With great simplification, one could say that the restaurant world of Iceland has two main characteristics. On one hand, our food culture, like most other aspects of Icelandic culture, is going through early puberty, at least when compared to the rest of Europe. On the other hand, Iceland is culturally, as well as geographically, situated somewhere between America and Europe.
As for the first characteristic, the Icelandic kitchen didn’t really exist until very recently and then in a kind of conjunction with the Nordic kitchen. Dill is a defining one for the Icelandic kitchen and the only Michelin star restaurant in Iceland. For the progressive and those with fearless wallets, a table at Dill is definitely the way to go but if you can’t get a reservation or your wallet is spooked, Matur & Drykkur at Grandagarður 2 is a good alternative. Many other fine dining restaurants in the country work with this Nordic atmosphere but there are also those who remain faithful to the succulent cream and butter of the French kitchen. Lunch buffets are an easy choice for a reasonably priced good meal. This is especially true of the hotel restaurants such as Vox (Hilton Hotel) and Satt (Icelandair Hotel).
Fast food places were a late addition to this sparsely populated island and for a long time consisted mostly of the occasional roadside diner along Route 1 that served hamburgers and fries. KFC was among the first American franchises to arrive, Domino’s Pizza and Subway have had great success in Reykjavík and you’ll find most of the big American fast food joints in the capital although we no longer have a McDonalds. We highly recommend Sægreifinn down at the old harbor in Reykjavík for a more Icelandic fast food experience where you can get a great lobster soup and a baguette to go with it in a fraction of the time you had to wait in the late McDonalds.
Due to high demand, the hamburger culture in Iceland is relatively advanced. You could do worse than a bite at Tommy’s Burger Joint (Hamborgarabúlla Tómasar), Dirty Burger and Ribs, or Vitabar in Vitastígur, all local favorites and unique in their own way and we found the recent Block Burger in Skólavörðustígur a very pleasant surprise.
A visit to restaurant Laugaás at Laugarásvegur is well worth it for the time-travelling authentic Icelandic experience at this old-school and honest eatery. You could also get a table at good old Þrír frakkar (Three Frenchmen) in Baldursgata where butter plays the lead in their refined food and the wine selection is taken seriously. It’s all very French, including the opening hours, since apparently, the French don’t get hungry between 2 pm and 7 pm.
Snaps Bistro at Óðinstorg is a popular meeting place among Icelanders. Snaps offers a great selection of wine and proper snacks to accommodate it. We recommend the Bouillabaisse, some fries to scoop up the rest of your soup and their fine charcuterie. If you appreciate a good plate of Moules-Frites with your alcohol, this is a place for you.
Those who enjoy French delicatessens without the decadence should visit Ostabúðin at Skólavörðustígur, a proper gourmet shop that has been there for years. Recently the store opened up a restaurant in the shop’s lower level where you can get great fish, cheese platters, cured meats, Foie gras and cured horse meat to name a few, all for a reasonable price.
The most recent influence in Icelandic cuisine is probably the immense rise in tourism in Iceland. For your average Icelander in the suburbs, it has become virtually impossible to keep track of every new restaurant popping up all over the city to cater to this new traveling population. This new diversity and selection are as welcomed as it is exotic to those of us that were raised within the boundaries of Icelandic uniformity. By all means look around, try whatever suits your fancy and rest assured that Icelandic restaurateurs are generally both meticulous and ambitious. Bon appetite!