Hans Christian who?A new breed of design-consciousDanes put Copenhagen's storybook past aside and get downto the business of dining in style
| Credit: Leifur

Allan Schultz, the ruggedly handsome biker turned restaurateur, folded his tattooed arms and said wistfully, "In Copenhagen we all work so damn hard to create perfect interiors, cook perfect meals, wear perfect clothes. We have no time to enjoy ourselves." I surveyed the scene at his restaurant, Schultz, where a table of pink-tressed Barbies and their techno-cool dates were roaring with laughter over foie gras and expensive Piedmontese wines. I wasn't inclined to pity the Danes. "Them?" Schultz asked, as if reading my mind. "Swedes. They make up most of my clientele nowadays."

Thanks to the new ¯resund bridge linking Sweden and Denmark, stylish Swedes are descending in droves on northern Europe's latest capital of cool. So are Hamburg hipsters and Wallpaper-clutching Londoners determined to strip the city of every last Panton lamp, Wegner chair, and Jacobsen door handle. Instead of embodying quaint Scandinavian charm, Copenhagen resembles a vast design showroom teeming with restaurants where dinner is just as slick as the décor.

Today the décor is likely to be Mid-Century Modern, but it wasn't always so. Take Arne Jacobsen—Denmark's Le Corbusier. According to Kim Flyvbjerg, the 31-year-old editor of the zeitgeist magazine Copenhagen Living, in the past decade Jacobsen enjoyed only polite recognition in his homeland. True, his iconic chairs fetched good prices at auction houses, but trendier Danes preferred to park their derrières on Conran or Starck. It took a Wallpaper-sparked vogue to turn Denmark's youth on to mid-century style. Now, the SAS Royal Hotel, Jacobsen's austerely Modernist jet-age high-rise, has been given the jazziest of makeovers (purists gripe; guests love it).

The latest shrine to the architect is Restaurant Jacobsen, part of his white post-Bauhaus seaside complex in Klampenborg, a short train ride north of town. It was a thrill to lounge by the fireplace in a high-backed chair, holding the actual ergonomic steel water pitcher next to its photo in the Jacobsen tome on the coffee table. It was an even bigger thrill to jump from the Egg to the Ant to the Swan—Jacobsen's organic sculptures posing as seating. Tables were set with the futuristic AJ cutlery—you saw it in 2001: A Space Odyssey—designed for the SAS Royal and promptly retired because it was torture to use.

In the evenings, when the restaurant buzzes with theatergoers from the Jacobsen-designed Bellevue Theater next door, the menu runs to stuff like mushroom cappuccino with fried polenta, and ostrich with duck foie gras. My lunch was less ambitious but still good, featuring succulent Jutland mussels in a herbaceous broth and a huge club sandwich of whole grilled chicken breast under an avalanche of pickles, bacon, and capers. The amazingly flavorful local bird tasted even better once I abandoned the AJ knife—the thing had neither handle nor blade—and dug in with my hands. Ah, Functionalism.

Schultz espouses a different aesthetic. The cool cavelike interior is a Scandinavian evocation of Santorini, with seashells and pickle jars gleaming like jewels on backlit shelves. Chairs are supremely comfortable, tableware is solid, and the lighting flatters those Nordic cheekbones.

In Copenhagen, Allan Schultz is known as a proponent of California cuisine, which he picked up during a stint with Joachim Splichal at Patina. Actually, my meal was closer to a Michelin-starred experience in Catalonia than to anything one might eat in Los Angeles. A coin of foie gras accented with sea salt and translucent petals of caramelized papaya was an impeccable morsel, both rich and restrained. Equally elegant was the silken salt cod carpaccio, its earthy tang mellowed by a flourish of leeks with saffron and a sweet beet vinaigrette. A salsa of pear and green almonds added intrigue to the moist and delicate roast whitefish. But the high point was the complex peppery consommé of tomatoes and mussels accessorized with a wafer holding bright basil sorbet. When I melted the garnish into the hot liquid, the soup sent whiffs of Mediterranean summer across the room. No doubt it reminded the pink-haired mermaids from Malmö of sun-baking topless on the Costa Brava.

Danish architecture, of course, didn't freeze in mid-century. The most talked-about landmark to emerge from Denmark's late-nineties building boom is the extension to the Royal Library. Known as the Black Diamond, it's a sloping cube sheathed in black mirrored granite that reflects the sky and Christian harbor below. The restaurant on its ground floor is called Søren K.—after the Danish philosopher. I went with my friend Jörgen, a gray-haired academic, and as we pushed through the ogling crowds in the library's brazenly postmodern lobby he wondered what the melancholy philosopher would have thought of his blindingly sleek namesake restaurant, a symphony of glass, concrete, and beige leather under a perforated silvery ceiling.

Though Kierkegaard publicly decried excess, Jörgen informed me that he secretly squandered his inheritance on extravagant meals. If that is the case, the father of existentialism would have envied our lunch, particularly the herring. One type, from an island near Bornholm, was marinated in spiced red wine; it melted in the mouth like whipped cream. Another was steeped in beer and offset by a sharp relish of green plum tomatoes. After a main dish of cod with olive polenta, the desserts almost brought tears to our eyes: a miniature rosy baked apple with apple crumble and foam, and a shamelessly bourgeois plum cake with the richest, yellowest vanilla ice cream, which harks back to an age when libraries were populated by scholars and Copenhagen was just a cozy Scandinavian port.

Herring and apples aside, young Danish chefs have largely renounced their roots in favor of suave Franco-Italian fare. Even the canteens in Christiania, Copenhagen's hippie "free city," dish out minestrone de la nonna alongside hash brownies. The only new restaurant that makes a serious nod to Nordic traditions is Passagens Spisehus, in the up-and-coming Vesterbro district. Here edgy bars and retro boutiques mingle with Turkish grocers and strip joints; the moody wood-paneled restaurant was once a cancan club.

Mads Davidsen, the baby-faced owner, is both laconic and effusive at once. He's also an explorer at heart, a man on a mission to revive forgotten Nordic cuisine. That smooth, rich, dill-laced salmon chowder?He unearthed the recipe in Jokkmokk, a Sami stronghold in northern Sweden. The electric-orange roe?That's from a troutlike fish called the sellak, which he dubs "the beluga of the Arctic Circle." Another revelation was capercaillie, a deliciously dark, meaty bird served with Rösti and red-currant jelly. "It's caught only in northern Sweden and hasn't been seen in Denmark for fifteen years," Davidsen offered. My trifle of Norwegian cloudberries and macaroons soaked in Viking mead was followed by an organic goat cheese from the island of Sams¿ and a creamy, sharp Bornholm blue. As I left, Davidsen told me he was planning an expedition to Greenland—to look for gastronomic civilization amid the icebergs.

For something decidedly Danish—a sm¿rrebr¿d, or open-faced sandwich—lunch at Slotskaelderen hos Gitte Kik is de rigueur. Housed in a 1797 building, this beloved parliamentarians' hangout, with its dark wainscoting and walls plastered with old photos, has been in the Kik family for almost a century.

In front of the dozens of sandwiches displayed on the counter, I was stricken by indecision. The smørrebrød had come a long way, I thought, since the days when it was a frugal farm laborer's lunch—no more than a slice of dense rye bread slathered with goose schmaltz. The vigorous blond owner interrupted my reverie. Would I like the herring in traditional egg curry sauce or with a strong tomato marinade on my bread?I pointed to both . . . and to the pickled halibut in a dilled mustard sauce, corned beef with horseradish, liver pâté, and pressed, parsleyed ham. Then to the smoked eel with scrambled eggs. How about a hot dish, the owner taunted—perhaps her wonderful crisp-skinned roast pork?I would have to pass.

By the time I finished my smørrebrød orgy every table was filled, each on its umpteenth sandwich and schnapps. Sipping coffee from my Royal Copenhagen cup, I observed a rosy-cheeked octogenarian in a red velvet beret. She was clearly relishing her cream cake and Cognac—having just knocked back a few aquavits chased by beer, and two glasses of wine. Who says Danes aren't having fun?

Gotta have that silverware and those chairs and lamps?Here's a quick guide to the best in Danish design. Illums Bolighus (10 Amagertorv; 45/3314-1941), an improbably stylish emporium, is your source for Jacobsen's AJ cutlery and more. Nearby, Royal Copenhagen (6 Amagertorv; 45/3313-7181) and Georg Jensen (4 Amagertorv; 45/3311-4080) are meccas for classic porcelain and silverware, respectively, in traditional and trendy designs. Serious about seating?Choose a period chair — Wegner, Jacobsen, Panton — at Dansk Møbelkunst (32 Bredgade; 45/3332-3837) or at Antique Moderne (36A Bredgade; 45/3332-6390) next door. Color rules at Klint & Frydendahl (1 Store Regnegade; 45/3313-6301), stocked with organic-shaped bowls and eye-popping thermoses; while CasaShop (2 Store Regnegade; 45/3332-7041) across the street is monochromatically streamlined. Loved that Deco dinner set and Art Nouveau sideboard at Ellekilde Auction House (25 Bredgade; 45/3391-1121)?You can bid on them by phone.

Amokka 36—40 Dag Hammarskjölds Alle; 45/3525-3535. A designer coffee temple; tasty lunches. Café Glyptoteket 7 Dantes Plads; 45/3341-8128. The city's loveliest cakes, overlooking the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum's orangerie. La Glace 3—5 Skoubogade; 45/3314-4646. A vintage gem famous for wienerbrod, or danish, and the cream-laden "sports cake."

Restaurant Jacobsen 449 Strandvejen, Klampenborg; 45/ 3963-4322; lunch for two $45.

Schultz 15 Store Kongensgade; 45/3316-1213; dinner for two $125.

Søren K. 1 Søren Kierkegaards Plads; 45/3347-4950; lunch for two $60.

Passagens Spisehus 42 Vesterbrogade; 45/3322-4757; dinner for two $85.

Slotskaelderen hos Gitte Kik 4 Fortunstraede; 45/3311-1537; lunch for two $40.