Iceland is a land known for its volcanic activity, unpredictable weather and bustling tourism sector. One thing it is not really known for is its food. When I returned from the land of fire and ice, just about every person I talked to asked me some version of “Did you eat that fermented shark thing?”
And while Reykjavik — the country’s capital and largest city by some margin — is no San Sebastian or Paris or Tokyo, the kind of destination where people go solely to gorge themselves, there’s still plenty of delicious, unique and thoughtful cuisine to be had. Iceland is a modern country with a modern gastronomy, but there’s a real anchor to local ingredients and stories. Fish is very prevalent. As are foraged herbs and berries. Sheep litter the island (watch out if you’re driving) and make steady contributions as well.
No matter what your final destination in the country is, you’re going to fly in and out of Reykjavik, so we recommend spending three to four days in the capital and hitting as many of these places as possible.
For Breakfast Pastries: Sandholt Bakery
Located in the heart of downtown Reykjavik, this place has been around for four generations of Icelandic bakers. Make sure you get some of their famous sourdough; breakfast is delicious as well, with sweet pastries worth sending home.
For a Food Hall Experience: Skál!
Located in a converted bus station, Skál! is a collaborative effort between Icelandic wonderchef Gisli Matt and Björn Steinar and Gísli Grímsson, the two gentleman behind Saltverk, a high-end Icelandic salt company (more on the salt later). The menu is small but not limited in any way. All the food is carefully created with local ingredients in mind and creative presentations, and the menu changes with the seasons. The standouts for me were braised beets in cherry vinegar with mascarpone and baked cod with warm mayo and mashed potatoes. The latter looks like a bowl of fish pudding, but it’s the most resplendent layered dish you’ve ever had. The cod is gently cooked, pickled onions add a touch of sweetness and acidity, and rye breadcrumbs pack a welcome crunch. Skál also features a sizable list of natural wines imported from all over Europe.
For Countryside Dairy: Erpisstadir Dairy Farm
This dairy farm 90 minutes north of the city has been in operation for quite some time thanks to a gentleman named Thor Grimur. It’s a very impressionable place with rolling green fields surrounded by mountains; cows litter the property, as do giant bouncy trampolines and carnival-like attractions, put in place by Grimur to encourage families to stick around and possibly buy more dairy. They have about everything you could want, but the star of the show is the skyr, a traditional Icelandic yogurt-like creation, as well as the ice cream. They use local produce to create really unique ice cream flavors like dandelion and blueberry. Definitely worth a stop if you’re going on a tour of the whole island, and probably even worth a day trip outside of the city to see some of the other surrounding nature.
For Burger Aficionados: Tommie’s Burger Joint
Yes it is a chain. No, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Tommie’s makes a delicious burger that won’t leave you feeling greasy and disgusting. It was started by Tómas Tómasson in 2004, and much like the founder, the joints all have a loose rock and roll vibe to them. The music is loud, the atmosphere is relaxed and the food is affordable (by Icelandic standards, at least).
For the Tasting Menu: Óx
One of the coolest restaurants you’ll come across in the country sits in a cordoned-off room in the back corner of (also delicious) Sumac, a Lebanese-inspired restaurant. The restaurant within a restaurant is run by the same chef, Thrainn Freyr Vigfusson, who focuses on hyperlocal cuisine and unique food combinations. The 16-course menu will change depending on the day and ingredients available, but expect a lot of fish. The room features 11 seats around a bar where the chefs prepare your food and chat with you. Oftentimes guests will head out together as friends for drinks at a new location post meal. This books up far ahead of time, as there are only 11 seats per night, so make sure to reserve a ways out if you know you’re heading to Reykjavik.
For The Sweet Tooth: Omnom Chocolate
Yes, that’s right, they make top-notch chocolate in Iceland. While your eyes will be quickly drawn to the bars for the bright, geometric and objectively cool branding, you’ll want to sample the bars for their “bean to bar” production and uniquely Icelandic recipes. The simple dark chocolate is strong but not overpowering, and the bars incorporate local flavors like burnt barley, licorice and Saltverk sea salt. They also have an ice cream shop at their factory in downtown Reykjavik, and depending on the COVID situation, you may or may not be able to tour the factory and make your own chocolate bars. (And if you can’t make the journey, consider purchasing some bars online.)
For Drinking Purposes …
A natural wine bar in a basement. Everything is wood and you feel like you are in a cozy basement in the Midwest somewhere, just with better wine.
A dive bar that is also themed after one of the most iconic films of the past 30 years. It’s divey and kitschy in the perfect way. Maybe it won’t be your local, but it’s always going to be a good time. Did we mention they have a White Russian menu that features 24 different variations of the cocktail?
Formerly a huge bookshop in the center of downtown Reykjavik done in by COVID, the space has relaunched as a wine bar and music venue. The best part is they still have a huge selection of books you can peruse and buy.
A local bar featuring an amazing selection of gins and local Icelandic beers. Gin is getting ever more popular in the country, and this is one of the places they do it best.
A cocktail bar doing classics and experimental drinks, all in a green, verdant, very modern setting. What more could you want when the wind is howling by outside?
For Small Shared Plates: Mat Bar
This small, modern restaurant features Mediterranean-inspired plates. A wide variety of kebabs with local proteins like lamb and fish doused in tasty sauce are the way to go, as is the phenomenal flatbread to soak it all up. Mat Bar also features counter space at the window if you want to watch the world go by while you nosh.
For Bar Food and Bagels: Le Kock and Deig
Under the same ownership and occupying the same space, Le Kock and Deig serve high-end bar food and bagels, respectively. The owner is Icelandic but grew up in the USA, so he knows his way around boiled bread. Get the “poor man’s special,” which features a bagel, pastry and drink for about $8. Beware though, the cream cheese is a bit different than what we’re used to in the states. It’s not bad, just ever so slightly different. These spots are also on the ground floor of the Exeter Hotel.
For Ramen: Ramen Momo
Touted as the first and only ramen shop in Iceland, the tiny shop is always crowded and features housemade noodles and a slightly different take on the soup that uses ingredients grown locally.
For a Meal Worth Traveling For: Slippurinn
This is a destination restaurant. It sits off the coast in The Westman Islands, which are worth visiting on their own for the windswept cliffs, impossibly green mountainsides, unique golf course and of course, puffins! The restaurant, though, run by chef Gisli Matt, sits in an old boat machine workshop (Slippurinn is the word in Icelandic for that type of building, which is where the restaurant gets its name). Now converted, they focus primarily on fish, as that is the lifeblood of the island where the restaurant is located, and also have a robust cocktail menu features a program completely designed around local herbs instead of spirits. Highlights include “Cod Wings” (essentially pieces of cod with a fin still attached prepared like a typical American hot wing) and the huge cod head, which is more massive than you can ever imagine and torched in front of you at the table. The island is beautiful and the restaurant is worth the trip alone, so it’s double worth it for the 90-minute drive from Reykjavik and then 40-minute ferry, both of which are incredibly scenic and beautiful on their own. Side note: Chef Gisli Matt has a dope cook book coming out soon with Phaidon named after his restaurant. We recommend you check it out.
To Bring Home: Saltverk
If you’re going to bring one culinary item home with you, it should be the sea salt made by Saltverk. They harvest sea water from the fjords in the northwest corner of the country and create perfectly sized, flaky salt by evaporating the water out slowly using geothermal energy. The salt is great as a finishing option. They also create a handful of, as you probably guessed, uniquely Icelandic varieties like black lava salt, birch smoked salt (great for meat rubs), Arctic Thyme and a few others. You can also purchase the salt online, so even if you don’t go or just don’t feel like schlepping it back, you can get it in your home kitchen easily.
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