In the same year and season as the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new watering hole opened in downtown Oslo, just a few steps from the National Theatre. On October 2, 1989 the doors opened for the first time to what since has become both a loved and hated drinking establishment for many Oslo inhabitants.
The owner, Sephr Saeïd (61), tells us that he bought the lease and goodwill from two Arabians who owned a small clothing store at Stortingsgaten 28, planning to start a delicatessen there. He later realized that he had paid too high a price for the lease of the small shop in that the ventilation system was inadequate for an eatery due to the local Oslo building codes.
With the good help of Mr. Loeken, the building manager at that time (the building is owned by the Independent Order Of Odd Fellows in Oslo), he was advised to make the room into a bar, Saeïd then drew a sketch with pencil on a piece of paper, showed it to the local authorities and got it approved on the spot.
Having paid a considerable amount of money for the enterprise, income was needed, so he inquired about selling hot dogs at the entrance. This was approved by the building owner, thus Burns pub opened it’s business as a hot dog stand.
At that time Saeïd lived in Drammen, a city about 40 kilometers from Oslo, traveling back and forth seven days a week. Working from three in the afternoon to five in the morning, he had almost no contact with his family for nearly seventeen months. There were lot of discos in that area of Oslo in those days, and hungry young people simply loved hot dogs.
Saeïd had some money left, and with his partner, Jens Rojan, engaged an interior design company from Holland to make a pub in the little shop. For several months the establishment was run as a coffee bar with a hot dog stand, the name Burns being taken from the Scottish poet Robert Burns for no particular reason.
The two partners felt that something was missing – music. They bought 20 CD’s, mainly operatic and jazz recordings. The music was popular, especially among employees from the nearby National Theatre and Continental Hotel. The 12 – 14 seats in the pub were steadily occupied, and after 10 months had paid their dues to the two Arabians –but still more hot dogs were being sold than beer.
Adjacent to Burns was a small tourist shop and eventually the partners secured that lease too, rearranging the premises by moving the hot dog stand into that new section, but after complaints about the smell, the hot dog area came to an end.
In 2003 Bjoern Magnussen (58), who worked for the Hansa brewery, became a partner. Today Saeïd and Magnussen own 40 percent each and Siamak Saeïd, eldest son of Saeïd, owns 20 percent.
Two years later the neighbor store was closed down, and Burns was once more extended and turned into what it is today. When the smoke prohibition laws were introduced in 2004 the partners rented the outdoor area from the Oslo municipality.
Today Burns is a pub that one either loves or hates. The visitors are mainly well seasoned people, shabby-glam, artists, authors, architects, journalists, diplomats, doctors, actors, intellectuals and a broad range representing the adult community in Oslo.
As one guest, a distinguished lady, expressed it, “It is a wonderful place for the old boys, but terrible if you don’t belong to the Chesterfield type. I have never been to there without receiving a marriage proposal from an old uncle coming from north of the Polar Circle.”
Many couples have started their relationships at Burns. Even if the guests are almost the very same as 25 years ago, don’t forget, they were 25 years younger at that time.
Our distinguished lady continues, “Don’t misunderstand me, I love this place where you still meet the ‘ship o’ hoi’ generation, who come in for their lunch pint with yesterday’s paper under their arm and then stay until closing time.”
One of the reasons people are attracted to Burns is without doubt the friendly staff. Both the men and women working there are almost like family members of the guests – always helpful, smiling and with a good sense of humor. Today’s stars are Linda (employed there for nearly 20 years), Elisabeth, Didi (from Romania) and the youngest son of Saeïd, Siavash.
Today, October 2, 2014, is the 25th anniversary celebration day, and we are treated with what else – free hot dogs in wraps. The drink price list is the same as in 1989 – three pints for 100 Norwegian kroner (including tips), or about five dollars each, roughly one third of 2014 prices.
There is also live music, not surprisingly, opera to the people. The sopranos Maria Therese Bersas and Hanne Korsbrekke Askeland, along with Bernhard Greter on keyboard perform operetta and opera arias all through the night to ovations from the guests.
When we asked the owners if they planned make changes to attract a younger clientele, they answered that it would depend on the new lease in 2017. The rent has increased considerably over the years, so they just have to wait and see. Revenue has increased in the latter years, but the bottom line has not, mainly due to higher rental costs and the impact of the Norwegian tax system on business.
Feature image (on top) Guests at Burns, painted by Knut Husebo
Text and photos: Tor Kjolberg