When I go on vacation, I’m as much of a food tourist as I am a sightseer. So before a recent trip to Scandinavia, I scoured everything I could get my hands on for traditional Swedish, Norwegian and Danish dishes, and mapped out bakeries and restaurants where I could find them.
The list served us well in Stockholm, where my kids ate their weight in köttbullar, the meatballs that we refer to as Swedish meatballs but they know as gravy-slicked globes with mashed potatoes and lingonberry preserves, cousin to our whole-berry cranberry sauce. We tracked down hasselbackspotatis (scored baked potatoes), plätter (crepe-like pancakes slathered with strawberry jam), and even semlor, which I felt especially lucky to find, given that the cream-filled buns are made only at Lent.
But our luck ran out in Norway. With Lent coming to a close, the town we were in – not a village, mind you, but Bergen, the second-largest city in the country – unexpectedly shut down for Easter in the middle of the week. Everything was closed: not just all the bakeries and restaurants I’d wanted to try, but the hundreds of others I’d never heard of, including the misnamed Chinese joint that served only sushi, hotel restaurants and even grocery stores.
I say everything was closed, but I exaggerate. A few spots were open, and they were packed with locals: Peppes Pizza, McDonald’s and TGI Fridays, serving burgers we hadn't flown half-way around the world to eat, especially not for $25. (Even with an unusually strong dollar, Norway is still outrageously expensive.)
And that’s how we ended up eating four straight meals at convenience stores. First it was yogurt and bottled coffee picked up for the morrow’s breakfast. Then, when that morrow turned out to be cold and windy and we were freezing on a train platform on our journey to the fjords, it meant hot coffee and chocolate-studded sweet buns from a local chain. Lunch consisted of hot dogs, yogurt and shrink-wrapped chicken-salad sandwiches at the ferry terminal, which doubled as the souvenir shop and lobby for a Viking-themed motel. I’m not sure what was worse, the beds shaped like ships I could see through the floor-to-ceiling windows (the better to see the fjord, I suppose), or what counted as my daughter’s dinner a few hours later: a taco baguette from a store stocked mostly with oddly-shaped gummies and cold drinks.
This restaurant was actually open.
The next day, after taking in a castle, a steep hike to see the harbor from up high, and a museum devoted to the multi-hued warehouses that were once the epicenter of the fishing trade and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we were minutes away from a mutiny when we spotted a local joint that was actually open. Delighted to eat something that didn’t come wrapped in plastic, we feasted on the dishes I’d been hoping to try: lapskaus, a soul-warming beef stew with big hunks of root vegetables; a fat wedge of crumb-topped fish-macaroni pie (the server’s favorite); and even ekte geitost, a dense brown cheese made of caramelized goat’s milk whey.
That meal will definitely go down as one of the most memorable of the trip – though in my kids’ eyes, fish pie had nothing to do with it. What they’ll remember is how my husband got too close to a candle and caught the menu on fire. That, and the fact that for once in Norway, we weren’t in a 7-Eleven.
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Inside a rare open restaurant.