A slice of Scandinavia at the Swedish Cultural Center

Throwing back beers in a sleek lounge, surrounded by sharp distinct accents, and gazing out on across an ancient lake to snow-capped mountains, I could almost convince myself I was huddled in a stylish resort somewhere in Scandinavia.

But in reality, I was settling in for dinner and drinks and at the Swedish Cultural Center on a Friday night, right here in Seattle.

As a beer started to soften the “I’m new here” feeling I’d walked in with, I felt a poke on the shoulder.

“This guy wants to pick a fight with you.” I turned around to find Victor Menarola, 95 years young, with a smile that stretched from hearing aid to hearing aid.

And as I mused to myself, “this guy’s not Swedish. He’s an Italian barber from the 60s!” I realized that the Swedish Cultural Center is much more than the insider’s club for Roxette fans that I was expecting.

Located at 1920 Dexter Ave, on the East side of Queen Anne, it’s also library, classroom, theater, observatory, bar and restaurant for anyone, of any age, looking to expand their international horizons.

But for all the culture, what’s celebrated most are the friends, food, and the fantastic view, epitomized by the Swedish Kafé & Happy Hour, held every Friday starting at 5pm.

Chef Malin Jonsson and Bartender Don Gibbons

“Looks like Stockholm,” smiles Chef Malin Jonsson. She admits becoming a chef out of necessity, staying involved for the fun of holiday dinners, crayfish parties, playing with spices, and the ultimate goal of usurping IKEA as the Swedish meatball standard. As for recipes, Chef Malin warmly speaks of old family cookbooks, hjortronsylt (cloudberry jam) and imported spices, and giggles away complaints against her Swedish-Vietnamese fusion forays.

Tonight, dinner options are meat pie or garlic chicken. I choose the latter and walk to the buffet table, where Chef Malin serves dishes personally. On the plate is fresh salad with pine nuts, and bright slices of radish, cucumber, apple; hearty baked chicken breast bathed in buttery garlic sauce, with a side of steaming rice. A rye cracker adds perfect crunch between bites of delight and swigs of house Malbec.

Fellow first-timers Anne and Eric enjoy drinks and tasty sandwiches from the counter. Newly engaged, the membership was a gift for Anne, of Swedish descent. They’re a fun couple, made more lively by a few glasses of akvavit, glad to hear my own story from another land.

Between replacing CO2 tanks and joking around, Don Gibbons, the barkeep, suggests a local, handsomely dark amber, Odin’s Gift. Of Scandinavian recipe, it’s brewed with juniper berries, giving it a frothy, mineral taste. Though Don isn’t a member of the center, he’s happy with the unique job and friends he’s made here.

Personally, I’m almost as much of a newcomer to Seattle as I would be to Stockholm. But now I’m wise to a Seattle secret, with its home-cooked meals, its varied characters, that fantastic view over Lake Union and Capitol Hill. In one happy hour, I’ve engaged a century-old Seattle tradition and lineage, without even leaving the barstool.

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