Over the past 3 decades, Reykjavík has transformed from a culinary wasteland into a culinary destination. In years past, dining options were limited to greasy-spoon diners and overpriced tourist restaurants, as well as a few local standbys lost in the crowd. Now the dining scene has become downright dynamic. There are New Nordic bistros, cult coffee roasters, street food vendors, artisanal pizza shops, and hipster gastropubs with a dozen local craft beers on tap. Chefs are looking backward into the country’s Viking past to rescue centuries-old food traditions and bring them into modern times. With relatively few venerated food traditions to uphold, innovative young chefs have been free to create Icelandic food in their own image, drawing inspiration wherever they find it. The quality and diversity of ingredients is astounding for such a remote outpost of the world, and little by little, one kitchen at a time, the rest of Iceland is catching on.
A few years ago, restaurant prices in Reykjavík seemed outlandish. Now, largely thanks to an exchange rate that helps tourists from just about anywhere, high-quality food is more affordable. Ingredients and staff are still so costly that all meals have a high base cost, but you’re still getting good value at the margin: spend 5,000kr per person and you’ll likely have a good meal; spend 8,000kr and you’ll likely have a fantastic one. For the best balance, we recommend visiting the grocery store (and the hot-dog stand) a few times, filling up on your hotel's breakfast buffet, and then splurging on a few top-quality meals to remember.
While street food is limited to summer in Reykjavīk (and generally mediocre), two food halls have opened in in town. The old Hlemmur bus station has been transformed into Hlemmur Mathöll, Laugavegur 107, a lively food court with a branch of the bakery Brauð & co, a small-plates restaurant and bar called Skal!, a coffee bar, a banh mi sandwich shop, and several other concepts. In the fishpacking district fronting the old harbor, Grandi Mathöll, Grandagarður 16, is set in a refurbished fish factory, offering up a similar array of concepts.
Various explanations are given for why Iceland runs on coffee: the former prohibition of beer, the high cost of alcohol, the long and dark winters, all the sudden downpours of rain, the need to digest heavy diets. Whatever the cause, Icelandic coffee is fine and strong, and coffeehouse culture thrives in Reykjavík, where international chains have yet to gain a foothold. Cafes are a great place to meet locals, second only to the pools. Magazines are usually lying around, refills are often free, and you can linger for hours without being glared at. Many cafes serve food by day and function as bars and clubs at night, closing at 1am or later on weekends. The number of cafes opening before 11am is steadily increasing, to cater to an emerging breakfast trend.
Hot Dog Utopia
Icelanders are well aware that their pylsur (hot dogs) are among the best on the planet, and they consume them in enormous quantities—usually ein með öllu, or “one with everything.” This expression is so ingrained in the national psyche that Akureyri began calling its Bank Holiday Weekend celebrations “Ein með öllu” a few years ago. A familiar and welcoming sight inside every filling station is the undulating metal rack that holds your hot dog as you dispense mayo, ketchup, and a tangy rémoulade (with finely chopped pickle) from enormous squeeze tubes. Toppings also include raw and crispy onions. The key ingredient, however, is the hot dog itself: The addition of lamb to the usual pork and beef mellows and deepens the taste experience. That's probably all you want to know about how they’re made.
Waiter, There's a Fly in My Pickled Ram Testicles . . .
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 on your menu.
* 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 you're more likely to find it served very rare, even raw.
* Cod chins (gellur) These walnut-size delicacies, extracted from Iceland's most bounteous fish species, are surrounded by a thick, fatty membrane 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.
* Harðfiskur Dried haddock, a staple Icelandic food for centuries, is available in every convenience store. As W. H. Auden wrote, "The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one's feet."
* Whale (hvalur) The only species served up is minke whale, not an endangered species, though Iceland's recent decision to hunt them again is hardly uncontroversial. Consumption has risen thanks to tourists using the "I'll just try it once and see what it's all about" rationalization. As sashimi it looks more disturbing than it tastes; the raw meat is a deep red, even purplish color. Even cooked whale steaks are served very red in the middle. And the taste? A sort of cross between tuna and beef, quite delicious when prepared properly, tough and rank otherwise.
* Dolphin (höfrungur) Eat these and you'll probably get mercury poisoning. Environmentalists may also pelt you with organic tomatoes.
* Svið This is half of a singed 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 and let your companions deal with the skin, tongue, brains, and eyeball. Svið is also served cold if you like, and can be found at Kjamminn restaurant in Reykjavík's BSÍ bus terminal -- even at the drive-thru window!
* 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 the 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. The crossed taste of bird and fish takes getting used to, and on a bad day the meat is reminiscent of burnt rubber marinated in fish oil.
* 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 can be good appetizers. If you buy them at the market, watch out for half-hatched chicks inside.
* Reindeer (hreindýr) Santa introduced reindeer to eastern Iceland from Norway in the 18th century. All are wild, and only about 300 are culled each year; so prices are high. Hunting season is late fall, so most tourists eat vacuum-packed meat. If you can tell the difference, your taste buds are superior to ours.
* Skýr This is Iceland's most popular and delicious culinary invention: a kind of whipped whey. Health food crowds abroad are starting to catch on. Skýr tastes like a cross between sour yogurt, crème fraîche, cream cheese, and soft-serve ice cream, yet somehow it's nonfat. It's traditionally made with rennet, derived from calf stomach, but now it's vegetarian-friendly. You'll find all sorts of berry varieties in markets and convenience stores, a shake form at the gym, and a more liquid variety to pour on your granola at breakfast buffets.
* Hákarl This is Iceland's most notorious gross-out 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 cure for another 3 months. As an appetizer, the shark is served in small cubes that have the look and texture of mozzarella cheese. The taste is indescribable, but might be compared to motor oil -- nothing can prepare you for its vileness. According to Icelanders, it gives you stamina. Traditionally it's washed down with brennivín (wine that burns), an 80-proof clear liquor flavored with angelica root or caraway seeds, and known affectionately as "Black Death" (svartidauði).
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.