It all started some five years ago, when Frantzén/Lindeberg, 19 Glas and Le Rouge all opened up their doors in the same year. These pioneers paved the way for a new direction in culinary practices in Gamla Stan and created a movement that is now realising its full potential. In the past year it feels like a new place has popped up every month, and we have started taking more and more notice of this obvious, yet somehow neglected, part of town as the trend for ambitious dining shifts from Stureplan to Gamla Stan.
This new gastro hub is clustered around the quieter streets of Stora and Lilla Nygatan, with Leijontornet staking its claim to a share of the spoils with a series of clever concept eateries. The consensus seems to be that fine dining should be affordable for everyone, a natural progression in a time when we’ve become so conscious of the quality of the food we consume.
One way of defining Europe’s largest and best-preserved medieval quarter is by its storybook buildings and maze of razor-thin cobblestone streets that attract millions of visitors each year. The tiny island and its settlement dates back to the 13th century and has lived to see some of Stockholm’s most significant historical moments, and it’s hard to imagine that these charming and tranquil alleys became one of the city’s worst slums during the 19th and, early in the, 20th centuries. In fact, the problem became so great that, in the late 19th century, the city council actually devised plans to demolish many of the historical buildings. Fortunately this was loudly protested by high-profile artists such as August Strindberg and Carl Larsson.
A century later and Gamla Stan has developed into a major tourist attraction, and it seems like there’s not much more in this part of town except tacky tourist trinkets and ice-cream shops, while the remnants of an ordinary working city neighbourhood slowly fade. A few months ago the Systembolaget in Gamla Stan closed down, the community health centre is already long gone, and the library is hanging on for dear life. At night, one has been able to glimpse a sight of a more genuine Stockholm in the quieter eastern end of the island, as senior citizens walk their dogs before bedtime and stop for a neighbourly chat with people who have been their neighbours for decades, but the general agreement is that Gamla Stan has been neglected for the sake of souvenirs. Enter Stockholm’s latest restaurant upsurge, which is now becoming the new way of redefining the ever-changing old town.
Dinner & Drinks
Lilla Nygatan 21
White and elegant, Frantzén has become a major success since opening up five years ago. Rated 12th best restaurant in the world and one of just four Scandinavian restaurants boasting two Michelin stars, its Scandi-Asian kitchen has a strong pull, and the fact that it’s tiny only serves to make that waiting list longer.
“It was basically an economic decision to open up here, as there was already a restaurant here that we got for a good price,” says manager Niklas Löfgren. “Unfortunately there’s not much else going on here besides all the restaurants. We’d like to see some more galleries, as well as better cafés. The problem is that these buildings are very old and it’s a bit of a risk to move in. Nevertheless, Gamla Stan is now becoming a trend and we hope to see it grow further.”
The Flying Elk
Named after a Jämtland folk tale, The Flying Elk is a recent addition to the pub grub line-up along Lilla & Stora Nygatan. “The concept came about when Björn (Frantzén, owner) fell in love with the pub food in London and this is his version of the gastropub, inspired by French and Swedish cooking,” says manager Johan Agrell.
The Elk is an offspring of Frantzén, which after a prosperous first five years is now spreading out and making its mark on the surrounding area with places like the cocktail-friendly Corner Club and the wine-connoisseur lounge Gaston. “It’s a bit of a coincidence that we’re all starting quality restaurants here at the same time. The restaurant trend is now towards the rural, and Gamla Stan has old traditions so it’s quite fitting. Stockholm has now become a major city when it comes to quality restaurants so you need other areas to spread it out.”
“There’s a big possibility for boutique culture here, people are searching for unique things nowadays and moving away from global thinking. Gamla Stan has a good vibe for that and great potential for new business owners.”
Stora Nygatan 19
It’s a sunny Monday afternoon and 19 Glas is already half-full of wine-sipping Stockholmers. Their seats are in the shape of giant cork stoppers, representing what the restaurant is perhaps best known for – its stellar wine selection.
“We wanted to do something good in this spot, which was just getting worse and worse,” says owner Peter Bennyson. “Others followed our example. We all believe that this movement is good for us; now we’re interesting to Stockholmers.”
“The economy is not that bad in terms of private consumption and people are spending a lot on eating out these days. Retail is not doing as well; people are spending less on products and more on good service. If the dining experience is good, it beats buying another new shirt.”
Stora Nygatan 20/Lilla Nygatan 5
With a prestigious Michelin star, Leijontornet used to be an exclusive Gamla Stan staple, but it now lays dormant most of the year. But when it is roused from its slumber – a mere 12 times a year at the moment – it is for a spectacular meal made for just eight people at a time. I’ve been told that the waiting list currently counts 8,432 people but despair not, because the Leijontornet empire has taken over the block and now includes five other bars and restaurants, bringing fine dining back to the people.
There’s the meat-indulging Djuret, which has a theme of a new animal every month and a wine cellar of close to 20,000 bottles to back up the menu. There’s the summer barbecue Svinet, which involves a pig on a charcoal grill in a 17th century courtyard. Then there’s Tweed, the dim and dapper union of the sea merchant and the gentleman hunter, with the bittersweet sounds of jazz divas lending a female touch. And there’s Pubologi, the micro-gastropub with one large community table, one set five-course menu, stellar interior design, and a Michelin mention. The newest addition will be Burgundy, a wine bar set to open in the fall.
“Reclaim Gamla Stan is a common term around here these days,” says manager Daniel Crespi. “We will keep on creating quality eateries and bars, and I think Gamla Stan will keep on growing and be filled with the best restaurants and bars that Stockholm can offer. At least I hope so.”
Pharmarium has taken a different approach from the rest of the newbies, opting for the very centre of Gamla Stan as opposed to the outskirts. In the old locale of the first public pharmacy in Sweden (opened in the 16th century by the king’s private pharmacist), the concept is clear and the details remarkable. Copper and green Egyptian marble, small pharmacist drawers with Latin labels, ingredients ranging from absinth to angelica root, measuring tools and herbs in medicine bottles are just a few of the touches in the small room.
“Gamla Stan was a very happening spot in the 16th century, and because of its proximity to the harbour, Stortorget used to have a big market where everyone got their provisions. That’s also where pharmacists got all their weird and exotic ingredients and we have built on this history when creating the look of the bar,” says expert mixer Joel Constantino.
“Swedes tend to stay away from Gamla Stan, so there was a gap in the marked for some real quality restaurants and bars. I can only see that there will be much more of those quality places opening up. It’s a beautiful part of town with lots of history, so why should we stay away from it? We should be showcasing the area more, and showing what we’re capable of.”
A genuine small corner bistro, with tables spilling into the street and an ever-changing menu to suit the season, Pastis is one of the veterans of the new generation of restaurants in Gamla Stan, having been on the scene for four years. “The thing about the area is that it’s a bit of a challenge running a place that’s open late, because there’s a lot of older people living in Gamla Stan and you get angry neighbours complaining about noise,” says owner Johan Wikner.
“For now, the future looks bright in many ways and more and more Stockholmers are coming to this part of town now to dine. It will be exciting to see if we can continue with this momentum.”
Le Rouge will dazzle your senses with its Moulin Rouge-meets-Twin Peak’s One-Eyed Jack’s setting. The restaurant is a cosy cave of heavy textiles, 50 shades of red, and plenty of period detail. The upstairs bar is a bit more casual (think jukebox in the corner) but no less stylish.
Le Rouge was another trailblazer in Gamla Stan’s restaurant revolution, but in its five-year existence it has gone from being a luxury restaurant to a more budget-friendly brasserie to keep in line with the “fine dining for the masses” vibe that’s taken over the quarter.
“The trend as we see it is that both locals and tourists have become much more aware and interested in food, so for us it was only a question of time before Gamla Stan would become a gastronomic hot spot,” says coordinator Mikaela Ejheden. “The next step for this area is to offer quality food in every price range and for every occasion. Hopefully there will be a general quality improvement now when the competition between restaurants increases. Gamla Stan has all the qualifications, with its location and history, to become the number one restaurant and bar area in Stockholm.”
Shops & Services
Stora Nygatan 7
Plugged Records has existed as a distributor since the 1990s, but it was only earlier this summer that Teijo Agelii and his wife Lena opened up their first shop, conveniently located next to classic jazz and blues venue Stampen. The store offers a wide selection of jazz, blues and rock and an in-house café to accommodate the lingerers. It even has an upright piano in the corner if you’re feeling extra musical.
“This street has been a bit forgotten, but for the last couple of years it’s becoming more popular with trendy and quality restaurants opening up,” says Teijo. “This street will become more important than any other street in Gamla Stan in the future. We’ve been discussing with other business owners around here and making plans for promoting our businesses, and we’re putting a lot of energy and money into making this area better. People will start recognizing that we’re serious about making this neighbourhood special. Gamla Stan will make a comeback, I’m sure of it.”
Gamla Stans Cykel
Stora Nygatan 44
Gamla Stans Cykel is one of the oldest shops in Sweden and one of the store’s many charms is its original 1930s interior, which gives the room a museum-like quality. But after 96 years in the same location, Martin Fredberg and his father Lars-Åke are getting ready to move their shop to a bigger space down the road.
“The building has been sold and is getting remade into apartments,” says Martin. “We chose to stay on the same street as the atmosphere here is great for business and our customers come from all over Stockholm so it’s good to be right in the middle. The new location has a great flow of people as it’s closer to Kornhamnstorg.”
“We’ve certainly noticed that it’s not only tourists anymore that come to Gamla Stan. It’s great that we’re attracting people from Stockholm and that the area is becoming livelier. Stora Nygatan is a pedestrian street now so I can only see more shops opening up. And like I said, they’re already building more apartments here so instead of having mostly offices we’ll have more residents, and that will be better for the whole island.”
Science Fiction Bokhandeln
For almost 20 years Science Fiction Bokhandeln has been a Mecca for sci-fi fans on Gamla Stan’s busiest street, and in recent years shops have popped up in Malmö and Göteborg in addition to the flagship Stockholm store. The massive premises is home to everything when it comes to sci-fi, fantasy, comics, board games, role-playing games, cult films, you name it.
“We first opened up at Stora Nygatan and the space was chosen for its good price and central location,” says salesman David Borgström. “Now it’s much more expensive to rent in Gamla Stan, but we have no intention of moving as we’ve built up our reputation here and our customers always know where to find us.”
“Although I don’t spend a lot of my free time in Gamla Stan since I work here, I have noticed a big change in the past years. There’s a lot more Stockholmers around in the evenings than there were when I started working here years ago.”
Artist, has lived in Gamla Stan for 30 years
“I had always liked Gamla Stan and when I happened to find a free loft I was happy to move here. Now I wouldn’t think of living anywhere else. Living here is like living in a small town but in a middle of a big city. It’s an easy-going and casual area and stays calm in the evenings. A lot of people know each other here and we have a great community where we help each other out with things like dog-sitting or baby-sitting. In the summer it gets really crowded and you have to learn how to take other routes to skip the big crowds. Another disadvantage is that apartments can be small and a bit dark because the alleys are so narrow. But the pros outweigh the cons every time. I’m really lucky to have a huge garden with a greenhouse, we have decent food stores, and we still have a post office and a bank, and of course the best restaurants. For everything else it’s not far to go either north or south in the city.
What has happened over the years is that the tourist parts have become even more touristy and stores are going down in quality. I’ve had an idea for many years to make Västerlånggatan a Swedish design street. The tourists that come here shouldn’t have to get Chinese-made souvenirs when they visit. It’s been great to see the revival in the restaurant scene however. You only need three or four really good places to get the Stockholmers back to Gamla Stan and that’s what’s happening now – slowly the Old Town is getting back on the map. At least I hope so.”
Birgitta Sandström Lagercrantz
Environmental consultant, has lived in Gamla Stan for 32 years
“I decided to move here when my children were going to start school as it was the smallest traffic-free area in the city. When I moved here it was much more of a mixed area, with a high number of smaller flats and rental apartments. Back then it was more influenced by the people living here; now it’s more designed for the visitor, not the inhabitant. For example, there used to be more grocery stores and things like that, but now the things being sold are mostly for people who either visit or work here and there’s not so much diversity anymore.
What can change and what has changed is that sometimes you get a trend for the urban public and then you start seeing more Swedish design and not just Viking helmets. But a lot of the houses are privately owned and as soon as there’s a new shop, they raise the rent and then shops can’t afford to stay. Before, there was more of a connection between owners and inhabitants and everyone benefitted. Österlånggatan still thinks more long term, but Västerlånggatan is just like the Wild West.”
Works at the public relations firm Priest PR, has lived in Gamla Stan for eight years
“It’s hard to find great apartments in Stockholm and I had lived all over town when I finally found a small apartment here that I liked. I’m never going to move from here; it’s the best area to live in. The old buildings create a special atmosphere, and as the city is created around this area it really is the heart of Stockholm. I come from a small town and living here feels like living in a small town. You know the baker and the people in the grocery store. You get all the benefits of a small town while living in a big town.
Gamla Stan is not just a rich area; there are all sorts of people here. In Söder and Östermalm you know exactly how people are dressed but here it’s a great mix. The only big change I’ve noticed over the years are all the new restaurants. Before it was more tourist traps, which were expensive and not very good at all. I’d say Le Rouge was the first that took the eating experience to another level. Now there’s a different kind of nightlife, livelier in a nice way. I think it will stay this way, or at least I want it to. It’s a win-win situation: good restaurants benefit from the great atmosphere we have now, and Gamla Stan benefits from having all these quality restaurants.”
Photos by Richard Ström