Study the back of the restaurant, you can always get a personality for the front. —Kenneth Hansen
There was once a restaurant on the Sunset Strip that welcomed American presidents, European royalty and entertainment legends like Ingrid Bergman and Frank Sinatra on a regular basis. For more than two decades, Scandia — world-famous for its European elegance, haute Scandinavian cuisine and glittering clientele — ruled the Strip. “No one is very sure of the definition of a great restaurant,” one critic wrote, “but everyone is sure that Scandia is one.”
Like so many good things in Los Angeles, Scandia started with a family of immigrants. In 1920, Copenhagen native Kenneth Hansen made his way over to America, after working as a busboy on a Danish steamer. Over the next 20-odd years he worked his way up in restaurants all over America before settling in Los Angeles, where he became chef at the Pasadena Golf Club. Through it all, the charming, erudite Hansen, who had an “amazing way of pleasing most all of the people most of the time,” had one dream: to operate “the finest restaurant in the United States.”
Around 1941, Hansen became the owner of the Scandinavian smorgasbord Bit o’ Sweden at the corner of Sunset and Doheny. But the buffet-style restaurant was not the luxe, Continental eatery he had dreamed of running since he was young.
In 1946, his dream became a reality. That year, the gregarious Hansen opened Scandia on Sunset Boulevard. (He moved to bigger quarters at 9040 Sunset in 1958). His business partner was his sister-in-law, Teddy, who would play good cop to his bad cop for the next two decades. “She was a tall, slender, beautifully dressed woman, whose firm control was masked by gentleness,” Los Angeles Times columnist Lois Dawn recalled. “It was usually her voice that informed there were no reservations until two weeks from Wednesday, and it was she who waited behind the desk to welcome the fortunate.”
Scandia was soon the hottest ticket in town. It offered visions of glamour and finesse rarely seen (but long coveted) in striving Los Angeles. Columnist Joan Winchell recalled the magical spell Scandia wove: “We filed through the celebrity-filled Scandia dining room, then the spotless kitchen where white-capped chefs were preparing the feast, and down a flight of stairs to begin our adventure. The cellar is small and the table for 14 filled it, with just enough room left for the red-jacketed waiters to serve the luscious food. Candles in the great brass candelabra shed flickering yellow light over the red brick walls and temptingly revealed the neat rows of vintage wine bottles which surrounded us.”
Along with the constant presence of Hansen’s wife, Musse (who had risked her life working for the Danish resistance during WWII), the restaurant was staffed by fellow Danish émigrés who had been trained in the art of old-world service. Hansen welcomed European expats into the restaurant, starting a raucous social club called the Vikings, and sponsored local soccer clubs. Scandia’s “European” model was evident in the little things: A dropped napkin was instantly picked up by waiters, and a good deal of calculation went into courting a certain clientele. “Our restaurant has always been female-minded,” Hansen explained to the L.A. Times. “If we can get them to come in for lunch, there’s a good chance they’ll come back at night to have dinner with their husbands. After all, a restaurant is a girl’s best friend.”
While it was the glamour that drew many into Scandia, it was the food that kept them coming back. The restaurant served heavy Scandinavian and Continental cuisine, which sounds decadent to modern stomachs. A large variety of simple, open-faced sandwiches was popular for the ladies who lunched. Dinner was a multicourse extravaganza, featuring meatballs and pumpernickel toast for appetizers. Main-course specialties included broiled Pacific swordfish, pork and veal dumplings, bof med log (tenderloin steak with fried onions), snow grouse served with a Swedish game sauce, pepper-sprinkled boned salmon served with a garnish of dill and tiny potatoes, and roast wild duck with special wild game sauce, Swedish browned potatoes, cucumber salad and lingonberries. The Viking Sword, one of Scandia’s most famous dishes, consisted of a smoked pork chop, a small chateaubriand, broiled breast of turkey, mushrooms and green vegetables smothered in Béarnaise sauce.
But it was the Veal Oskar that put Scandia on the map. According to Hansen, it had been created by a chef in Stockholm for 19th-century King Oskar II of Sweden, who suggested it while dining in a local wine cellar with his mistress. It consisted of prime veal cutlet, crab legs and asparagus tips covered in Béarnaise sauce. Scandia also was beloved for its desserts, such as apple cake, rum pudding and pears poached in syrup, topped with a kirsch-flavored Bavarian cream. So well-known was Scandia for its sweets that many jetsetters would end the night in the restaurant’s VIP wine cellar, serenaded by opera stars and making toasts with mugs of hot toddies. Joan Winchell described one nightcap of a million calories:
“A soft white wine led the way for pancakes Norwegian. Now you may think you’ve had pancakes, but let me tell you that the ones at Scandia are just a little bit different from the ones you have at your breakfast table. Instead of butter, they have about 4 inches of luscious white meringue on top, topped by the biggest fresh strawberries on the Sunset Strip. Instead of syrup over them, these thin wafers are rolled in ice cream and covered with a flaming sauce composed of Cordon Bleu brandy and Cherry Heering liqueur — and a touch of mastery by maitre’d Dred Christiansen. We finished up with a couple of schooners of Viking coffee.”
Despite these gastronomic excesses, Hansen always insisted that the food at Scandia was “not haute cuisine,” because it was “simpler, with less elaborate sauces.”
Whatever the case, Scandia retained its popularity with succeeding generations of movie stars, politicians and Los Angeles aristocracy. It was legendary for its obscenely long lines, which kept even luminaries like Edward G. Robinson waiting for a coveted seat. “Scandia is without question the most popular restaurant in the city,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1961, “turning away over 17,000 customers a month and serving more than that number!” This enormous popularity led to a dining experience that only worked because of the expertise of Hansen, Teddy and the longtime staff. “Although things get a little tight at Scandia,” columnist Lois Dawn wrote in 1967, “and there are times when leisurely is not the word, the restaurant runs smoothly in high gear and the food is carefully served and brilliantly prepared.”
As the character of the Strip shifted from high-toned nightlife to hard-rock debauchery, Scandia remained a bastion of bygone, midcentury elegance, attracting young, popular stars including Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. The Whisky and the Roxy seemed miles away from Scandia’s carefully appointed, old-world atmosphere, according to the L.A. Times in 1964: “Among Scandia’s services for discriminating Los Angeles diners is La Belle Terrasse, a beautiful terrace where patrons can overlook the western part of the city while dining. The terrace joins three other popular rooms, all with a different décor. They are the main dining room with picturesque Scandinavian atmosphere, the Tivoli Room, also Scandinavian in motif, and the Lounge, famous for its high-backed, huge leather chairs and soft lighting.”
But the real world was fast encroaching. By the mid-1970s, Scandia’s heavy food was out of fashion, and its parking lot was filled with rowdy rock fans and drug dealers. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Hansens sold the restaurant in 1978 to fellow Dane and longtime Viking member Bob Petersen (of Petersen Automotive Museum fame) and his wife, Margie. But Scandia’s glory days were over.
One writer recalled visiting Scandia in the early 1980s when the luster and crowds had all vanished. “The excitement of bustling waiters, the polish and panache of the service, had whittled away to nothing,” she recalled. “The food had somehow diminished in quality and quantity. The furnishings had faded and so had the verve of management.”
It finally closed in 1989, and with it went a bit of Nordic charm.