This Danish Bartender Will Serve Your Shot with a Side of Bulletholes
"One of the bullets from executing the snitch is still lodged in the wall behind the bar. No one can convince me that a place like this isn’t as important as many a castle we’ve preserved.”
Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
Bodegas, brown bars, værtshuse. Call them what you want, but you know when you're in a classic Danish drinking den. From the dodgy décor (creaking furniture, nicotine-stained walls) to dodgier denizens (bleary-eyed barflies, hipsters in plaid), Denmark's historic hostelries are equal parts dive bar and English pub—places where you can hide from the world and while away for an hour or two. Bodegas, says David Jacobsen Turner, the author of While the World Waits, a 2010 book about traditional Danish bars, are unique places "where you can see the young student, the elderly journalist, and the working man and the tourist having a good time together."
Take Rosengårdens Bodega, in central Copenhagen—a bar with a notorious past. A Nazi snitch was shot dead there in 1944. One of the bullets is still lodged in the wall behind the bar. "Our history is in the walls here, quite literally," says Jacobsen Turner. "No one can convince me that a place like this isn't as important to Danish history as many a castle we've preserved."
To find out more about Rosengårdens Bodega's unique history, we had a pint with its owner, Lars Matell-Hyllested.
MUNCHIES: It's very dark in here, Lars. Lars Matell-Hyllested: The bar is over 140 years old and most of the walls haven't been touched since the mid-1930s. Smoking was permitted here for many, many years, so the walls and ceiling are now completely dark brown and hard to see. But a couple of years ago we prohibited smoking—for various reasons, not least because the bar is too big. If your bar is smaller than 40 square meters, you can permit smoking. It means everyone is strangled in smoke. The law was made in a small bar in Copenhagen by politicians who were smoking there at the time and asked the barmen how big the bar was. He replied 40 square meters, so they said: "OK, 40 square meters is enough and anything above that you aren't allowed to smoke in."
It's easy to romanticize smoking bars, but the reality if you work here is… Horrible, I can tell you. I didn't smoke for ten years and when we banned smoking here, I started smoking two days later because I'd been passive smoking for so long. And the morning after the last day when we were open for smoking, we poured all the ashtrays onto a newspaper and counted 1,572 butts from just one evening. And I don't want to think about how many were thrown outside.
Now, this bar has an infamous history, doesn't it? It does. On April 20, 1944 during the second world war, the worst snitch in Copenhagen was executed here, and you can still see a bullet-hole behind the bar. The man who was shot was called Rudolf Christiansen, and his nickname was the Horse Thief (Hestetyven). He'd been down in Hungary stealing horses. He was a really bad guy and had a lot of people's lives on his conscience and was responsible for many people who ended up in concentration camps. He was—excuse my language—an asshole. The Danish resistance group BOPA (Borgerlige Partisaner) had followed him that day. But you cannot hide in Copenhagen because it is not that big of a city.
Not even in a brown bar? Not even in a brown bar. They followed him to H.C. Ørsteds park, but he was sitting with a young girl—because he was also a kind of libertine—and they couldn't bring themselves to shoot because she'd have been splattered with his blood and brains.
They were gentlemen assassins. Exactly. But they knew which bars he went to and when he came in here and they realized he wasn't aware he'd been followed, they came in and shot him with a revolver, which isn't the easiest thing to shoot with. The police said he was shot eight or nine times, but only one bullet hit him. He didn't die immediately, and legend has it the paramedics weren't in much of a hurry to get him into the ambulance.
It's an astonishing story. How many people know about it when they come in? There isn't a day that goes by when someone doesn't come in here who knows about it. Every day. Some days ten, 15 people.
It must be good for business. It is. We don't promote it, nor do we make a secret out of it, because that's impossible and I'd probably get shot myself if I painted over the bullet-hole. Of course, we're not a museum; we're a bar. So we have a principle. On the shelf above the bullet-hole we have our shots, and if you buy a shot, we'll show you the bullet hole. If you don't buy anything, goodbye. A lot of people want to go behind the bar and put their finger in the hole but that's prohibited.
What shots do most people plump for? Fernet-Branca, as it's the most well known. But some go for Arnbitter, a good strong Danish bitter. But they can have a soft drink if they want. Buying a shot is just a quick and easy way to do it. Get a shot, see the shot.You're sitting in what you might call the death chair, right?
No, you are. We do that to all journalists. Thanks. Our profession is dying so fast, I'm sure we need your help! Now, you've run restaurants and cafes before, but this is your first bar. Is it difficult? One thing which can be hard to deal with are barflies. You know the type. They come in and tell the same fucking story night after night. That can be a bit tough. They come after work and if they find out you're not that busy, they kind of get you in the corner where you can't escape. They're basically lonely people. On the one hand, you feel sad for them. But, on the other hand, you're not their psychiatrist. But, of course, all barmen are psychiatrists, in a way. You have to be. You meet so many people and have to be able to cope with them. Most people are nice. But some have a second personality that comes out after a few of beers.
Do they tell you their problems? Yeah. Or they get aggressive. But they only do that once, because they're not allowed back. We don't tolerate that. Simple as that. If a barfly becomes too much of a pain the ass, we ask them to find a psychiatrist or go somewhere else. We're not here to listen to the same story day after day, night after night.
How do you deal with people? Have you ever got physical? I never have in three and a half years, though one of my barmen has. I just give off the impression—"don't fuck with me." And it is better to shout people out than to punch them.
Do you get colorful characters drinking here? We have some, but what has happened to Copenhagen has happened to every major city in Europe. The colourful characters cannot afford to live here anymore. It is boring rich people, I'm sorry to say, who move in and don't contribute anything here. They sold their big houses outside Copenhagen and now they want to come into the city and live a fancy life in their late 50s and 60s. And just because they move to central Copenhagen they don't become any less boring. There "fancy" life is still something that happens Friday and Saturday in the comfortable surroundings of their own home.
There was a guy who lived here in this very building who died last year in his early 70s. I remember one Monday afternoon he came down with a big tuba and played it in the streets and in here, though he couldn't play. He said, "Look, I found this tuba, I want to learn the tuba." He lived his whole life in central Copenhagen. If it continues like this, then in five years it's going to be like a shopping center. You know, come 8 PM, someone gets on the loudspeaker, "Copenhagen is closing now, please leave the city."
What's the weirdest thing that has ever happened here? There was a terrorist attack in Copenhagen last year at the synagogue in Krystalgade, which backs onto us. I had a fully packed bar and we were locked in by the police. They came in with machine guns. It was a terrible night because half were young people who didn't really understand and the other half were quite drunk, so it was quite bizarre. I had to knock one guy down and punch him because he was out of control with panic. The police didn't say what was happening. They told us to get out back, away from the windows. It was horrible. I wasn't working, but I was here by coincidence with my wife and a couple of friends. I'd had a couple of drinks but sobered up very quickly. We got on our phones and saw what had happened. We weren't allowed out for three of four hours. One guy tried to get out through the window and cut his arm. There was blood all over the place. And when I went outside to get help, I was thrown to the floor and machine guns were held to my head. It was a bizarre night. I let people take whatever they wanted from the fridge. It cost me a fortune.
Why do you do this? I have a big passion for old bars and Danish hot dogs. I like old bodegas, because they're where everyone meets. We're all kind of equal when we go into the bodega or to the hot dog stand. Have a nice chat. It's cozy. And I like that because you don't get that with all the new cafes. When you go into a bodega, it's actually legal to chat someone up. It's human. I like the humanity in these places.
Thanks for speaking to me.