Smorgasbord: Swedish cuisine that became the prototype of all-you-can-eat buffet


In Japan, hotels and inns often offer all-you-can-eat buffet-style meals, and it’s not uncommon to find a variety of dishes laid out on tables for guests to enjoy. Once you pay the set price, you can eat as much as you like, making this style of dining very popular.

Interestingly, this Japanese buffet-style meal is modeled after a traditional Swedish dish called Smorgasbord. In this article, I’ll introduce you to the Smorgasbord, the original all-you-can-eat style of cuisine that originated in Sweden.

What is a Smorgasbord?

Smorgasbord (smörgåsbord) is a traditional Swedish cuisine characterized by its all-you-can-eat format. Similar to the Japanese buffet-style meal, a variety of dishes are laid out on tables, and you can take and eat as much as you like. 

The selection of dishes is extensive, including Nordic specialties such as salmon and pickled herring, as well as meat and vegetable dishes. As dishes run out, they are replaced, and hot dishes are served on warmed plates. 

There is no strict order in which to eat, but it is common to start with appetizers, followed by cold dishes, hot dishes, and finally, dessert. Aquavit, a potato-based spirit, is often served alongside the meal.

As you can see, it’s almost the same as the buffet-style meals served in Japanese hotels. On the other hand, Smorgasbord is enjoyed not only in restaurants but also at home during celebrations and parties in Sweden. 

The origin of the Smorgasbord is debated, but it is believed to have started as a format where participants brought dishes to share at Nordic banquets. The name Smorgasbord comes from the Swedish word “smörgås,” meaning “buttered bread,” and “bord,” meaning “table.” 

The early Smorgasbord involved placing ingredients on sliced bread as an open sandwich, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that it evolved into the current style of serving hot and cold dishes on plates.

How the Smorgasbord came to Japan


The Smorgasbord, a Swedish-originated cuisine, gained worldwide recognition when it was served at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In Japan, the Imperial Hotel introduced the Smorgasbord, or all-you-can-eat style restaurant, for the first time in 1958. 

At that time, the Imperial Hotel was planning to launch a new restaurant as a new business venture. The then-president, Tetsuzo Inumaru, took inspiration from a Smorgasbord he had tried in Denmark and opened the all-you-can-eat restaurant on August 1, 1958. 

The restaurant’s name, “Imperial Viking,” was inspired by the 1957 film “THE VIKINGS” directed by Richard Fleischer. Vikings were pirates who were active in medieval Europe and are well-known as representative characters of the Nordic region. The name “Imperial Viking” was chosen to evoke this Nordic image, and the term “Viking” became synonymous with all-you-can-eat buffet-style meals in Japan. 

The difficult pronunciation of the Swedish word “smörgåsbord” for Japanese people also contributed to the spread of the term “Viking.” As a result, the term “Viking” is now synonymous with all-you-can-eat buffets in Japan.

Difference between Viking and buffet

In Japan, the terms “Viking” and “buffet” are both used to describe all-you-can-eat dining experiences. Although these terms are often confused, there is a clear distinction between them. 

Viking refers to a dining format where you can eat as much as you want for a set price. On the other hand, buffet refers to a dining format that is either a standing meal or self-service style. 

The term “buffet” originally comes from the French word “buffet,” which means “sideboard.” In France, casual eateries often had a rule where customers could choose their favorite dishes from those displayed on a sideboard, which is why it was given this name. In Western buffets, it is common to follow the French style, where each person selects their desired dishes, places them on a tray, and pays for everything at the end.

In summary, “Viking” means “all-you-can-eat,” but “buffet” does not necessarily imply an all-you-can-eat experience, so it’s important to be cautious when traveling.

Additionally, the term “Viking” is a Japan-made English word and is generally not understood outside of Japan. In Western countries, all-you-can-eat meals are referred to as “all-you-can-eat.”


The Smorgasbord, which originated in Sweden, is a traditional cuisine that allows diners to freely choose their favorite dishes from a table filled with a variety of foods. In Japan, the term “Viking” became synonymous with all-you-can-eat buffets after the Imperial Hotel introduced the Smorgasbord in 1958 with the opening of the “Imperial Viking” restaurant.

The abundant selection of dishes, including meat, vegetables, and seafood, conjures up an image of a lavish feast enjoyed by Viking pirates as they devoured the food laid out on the table.