Where the Pack Goes to Be Polite (The New York Times 8/92)

The music’s loud, and so’s the chat: a place to see, to be seen and to be well-behaved.

Despite such treats as lojromsgravad stromming med vaasterbottensost and pyttipanna med stekt agg och odbetor, even the management concedes that the food is only an incidental attraction at the Café Opera, Stockholm’s most infamous café-bistro-nightclub.

“We’re quite proud of our cuisine,” said Frederik Lidbergh, an assistant manager. “But I’m not sure how many of our guests really notice it.” Many simply come to admire the palatial room of the restaurant — one of four in the turn-of-the-century Opera House here — with its soaring, angel-embossed ceiling; the seemingly endless mahogany bar, and the giant glass-enclosed outer pavilion, whose goblet-like windows offer a glimpse of the Royal Palace shimmering in the late-setting late-summer sun.

But clearly, the main draw is the clientele, which includes all manner of stars, both the foreign and domestic variety. If a big performer is in town, chances are good that he or she will be spotted slipping into the Café Opera after the concert. Bono, of U2, held court at the café for several nights running when his band was in town. In June, Bruce Springsteen hung out after kicking of his European tour here.

Those more conversant with the local music scene will also have noted the pop divas Lisa Nilsson and Eva Dahlgran in the swirling crowd that packs the café after dark. And the café isn’t popular only with musicians. Ian Wachtmeister, the colorful populist whose upstart New Democracy Party currently holds the balance of power in the Swedish Parliament, has been known to frequent the place, as have other politicians.

Cameras are strictly forbidden. There is no gawking; there are no autograph-seekers. Everything is very cool. Very Swedish.

“The privacy of our guests is very important,” Mr. Lidbergh said.

But occasionally those same shy guests, perhaps taken with the elegance of the place, have been known to break into song. The otherwise severe Mr. Lidbergh turned nostalgic when he recalled the night in 1985 when the English rock band Dire Straits played an unannounced concert in the outer pavilion.

Most Stockholmers and visitors in the know would readily agree that the Café Opera serves excellent food. Indeed, its kitchen — which offers three different menus, for each of its distinctive phases — is presided over by Werner Vogeli, the same gastronomic guru who prepares the good for the state dinners that the Swedish royal family often holds at the Operakallaren, just down the hall.

But a vital ingredient in the café’s success is the unfailingly, but not overly, polite staff. “When we do hire, we tend to look for younger people without too much training, sometimes even none, if we think they have the proper attitude,” Mr. Lidbergh said. A business management graduate of Stockholm University, he worked his way up after starting as a busboy in 1980, when the café was founded, and has seen its rapid evolution from mere café into institution.

Almost on cue, a young, fresh-faced, properly smiling waiter in de rigeur black vest and long white apron promptly glided out of the kitchen bearing three plates of Opera Salad (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, mushrooms and avocado), the most popular dish here, when people are noticing.

The café has annual revenues of more than 50 million kronor, or about $10 million, Mr. Lidbergh said, making it the most successful restaurant in Sweden, if not all of Scandinavia. Its success, in turn, has inspired several other clubs to open up around the stately Nordic capital. “But there is only one Opera,” Mr. Lidbergh cautioned on a summer’s eve as the usual line began to form at the head station.

Another important ingredient in the café’s success, of course, is well-behaved, buttoned-down Swedish society itself. It is difficult to imagine a city outside Scandinavia where the management of a big restaurant would feel safe leaving tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of glass and silverware lying around while hundreds of young people snaked through the aisles, as they do after midnight, when the safe converts into a nightclub-casino.

Heidi Westring, the 29-year-old doorkeeper, who also works as a waitress at the café, was having her diplomatic skills tested as one petitioner after another tried out lines on her. “But I have a friend inside.” “I left something valuable.”

To all entreaties Ms. Westring, who is also a riding instructor, smiled indulgently and said little or nothing, occasionally allowing a Café Opera card member to flash by; the 1,500 to 2,000 card-members are allowed past the outer line at night, whereupon they have to line up again if they want a table. (The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, instead leaving allocation of tables to the staff, the democratic way.)

“I come here once or twice a week, usually on the weekends,” said Stephen Keier, a banker in his 30′s. “I like to see who’s here, you know? And — how do you say? — to scope out the women.

“I mean for Sweden this is it, man, this is the scene,” Mr. Keier continued, struggling to make himself heard over the cacophony of house music and frenzied conversation. “If Fitzgerald were alive and in Stockholmm,” he said, his hand sweeping over the sea of blond, satin, and denim in the main pavilion, “I think he would come to the Opera, don’t you think?”

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