Don't eat at IKEA until you read this

While there are people who do go to IKEA to shop for household goods, and others are more into the almost voyeuristic thrill of peeking into displays set up to look like rooms in someone's actual home, a surprisingly large number of us actually consider IKEA to be our favorite furniture-themed restaurant. While IKEA originally envisioned its in-house cafes, which date back to 1959, as an amenity meant to sell more sofas, it turns out that 30 percent of IKEA shoppers are actually just there for the food. In fact, the company may be contemplating opening a few stand-alone restaurants, and has even tested the waters with pop-up cafes.

IKEA actually has two separate eateries. In order to reach the sit-down restaurant, you'll need to make it through about half of the maze-like layout that will have you wondering, "Wait, should I have turned left at the LIXHULT? Or right at the RIBBA?" IKEA's Bistro, aka the food court, lies even farther away, past those long, long lines at the checkout, and offers a more limited selection of grab-and-go items. Either way, by the time you make it to one of these oases, you'll definitely be feeling some hunger pangs.

Whether you've been there dozens of times, or you're making your first pilgrimage to feast on the chain's famous Swedish meatballs, there's probably plenty you don't know about the IKEA dining scene. Here's what you need to know before you go.

Come early for the breakfast

Did you ever arrive at a store all ready to shop, only to realize that the store hadn't even opened yet? Not such a big problem if that store should happen to be IKEA, since they open their restaurants a full half hour before the rest of the store. What's more, their breakfast is totally worth coming in early for, since you can actually get a tasty, filling meal for — get this — under a buck fifty! ($1.49, to be exact.) Served on a real plate with silverware, too, not just handed to you in a little cardboard carton or a greasy paper wrapper. The IKEA basic breakfast consists of a generous scoop of scrambled eggs, a sizable serving of fried potatoes, and even a side of meat (two sausage links).

If you want to be a big spender and pony up $2.99 for a real breakfast splurge, you can get the Swedish-American upgrade, which includes all of the above plus two Swedish pancakes with a side of jam. Other breakfast items offered in the IKEA restaurant may include bagels with gravad lax (dill-cured salmon), cinnamon buns, or the cutest little heart-shaped waffles (aka VÅFFLOR). Be forewarned, though — breakfast stops being served at 11 a.m. on the dot, since that's when the IKEA restaurants switch over to serving meatballs and all of their other lunch and dinner items.

They now have four different kinds of meatballs

In 2018 IKEA added salmon balls to their lineup of "(m)eatballs," bringing the total to four different kinds. Wait, what? Isn't a meatball pretty much a meatball? Well, not if you're IKEA, billion-selling meatball champion of the universe. Their first meatball, the iconic beef and pork variety beloved by just about everybody, has been around since the store first started feeding its customers.

It took more than 50 years before IKEA would expand its meatball roster, but 2015 saw two new hitters in the lineup: Chicken, meant to be lower in fat, and veggie, meant to be, well, vegan. Also gluten-free, soy-free, and more nutritious and sustainable than the actual meat kind of meatball.

So why the salmon balls, then? Well, they are also sustainable, reliably-sourced, and have a lower carbon footprint. They also contain a certain amount of cod, and are flavored with seaweed and lemongrass in order to "capture the fresh taste of cold Nordic sea in a tasty ball" because, you know, Sweden — they're pretty big on all things fishy. Perhaps the main reason behind this particular bit of product development genius, however, is that basically it's a clever way to use up all the leftover bits of salmon that didn't make the cut for the gravad lax or the salmon filet with dill sauce. Waste not, want not, makes sense to us.

The jam that comes with those meatballs tastes strangely familiar

If you order either the standard or the chicken meatballs as an entree, they're likely to come plated with a green vegetable, a scoop of mashed potatoes, a tasty cream gravy and… some kind of red jelly? Kind of a weird idea, eating jam with your meat. Well, maybe not so much. There's probably at least one time of year you happily gobble up a big old plate of meat with a side of sugary berries. In fact, if you take a nibble of the red stuff on your meatball plate, you may find it tastes pretty darn similar to good old cranberry sauce of Thanksgiving fame.

There's actually a legit reason for this. It turns out that the lingonberry, which is the main ingredient in IKEA's SYLT LINGON, is a close relative of, and pretty much the European equivalent of, the North American cranberry. Lingonberry jam has been a traditional Swedish meat accompaniment since forever, or at least since meatballs have been a thing (so, like 250+ years). So go ahead and eat your meatball like a real Swede — cut it in half, dab on a bit of potato and a little of that jam, and… yum. Move over, peanut butter, jelly's got a new best friend.

Vegetarian dishes got mixed reviews

While it took long enough for IKEA to acknowledge its vegetarian customers, with the veggie balls not coming out until 2015 and the veggie dogs in 2018, at least they finally offer some plant-based menu items. Whether you'll actually want to eat them, though, may depend on how hungry you are.

The veggie balls, which, according to IKEA are made with "clearly visible chunks" of corn, kale, chick peas, carrots, peas, and bell peppers, have the distinction of coming in at the bottom of two different lists: TimeOut Los Angeles said bluntly, "do not order these," and compared them to "discarded rejects of chicken meatballs," while Thrillist called them "a dry, bland mix of dehydrated veggie chunks and odd spices." Business Insider didn't rank the veggie balls, but dubbed them a "travesty… dry, withered orbs" that are "but a pale imitation of the real thing," while OnMilwaukee's take on them was "overcooked and lack[ing] flavor."

The veggie dogs, however, have received a more favorable reception. According to Fast Company, a million of these were sold throughout Europe after their initial launch, but then, European hot dogs are kind of sketchy to begin with, so their standards may be lower. As far as U.S.-based views of the veggie dog went, Vice's food writer liked its cabbage and onion topping, but found that the kale-and-lentil based dog tasted like nothing much. The Kitchn's review was more positive overall, but did note that the texture was pretty mushy. 

The soft drinks aren't your standard selection

If you're feeling thirsty and want a soft drink to go with your meal at IKEA, you may notice that they're not offering the standard array of Coke or Pepsi products. While there is a generic type of cola (diet and regular) on the soda fountain, it's supposed to be Swedish-style, and not much like the version most of us are used to. The other soda fountain offerings aren't even soda at all — instead, they are something called "Nordic Fruit Water," and is available in sparkling raspberry, lemon and pear flavors as well as a still lingonberry variety. The substitution of these flavored waters for soda was a very deliberate attempt on IKEA's part to reduce global sugar consumption, according to this very British-sounding girl in an advertising video posted by IKEA Malaysia. 

If you prefer to pick up a bottled (or boxed) drink, the selection is still pretty Swede-centric, but your options here include cans of apple and pear cider, prepackaged fruit smoothies, and just the cutest little juice boxes ever. These come in pear, raspberry, lingonberry, and the now-trendy elderflower. The DRYCK FLÄDER (elderflower syrup) is available for take-home purchase, and can even be hacked (at home! don't try this in-store) to make a decent St. Germain substitute with the addition of vodka.

Daim cake is made with Sweden's version of the Heath Bar

If you're perusing IKEA's dessert case, you might come across a rather unprepossessing, lumpy brown wedge labeled Daim cake. So what's Daim, you may be wondering, and why would they make a cake out of it? As to the first question, Daim is a type of Swedish candy you're about to see a lot more of as you continue your progress through IKEA, as they sell it in bags, bars, and sometimes they even hand out freebies at the checkout. As to what it tastes like, basically it's a Swedish version of a Heath Bar. The Skor bar, in turn, was Hershey's attempt at a fake-Swedish knockoff of Daim.

While there may be multiple chocolate-coated toffee bars on the market, there is only one IKEA Daim cake, with its slightly sweet almond-flavored base, layer of custard, and coating of thick milk chocolate embedded with almond brittle bites. It may look lumpy and weird, and is definitely not the prettiest pastry in the case, but its taste inspires rave reviews and copycat recipes. According to one Pinterest-posting connoisseur, a slice of IKEA's Daim cake is so good it can actually change your life. So yes, you should definitely put one on your tray.

IKEA Family is worth joining for the food freebies

Like just about every store out there, IKEA offers a loyalty program where you can sign up by simply providing the usual info that everyone in the world already knows about you, thanks to what seems like a constant stream of online data leaks. Unlike just about every other store out there, though, IKEA Family actually gives you something free each time you set foot in the store. Yes, according to IKEA's website, you can get a free coffee or tea in the restaurant every time you shop.

If a free beverage alone is not enough to get you to share your details, here's something that might: as an IKEA family member, IKEA gives you an what their website describes as a "surprise for your birthday," which is actually good for the entire month during which your birthday falls. Although their FAQ doesn't offer any further hint as to what the surprise might be, a couple of deal roundup websites have spilled the birthday beans: It's an entire free meal (a meatball entree plus your choice of Daim or almond cake). Also free coffee, of course. And, what's more, a coupon good for $15 worth of free store merchandise, which you can always use in the food market to pick up some extra meatballs and cake to continue your celebration at home.

You can stuff yourself silly several times a year

If you can't decide what to order in IKEA's restaurant because everything looks so good, or else you're just a fan of budget-priced all-you-can-eat buffets, best keep an eye on the events page of your local IKEA website. Several times each year, IKEA puts on holiday-themed smörgåsbords: a Julbord at Christmas, a Påskbord at Easter time, and a Midsummer Smörgåsbord in June. Sadly, IKEA's almost-annual end of summer crayfish party (yes, this is actually a thing in Sweden!) had to be canceled at IKEAs across the U.S. in 2018 due to lack of crayfish.

If you're wondering what's on the menu at these IKEA buffets, which, yes, are all-you-can eat, the Julbord and Påskbord tend to feature just about everything but the kitchen sink: ham, meatballs (of course), cheeses, various types of salad, and lots and lots of seafood (herring, salmon, and shrimp). The midsummer buffet is a bit lighter, with more salads and no ham or sausage (but still meatballs), while the crayfish buffet, should it resume, features, well, crayfish (and also meatballs), along with some more classic picnic-style sides. And of course, each buffet features a selection of Swedish breads, crackers and desserts, and includes unlimited soft drinks, coffee and tea. And the best part? These buffets tend to run a very reasonable $16.99, or, if you're an IKEA Family member, just $12.99. Beat that, Golden Corral.

The soft-serve isn't ice cream, it's froyo

I scream, you scream, we all… oh wait. No. We all go, "oh, it's froyo." Which is fine, if that's what you're in the mood for, but it can be a bit disappointing to see everyone wandering around licking cones of soft serve and then start craving ice cream, only to find out you can't get ice cream at IKEA. Now you know it's froyo, though, so there you go.

As froyo goes, it's actually quite good, too. In fact, TimeOut Los Angeles picked IKEA's frozen yogurt as the best item available at either of the Burbank IKEA's two restaurants (the cafe and the bistro/food court, the latter being where you'll find the froyo). They describe it as "sweet, airy, and simple," exactly unlike IKEA's assemble-it-yourself furniture. What's more, IKEA froyo comes in at a mere 130 calories, including cone. Perhaps the best thing about the frozen yogurt, though, is that it's so cheap — still only a buck. Better yet, you can get a BOGO deal the first time you purchase it using your IKEA Family card (seriously, just go ahead and apply for one already), and you might possibly be able to score a few freebies on special occasions like store grand openings or anniversaries.

The pizza's not at all Swedish – and that's a good thing

Pizza, like froyo, is only available at IKEA's Bistro, so it's something you pick up on the way out as a quick energy booster before you settle down to the grueling work of assembling that PAX wardrobe you just bought (since that will probably take you the rest of the day). While much of the food served in IKEA's sit-down cafe is Swedish-style, more of the bistro's offerings seem to be typical American fare, and in the case of the pizza, we're very fortunate that this is so. Sweden is not known for its pizza, or at least not in a good way, with even the most polite reviewers calling it an "acquired taste" (that there's really no need to acquire if you don't live in Sweden). And when it comes to odd topping combos, nobody can out-bizarre Sweden, home of what some have said might just be the worst pizza on earth.

So no, IKEA, you don't need to go there. Stick with the American pizza you're already serving — which isn't too bad, as far as food court pizza goes. The entire crust is crispy from middle to edge, and although the cheese topping doesn't look so great, the TimeOut Los Angeles review team confirmed that, in this case, looks are deceiving, and rated it a solid number six out of the 20 IKEA food items they ranked.

The hot dogs are cheap but small

Yet another bistro-only menu item at IKEA is your basic box store food court cheap hot dog. Although IKEA is no longer selling these for 50 cents as was the case a few years back, even at the current price of $1 they're not too bad a deal. There's also a meal combo for $3.25 which gives you the two hot dogs it might take to fill you up, plus a beverage. Okay, so maybe not as epic a deal as Costco's famous $1.50 dog-and-a-drink combo, but you're not at Costco, are you? With fast food, as with real estate, sometimes it really is all about location, location, location.

The IKEA hot dogs are basically pretty decent — all beef ("nice and beefy," according to this guy), boiled rather than grilled, but pretty moist and flavorful. The only complaint most people have seems to be with the size, as they are only about half as big as the monster Costco dog. "Snackin' dogs," as The Kitchn affectionately calls them. The upside of them being smaller than Costco's, however, is that they are also only 280 calories per hot dog, as compared to over 500 calories for a Costco hot dog. You could have an IKEA dog plus a froyo and still come in under 500 calories. Not a bad idea, really.