I went to dine at one of my favorite places in New York City, the Danish Athletic Club in Bay Ridge, just before Christmas. I had heard it might close at the end of the year. But the lovably ornery woman who runs the restaurant, Reidun Thompson, assured me she was keeping it going, at least a couple years, and all the reports had been wrong. Here's my Eater report:
Who Goes There? Danish Athletic Club
People speaking Danish in a New York restaurant isn't such a rare thing. The city get tourists of all types, and they patronize our dining establishments plenty. But Danes sitting next to Danish-Americans is perhaps something you'll only see at the Danish Athletic Club in Bay Ridge.
Never heard of it? You're not alone. The club is a well-hidden remnant of Bay Ridge's powerful past as a Scandinavian stronghold. Next door to the DAC is the Swedish Football Club, and a few blocks away is the Norwegian Sporting Gjøa Club. Membership in each is small and dwindling. But the Danes' outfit has an advantage. It is the only one of the three that still has a working restaurant on the premises. Those who venture inside the low-slung, nondescript building on 65th Street will find some of the best (only?) Scandinavian comfort food in New York. Fish pudding, meat cakes (called Kjottkaker), pot roast, sweet and sour cabbage, perfectly boiled potatoes, cream of cauliflower soup, rice pudding. And lingonberries with everything. A bountiful, and very filling, meal can be had for under $20. In fact, it's impossible to spend more than $20, unless you order two dinners.
The dining room is either cozy or shabby, depending on your point of view. If you've ever eaten in a church basement, or a Midwestern supper club, you'll get the idea. A collection of square and round tables covered with red tablecloths; wood-paneled walls; some blue Royal Copenhagen plates on the wall; and a pillared wooden partition, dividing the dining room from the darkened bar, that is punctuated with wooden cutouts shaped like Viking ships. Out in the hall, you can wistfully examine many large, black-and-white photos depicting the grand dinners of DAC's more prosperous past. You host, Reidun Thompson, an energetic but no-nonsense women who moved to Brooklyn from Norway in the early '60s, is usually seated at a nearby table reading the paper or going through mail. She'll take your order and bring your food.
The Danish Athletic Club always seems to be on its last legs. Recently, there were some reports that it would close by the end of the year. Thompson strongly contradicted this news as pure rumor.
What Scandinavian population there is left in Bay Ridge is aging. So the diners you'll see here—almost entirely club members and locals—have some frost on the roof and a few extra notches on their belt. Most nights only a few tables are occupied, but I've been told that the place is packed from time to time. Those who do come seem to treat the place as their living room. Spouses will bicker and old friends will loudly converse and casually roam about the room. Lingering is not discouraged. One recent guest insisted on a bit of formality, asking for the check. "It's what it is for everybody," said Thompson from her chair. "$17.40." "What do you need a check for?" the guest's friend asked in disbelief. "It's not like we're at Hinsch's."
—Brooks of Sheffield