Icelandic cuisine is much improved from 20 years ago, when leaden Scandinavian comfort food was the near-universal standard. Several imaginative and exciting restaurants are leading the charge in Reykjavík. The enthusiasm is palpable -- sometimes waitstaff can hardly wait to explain everything happening on your plate.
Outside the capital and major towns, however, good food can be difficult to find. Village restaurants usually conform to a basic model: one menu page for burgers, another for pizzas, and, for double the price, a lamb filet or catch of the day.
Icelanders like their food saucy, salty, and well-seasoned. In good restaurants, this only complements the natural flavors of the base ingredients. Otherwise, you'll become adept at scraping sauce to the side of your plate.
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 poultry and livestock.
Restaurant service is almost always friendly and helpful, if not ingratiating. In general, waitstaff like being asked for advice when 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.
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 meat. 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 filets.
Most of Iceland's export income comes from fish. Simply put: Iceland arguably serves up the freshest fish in the world. The most common local species are cod, haddock, catfish, monkfish, halibut, 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 appear on some menus. 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. Icelandic salads still have some catching up to do; they're 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 recognized. Icelanders consume lots of whole milk; reduced fat milk is available in markets but is slow to catch on. Iceland's greatest food invention, a yogurt-like product called skýr, is gaining popularity abroad. Iceland also produces great cheese, especially camembert and bleu cheese.
Food costs are severe in Iceland, and one decent restaurant meal will often exceed the price of a night's accommodation.
Of course, the best way to save money on food is to cook for yourself. Icelandic hoteliers are well aware of high food prices, and many accommodations offer access to guest kitchens
One way to save money is to focus on lunch as your main meal, since dinner prices are often much higher. On the other hand, many Icelanders get by on just soup, bread, and salad for lunch. Many convenience stores have relatively inexpensive salad bars.
Fast food is often necessary to stay solvent, or in the countryside when nothing else is available. Thankfully Iceland has the world's best hot dogs, available at almost every gas station. Burgers are everywhere, and are often served with a kind of cocktail sauce reminiscent of Russian dressing.