Copenhagen: The bodega scene

"Have you noticed no one's drinking pints?" my companion, Chris, exclaims. I whirl around, scanning the low, cloudy room from my bar position. It's true — every last lager-swigger here has plumped for a bottle.

By Richard Mellor
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:18 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 14:18 BST

This despite — I spin back round to double-check; yes, correct — the presence of three large taps. What the what? "How come?" I ask. "Dunno," replies Chris. "It's a mystery."

Welcome to the musty, murky world of Copenhagen's bodegas. Numerous across the Danish capital, these are traditional pubs with low ceilings and lower lighting. They're dens that still permit cigarette smoking, whose patrons guffaw if you ask for a cocktail.

A decade ago bodegas were solely frequented by elder Danes. But lately they're in vogue: particularly popular among students and alternative types, while the odd politician and celebrity has lately followed trendy suit (especially at Toga Vinstue, in the centre). Common elements are plain wooden walls, the odd decorative quirk, a vast range of mysterious spirits and vintage jukeboxes bursting with musical treasure.

Together with Chris — a British friend who decamped to Copenhagen last year — and his chum Frederik, whose ruinous tendencies have resulted in encyclopaedic pub knowledge — I'm embarking on a citywide bodega crawl. The pattern is simple: a bottle of Tuborg and a shot of bitter in each place, then an increasingly wobbly cycle to the next.

We begin in Østerbro, apparently near the Prime Minister's house. This still being a residential area, Borges hasn't changed much in years, and is typical of how most bodegas here used to look. As we enter, all the occupants — half a dozen old-timers with more cigarettes than teeth — stare at us in amazement. We sit in a corner booth and natter quietly while football plays on a small telly. Beers done, we chuck back a Jägermeister-like potion and leave to unexpected gummy smiles.

A few hours and many Tuborgs later, we're slouched in Tagensborg Bodega, within the livelier Nørrebro district. Half the clientele are young'uns, with as many tight jeans as baggy slacks emerging from the tobacco fog. Frederik, still terrifyingly sober, explains why bodegas float his personal bar boat.

"They're a good place to sit and talk. They're traditional, which is nice. And they're cheap!" He's right: a bottle of Tuborg in Tagensborg costs roughly £2: while that would be pretty good in the UK, in Denmark it's practically a miracle. You'll normally pay nearer £8.

Chris adds his two-krone worth: "They also provide hygge [an enigmatic Danish term, meaning a feeling of cosiness and contentment] and are full of characters. I've met everyone from gambling-addicted Faroese fishermen to hippies who only drink on a full moon."

We finish the night in Karusellen, the smokiest and pokiest bodega thus far. Frederik gleefully purchases glasses of Dr. Nielsen, a particularly violent schnapps, and yet more Tuborg. Someone has the jukebox playing a soul ballad. Cigarettes are lit all around. I lean back, listening to the din. It all feels gloriously unrefined.


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