THE ROYAL VIKING
My first job was delivering Newsday, Long Island's tabloid paper, on my bicycle in the afternoons. My second job was tending to fifteen collies and five horses on an estate in Oyster Bay. I was a busboy and dishwasher for my third job at the Royal Viking, the country's largest Scandinavian Smorgasbord restaurant.
They don't have many smorgasbord restaurants anymore. Some people freak nowadays if there is even a communal salad bar in a restaurant. I remember when chain restaurants had to add sneeze guards over the self-service food areas because people became very uncomfortable not knowing who might have used the ladle or tongs a few moments earlier. In the pandemic age, who can blame them?
But in the 1960s, there was much less paranoia about public health. A smorgasbord restaurant could offer something you couldn't get in other restaurants--almost infinite variety and portions of your choosing. For a flat fee, you could select from a wide spectrum of delicacies--from fish to beef to poultry to salads and grains and desserts. But if you just wanted to eat pickled herring piled high...well, that was your call. Sate yourself with pickled herring!
Smorgasbord (there were umlauts over two vowels but Americans didn't want to have to deal with umlauts--that's for damn sure!) restaurants became instantly popular thanks to the New York World's Fair in 1939 (see earlier post). The Swedish Pavilion had sponsored the Three Crowns Restaurant and American fairgoers were blown away by the "All You Can Eat" concept. I'm guessing that Swedes in the prior six or seven centuries had never viewed the array of delicacies as anything other than an opportunity to provide diners with a vast choice of food, naturally to be selected in modest proportions. Americans, on the other hand, clearly saw smorgasbords as an opportunity to stuff themselves for one low price!
The Royal Viking (one of several iterations of the concept at this site) was filled with long tables containing platters, bowls, and chafing dishes. Hot foods were kept delectable using catering warmers. Large containers of shredded ice were employed to chill shrimp or tuna salad. There was an entire row of herring preparations. You could have it pickled or creamed or smoked or straight up. Plates and silverware were regularly cleaned and then reloaded to the sides of each serving table. I often transported stacks of plateware that had just been cleaned and sanitized. My fingers can still feel the pain of those scalding-hot dishes. Coffee, tea, milk, juice, and soft drinks were always available, and there was a cash bar for those who partook.
I fondly remember the organist at the Royal Viking, an attractive blonde who played a few sets of popular tunes each night. She'd play cocktail music on...probably a Hammond or Baldwin organ. You know--"Strangers in the Night" or "The Look of Love" or "The Shadow of Your Smile". I would always ask her to play "My Cherie Amour" by Stevie Wonder.
I mostly remember learning how people enjoying the delicious food in the banquet rooms had no idea how sordid it was in the kitchen! I was often disgusted by some of the behaviors of the help. For example, an employee trying to fit all the shrimp into a large garbage can packed with ice would think nothing of stepping into the can with filthy shoes to squoosh down all the shrimp. Then the shrimp would be brought out to the diners! I also learned quite a few words in Spanish that they never got around to teaching us in high school!
Sadly, the concept of smorgasbord largely failed due to changing culture. Americans just ate more and grew larger. There were always stories of restaurant owners who blew their tops when parties of teenage boys would arrive and devour far more than their admission price could ever hope to cover. Even the size of plates in restaurants today is larger. In the 1960s, typical dinner plate sizes were 7 to 9 inches (the size of current salad plates), but they have grown to an average of 13 inches.
Smorgasbord restaurants just could not survive given the overhead with profit margins so small. Thus, the Royal Viking changed owners and then eventually closed. Today it looks like this:
But it was a wonderful concept for a while, and those who enjoyed the veritable cornucopia of delectable offerings felt themselves honorary Scandinavians for just a few hours. The atmosphere is well captured by the following poem: