Stockholm is home to some of the finest eateries in Europe at the moment. But once in a while, we just love a great dive. Great food, cheap drinks and … well … interesting people. Here’s what’s cookin’ in world of not-so-fine-dining.
At the risk of revealing once and for all just how uncool we are, one of our favorite song lyrics of all times is that of Gary Portnoy’s Where Everybody Knows Your Name. The song first made it big when it was selected as the theme for the popular American television series Cheers, a sitcom set in the Cheers bar in Boston – an environment that became so familiar and liked by the audience that the show stayed on air for eleven full seasons.
Now, don’t get us wrong. It’s not that the song itself is some sort of brilliant piece of writing. It is neither very hip nor innovative. It’s just that is makes us feel all warm and cosy inside. Hearing it play is just like coming in from the biting cold and being served a piping hot meal of comfort food.
The chorus goes like this: Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.
Times are tough out there, winter is here and perhaps it is getting a little lonely up in your beautifully-furnished, but highly-mortgaged condo. If you can stomach the idea of lowering your standards, you can still have a good time alone or with friends, out on the town for a fraction of the price that you might be used to. In fact, the city is full of little bars and eateries that provide booze, warmth and a fairly hearty meal for almost the price that you would pay if you cooked something up at home.
Our first time coming home while going out would undoubtedly be in our late teens. The weekend nights were often spent hanging with friends from high school, hopping from one dive to the other in the hopes of for once not having to show ID at the door. Baby-faced and naïve, we didn’t often make it past the bouncers. But once in a while the gods were on our side, and we would be allowed into what at the time was a highly desirable destination.
Is it a place for cheap food, cheap beverages and cheap-looking interiors? Or is a spot where you take your mistress, not running the risk of running into anyone you know? And does a dive always have to have a negative connotation?
To us, a good dive is a good thing. Drinks are cheap, food is comforting and interiors are, although worn, in possession of a certain je ne sais quoi that still makes them feel attractive in a charming kind of way. A dive is place that makes us want to keep coming back for more.
Entering Dovas, nowadays a chain restaurant, at St. Eriksgatan on Kungsholmen is like walking straight in to the 1980’s. Allegedly, the place was made over a couple of years ago, but of this none is visible at first sight. The tables are mostly filled with small groups of middle-aged men, all having a pint long before the hour has struck five. We’re met by a seated server who quickly gets up and shows us to a high table at the far end of the restaurant.
A laminated menu is handed to us. Prices are low – where else this far north of Brussels can you have a whole bottle of red wine for 150 kronor? Have a look in the today’s special section of the menu and you will find that you are able to get a whole meal, including a large beer, for the modest price of 99 kronor. It doesn’t take longer than ten minutes for our pork chops with fries and béarnaise sauce (a house special straight out of a bucket, it seems) land in front of us. It’s warm, it’s salty and it’s boozy, and thus filling. We’re intrigued by the staff’s policy on having guests pay before ingesting, but quickly realize that not all our fellow guest can be trusted for having high morals and/or fat wallets.
A short walk from Dovas lies Bar 08. The name obviously derives from the landline area code – perhaps the owner at one time wanted the place to capture the epitome of this fair city? The odour that hits our nostrils upon entering Bar 08 is a mixture of chlorine and detergent. It’s not the most mouth-watering way of enticing guests to order more. Nevertheless, the large plate of nachos and the cheap pint of beer are served swiftly. We lean back on the white faux-leather couches to take in the venue and our fellow patrons from our elevated vantage point in the far corner of this pimped out place. Someone here loves animal skin.
The place looks like a Simon and Thomas-designed cocktail bar gone horribly wrong, with zebra and snakeskin patterns covering the walls. A few large-screen televisions are showing the game between Swansea and Liverpool, and the electronic blackjack machines get a few plays between beer rounds at the bar. After Bar 08, we call it a night.
Södermalm hosts a great number of dives, both as far as the typical patron goes but also when it comes to the sense of style, so we headed to the area for lunch. Gentrification may have taken its toll in this neighbourhood, as the prices of both food and beer seemed slightly on the high side at both Hammarby’s own Gröne Jägaren and at Kellys just around the corner. We hear someone complaining about “the same damn menu every single week” at Gröne Jägaren. At Kelly’s, the daily early bird specials as well as Sunday “two-fer’s” definitely puts it back into the typical barrelhouse category.
Feeling young, or at least young at heart? Head for Carmen. The majority of the guests are in their late teens or early twenties. Not a place for a quiet meal with intimate conversation, but if you are clamoring for cheap beer in generous amounts, perhaps accompanied by a burger at a student discount price, Carmen is definitely the place to go. The same goes for Söderkällaren, just 50 meters away.
Later that evening, we decide to take a stroll down memory lane. Just south of Södermalm, a short walk from the Skärmarbrink subway station, lies the Chinese joint Gou’s Garden. Not a dive in its purest form due to lack of “plank steak” on the menu. However, it is a hidden gem when it comes to great tasting grub. We haven’t been here for over ten years. But back in the day, we would frequent the place at least once a week. Or pick something up to bring home.
“My family has run the place for 20 years now”, says the owner when we ask him about the restaurant. “We mostly have regulars, but also people who used to live in the area who come back because they can’t find better Chinese food anywhere else”.
The interior has seen better days but the huge plate of crispy beef – shredded and deep-fried pieces of beef drenched in sweet and sour sauce, and the only dish we have eyes for at this joint – and beer sure makes up for it. You can even get it with fries if you like. The dining room is small and usually at least half-full. Admittedly there seems to be a lot of take-out ordering going on, but there are plenty of guests willing to eat in too.
The food takes a while to arrive, which might actually be a good sign. Taking the first bite is filled with suspense – will it actually be as good as we remember it from ten years ago? It is. It really is. There, under the fluorescent lamp, we sink down into our well-worn chairs and gorge. We are home free.
Regardless of the time of day or night, dives all over town all seem to run according to the same concept. Unintentionally, they become the living room to a great number of the population. Groups of friends, families and more often than not, a few downtrodden but quiet characters all enjoy hearty plates of no-nonsense food served up without the fuss and servility of a “real” restaurant. It is okay to watch television or read the paper. And if you need anything, you either have to get off your derrière and make it over to the counter yourself, or simply holler. Just like at home.
words // Magnus Wittbjer and Micha van Dinther