Icelandic cuisine is much improved from 20 years ago, when leaden Scandinavian comfort food was the standard. Several imaginative and exciting restaurants are leading the charge in Reykjavík. The enthusiasm is palpable—sometimes waiters can hardly wait to explain everything happening on your plate. Outside Reykjavík and major towns, however, good food choices can be more restricted, aside from a few creative eateries. Village restaurants usually conform to a basic model: meat soup and catch of the day (both of which can be a joy), plus an ever-present array of burgers, pizzas, pasta, and fries. But the reality is, if you like fish you can’t really go wrong here. Whether it’s cod, salt cod, local lobster, or mussels, or other fish such as herring, there’s a sea-loving element similar to that of the eastern U.S.
Icelanders like their food saucy, salty, and well-seasoned. In good restaurants, this only complements the natural ingredients. Icelandic ingredients are remarkably free of contaminants. Antibiotics, added hormones, and pesticides are rare. The meat could even be described as aromatic, reflecting the healthy outdoor lifestyle of the livestock (and even poultry). Lamb is what you’d expect it to taste like after the lambs have spent the summer roaming the mountains, nibbling on mosses and wild blueberry leaves. Fish is so fresh that it’s difficult to prepare badly, and so abundant that it’s still somewhat reasonably priced. Restaurant service is almost always friendly and helpful, if not ingratiating. In general, waiters like being asked for advice when you’re ordering. As in much of Europe, you may have to tackle someone to get your bill.
Typical dining hours are a little on the late side. On weekends it can be difficult to find anyplace open before 10am, except in hotels. Icelanders usually eat dinner around 8pm or later.
Food in Iceland can become a major expense, especially if you're dining in hotel restaurants, which tend to serve some pretty average food for astronomical prices. If you want to save money on food, then the best way is to cook for yourself. Icelandic hoteliers are well aware of high food prices, and many budget lodgings offer access to guest kitchens. Another way to save money is to focus on lunch as your main meal, because dinner prices are often higher. If you do want a three-course meal, try the “chef’s menu;” it might look expensive, but the price is almost always cheaper than buying the three, or even two, courses separately. On the other hand, many Icelanders get by on just soup, bread, and salad for lunch. Many convenience stores have relatively inexpensive salad bars. Look out for the daily specials, or the two-person menus, which are often cheaper than other items on the menu. Fast food is often necessary to keep you solvent, or when nothing else is available. Thankfully, Iceland has some of Scandinavia’s best hot dogs, available at almost every filling station. Burgers are everywhere, often served with a kind of cocktail sauce reminiscent of Russian dressing.
FISH & LAMB
Menu advice can be crudely edited down to two words: fish and lamb.
Sheep imports are banned, and the lamb stock is exactly what the Vikings brought over. Icelandic lambs roam so freely that they can almost be described as game. Many Icelanders claim they can taste the wild berries, moss, and herbs that the lambs feed on. Slaughtering starts in mid-August, peaks in September, and continues into November, so late-season visitors may get the freshest cuts.
Most of Iceland’s export income comes from fish. Simply put: Iceland serves up the freshest fish in the world. The most common local species are cod, haddock, catfish, monkfish, halibut, plaice, trout, Arctic char, and salmon.
Of course, fish and lamb are hardly the whole story. Icelandic beef is raised in equally healthy circumstances. Delicious wild reindeer from eastern Iceland appears on some menus, as is the once endangered Icelandic goat (ordering actually encourages farms to produce it). Icelanders also have centuries of experience cooking seabirds, especially puffins and guillemots.
Iceland’s freshest produce comes from geothermally heated greenhouses. Locally grown vegetables are specially marked in supermarkets; top products are tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers. An Icelandic salad still has some catching up to do; it's often just iceberg lettuce with a few vegetable shavings.
Iceland’s dairy products are just as wholesome and exceptional as the fish and lamb, but far less widely known. Icelanders consume lots of whole milk; reduced-fat milk is available in markets but is slow to catch on. Iceland also produces great cheese, especially Camembert and blue cheese.
But Iceland’s greatest food invention is a yogurt-like product called skyr, which is gaining popularity abroad, too. Skyr is a kind of high-protein whipped whey that tastes like a cross between plain yogurt, cream cheese, and soft-serve ice cream, yet somehow, it’s nonfat. Icelanders usually eat it thinned with milk (and sometimes cream). You’ll find all sorts of varieties (blueberry, melon, pear, vanilla…) in markets and convenience stores, as well as infused into desserts at restaurants.
Coffee in Iceland is simply excellent. Most baristas know exactly how to heat the milk without burning it and apply just the right amount of pressure to the coffee press. An average latte or cappuccino costs around 700kr ($5.70).
Alcoholic drinks in Iceland are very expensive. Beer is served in 1/2-liter (1-pint) glasses and costs around 1,000kr ($8). Cocktails are around 1,850kr ($15) and an average glass of wine is around 1,500kr ($12). Icelanders normally buy all their booze from the state-run store Vínbúðinn (www.vinbudin.is; [tel] 560-7700), with more than a dozen branches in the Reykjavík area alone; one of the main stores is on Austurstræti 10a in downtown. Nights normally kick off at home-based parties, with partygoers not venturing out until around 11pm. Unless there’s a special promotion (or money is no object for you) don’t offer to buy a round! Tip: Liquor at the duty-free store by baggage at Keflavík airport is considerably cheaper than elsewhere in the country. It’s the reason you’ll see so many Icelanders loading up on wine and liquor as soon as they get off the plane.
Crazy Things to Taste in Iceland
Icelanders have faced severe hardship and learned not to let any digestible species or spare parts go to waste—hence the following guide to some of the more peculiar Icelandic specialties you may find on your menu:
- Hákarl: This is Iceland’s most notorious food: Greenlandic shark, uncooked and putrefied. Sharks have no kidneys, so urea collects in their blood, and the meat has high concentrates of acid and ammonia. If you eat it raw, you might die. So, it’s cut up and placed in an outdoor kiln for 3 months while the toxins drain out. Then it’s hung to dry and cured for another 3 months. The shark is served in small cubes that have the look and texture of mozzarella cheese. The taste is indescribable. According to Icelanders, eating hákari gives you stamina. Traditionally it’s washed down with brennivín (wine that burns), an 80-proof clear drink made from angelica root or caraway seeds, and known affectionately as “Black Death.” Even more intense is the fermented skate, or skata, which is traditionally served on December 23. The smell is so horrid that restaurants put signs on their doors warning patrons, and many can be seen walking around in old clothes so their new ones don’t catch the stink.
- Horse (hestur): The pagan practice of eating horsemeat was banned by Christian authorities in the 11th century, but they relented in the 18th century during a famine. Whatever your personal feelings for these magisterial animals, they’re perfectly healthy to eat and don’t taste bad either. Traditionally the meat is eaten in stews, but unless you’re staying at a farm, you’re more likely to find it served very rare, even raw.
- Cod tongues (gellur): These walnut-size delicacies, extracted from Iceland’s most bounteous fish species, are surrounded by a thick, fatty membrane from under the tongue that doesn’t lift cleanly from the tender, savory meat inside. You’ll just have to get it all down. They’re best ordered in spring or fall when the cod are leaner, though some say that’s missing the point.
- Dried haddock (harðfiskur): This has been a staple in Iceland for centuries, and is available in every convenience store. It’s best eaten as the locals do, with a little butter, but can also be treated as a healthier alternative to crisps. It has become trendy among body builders for its high levels of protein.
- Whale (hvalur): The only species served up is minke whale, not an endangered species, though Iceland’s decision to hunt them again is hardly uncontroversial, especially after the one company that still hunts killed a highly endangered blue whale in 2018. Consumption has risen thanks to tourists using the “I’ll just try it once and see what its all about” argument. As sashimi it looks more disturbing than it tastes; the raw meat is a deep red, even purplish. Even cooked whale steaks are served very red in the middle. And the taste? It’s said to be a sort of cross between tuna and beef, though it can be tough and rank when not prepared properly.
- Svið: This is half of a boiled sheep’s head, cut down the middle and laid on its side, all the better for eye contact with your meal. If you’re sharing, go for the cheeks and lips. Svi[b6] is also served cold if you like, and can be found at Fjárhúsið restaurant in Reykjavík’s Grandi Mathöll, a food hall in the fishpacking district.
- Slátur: Leftover lamb parts, including the liver and blood, are minced, mixed, then sewn up and cooked inside the lamb’s stomach lining.
- Hrútspungar: These are ram’s testicles pickled in whey, often mixed with garlic and pressed into a kind of cake or spread, which tastes like pâté way past its due date. Some Americans call these “Rocky Mountain oysters.”
- Puffin (lundi): From May to mid-August, you’ll likely have an opportunity to eat Iceland’s unbearably cute unofficial mascot. Puffin can be smoked, pickled, or eaten raw. Traditionally it’s overcooked, but in restaurants it’s almost always served rare. Like whale, eating puffin is becoming more controversial as their population numbers become increasingly threatened.
- Cormorant (skarfur): This seabird tastes similar to puffin, only greasier and less fishy.
- Guillemot (langvía): This coastal bird’s meat looks and feels like beef but tastes like duck, with odd overtones of liver and seaweed.
- Fulmar eggs (fillsegg): These oily seabird eggs make a good start to a meal.
- Reindeer (hreindýr): Santa introduced reindeer to eastern Iceland from Norway in the 18th century. All are wild, and only about 1,200 are culled each year, so prices are high, although reindeer burger patties are often available cheaply from the frozen-meats section at markets. Hunting season is late fall, so most tourists eat vacuum-packed meat.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.