bartender walk across the room and up to a table in the bar area. Three men, talking, laughing, enjoying some beers. We watched the bartender speak to them for a moment. We watched him bring the check — we watched the men hurriedly finish up their beers — and then watched as they got up, put on their coats, and walked past us and out the door, giving us the stink eye. I mean, OF COURSE they were throwing the stink eye. The bartender just kicked them out for us. It was clearly and obviously what had happened.
“Did he just kick them out?” I asked Hen.
Before she could respond, he was back. “This way,” the bartender said.
We followed (what else do you do when a table has been forcefully cleared for you?) and took a seat. The bartender put down drink menus and returned to his station.
I took a trip to the bathroom, and when I returned, Hen had ordered a drink. I asked her what she got.
“Something with bourbon,” she said. “I told him I like bourbon, and he said he knew just the thing and he’d make it.” She told me all this as if she hadn’t had much choice in the matter.
I took a quick glance at the menu — but then he was back, bearing Hen’s drink.
“And you will have?” he asked me.
I looked down at the menu. “Gin gimlet.” The bartender nodded, took the menu, and went back to the bar.
“I don’t know if that’s what I really wanted,” I told Hen. “But it’s the first thing in the menu, and somehow it didn’t seem like I could say, ‘I’m not sure.'”
The bartender brought over the gimlet — pale green, a tiny bit frothy — nodded, and left. I noticed the cloth tucked into his apron — white herringbone with red trim, just like the Swedish cloth my aunt gave me, hanging in my kitchen back home in Seattle.
The gimlet, I will say, was one of the best I’ve had. Clearly this guy knew his stuff, I’d give him that (even if he did kick out patrons on a whim). Hen and I drank, chatted, and decided that here was a good a spot as any to have a bite of food. When the bartender came back over, we said we’d have the special — crayfish with what was described to us as “farmer’s bread.”
“Should we get one or two?” I asked Hen.
We debated for a moment before the bartender put his hand on my shoulder. “Get two,” he said. “It’s very nice.”
We quickly agreed. “What wines do you have?” asked Hen.
“With the seafood, a nice white.”
We nodded. Sounded good. Besides, this man had a way of saying this — you couldn’t say no to him. His was the definitive answer: this, this is good, and you will have it.
The crayfish came, tasting like a cross between crab and shrimp, mixed lightly with dill and lemon and piled high on chewy dark bread and topped by a dollop of orange Swedish caviar. And the wine? Perfect, as promised, with the crayfish.
By the time we finished our meal, we’ve been sitting for quite a while. The entire restaurant was packed now, bar and dining area, and we could see people queuing up at the door. “We’d better get going, empty up the table,” Hen suggested. I agreed.
When the bartender came back, we asked for the check.
“Dessert?” he said.
Oh no, we said, we see there are people waiting, we don’t want to take up the space — we’ll get going.
He shook his head and furrowed his brow and repeated the question. “Dessert?”
I’m not sure what the qualification is to be kicked out of a table, but apparently we didn’t meet it. “Well, alright,” we said.
He told us the special — a dense, flat chocolate cake, paired with a scoop of house-made licorice ice cream — and we told him we’d take one.
“With two spoons,” he added. Not a question.
With our dessert, the bartender brought out two small glasses filled with amber liquid. “On the house,” he said. “Special aged Jamaican rum. Very good with chocolate.”
He was right, of course. Every sip of rum complemented the chocolate perfectly. You couldn’t say no to this man — but why would you want to? No trip is complete without a weird, random adventure — and Stockholm wouldn’t have been complete without the bartender.