Let’s be honest: eating out in Iceland was never going to be cheap. The country is notoriously expensive, so I pretty much planned on eating baked beans on toast the entire time I was here, maybe interspersed with some plain pasta. Which is ridiculous, as I ought to know myself better than that by now: when there’s good food to be had, I simply can’t resist it. Especially when travelling with the equally food-obsessed Jessi Rich, who was my travel buddy on this trip.
Reykjavik might not be best known as a foodie destination, but actually I think it should be. (To be fair, it is known for being a beautiful, artsy & progressive city, which are also accolades it well deserves.) Sure, it might not be cheap to eat out here, but the place is packed with restaurants, with prices to suit all but the most meagre of budgets.
Here are my 3 restaurant choices, graded by affordability:
THE BUDGET OPTION: Gló
2000 ISK pp
When I hear the words ‘budget option’, it conjures up an image of unhealthy fast food, served on plastic trays, in a room that smells vaguely of cleaning fluids. But fortunately, Gló is none of those things.
In an upstairs room in the centre of Reykjavik, Gló is a gem of chic design and hearty food. Ambience and first impressions mean a lot to me – what is it about quirky décor that makes food taste nicer?
As you walk up the stairs into Gló, you notice the beaten metal light shades, the concrete cactus pots, and the wooden walls. Next, you notice the sounds: a blend of voices and languages, with both tourists and Icelandic locals stopping here to eat. Then, you notice the smell: herbs, pesto, onion, sweet potato, chicken, soup, home-baked bread… Talk about a way to get the tummy rumbling!
The meals at Gló typically consist of a main dish with three side salads. I had pesto chicken (which was twice as much chicken as I was expecting!) with a sweet potato salad, beetroot, and watermelon. I know, it sounds like an odd mix, but actually I think watermelon with savoury food may just be my new favourite thing. It’s a great light accompaniment to all the heavier savoury foods, and without it, I think I may have struggled to finish my massive portion of food even more!
Gló also has vegetarian and vegan options, as well as gluten free, so it caters to pretty much all tastes and requirements. As well as main dishes like chicken and lasagne, they also sell wraps and soups (in beautifully glazed soup bowls), which also typically come with side salads – though the wraps were probably the size of my face, so I have no idea how I’d manage to eat a salad as well.
Which is one of the things that really made Gló for me: enormous portions of delicious hearty food.
Unfortunately, we were too full for cake (which is saying a lot in itself!) but luckily I’m never too full for coffee, because the coffee was delicious, and exactly what I needed to stop me slipping into a food coma after that enormous meal, and to perk me up for another afternoon of exploring Reykjavik.
Note: we ate at Gló on Laugavegur, but there are branches right across the city.
THE MID-PRICE MEAL: Forréttabarinn
6000 ISK pp
For something slightly fancier, which doesn’t require smashing open the piggy bank, there’s Forréttabarinn.
Forréttabarinn is down by the harbour, a short walk from Reykjavik’s main shopping street (and when I say short, I really do mean short – the city is so small that it never really takes more than ten minutes to walk anywhere within the centre).
The restaurant is housed in a converted industrial building facing the docks, with white walls and ceiling and exposed metal girders. Anchors hang from the ceiling, and the paintings on the walls are abstract landscapes in bold colours and broad brushstrokes. The clientele was mixed: a blend of ages and nationalities, locals and tourists alike. This and the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant gave the place a bustling kind of energy, and a chic bistro feel.
We were greeted by a friendly waiter, Ludvik, who was great at talking us through the different dishes and what they contained. Again, we ate an awful lot of food here – maybe big portions is an Icelandic trait? Something to do with building up energy reserves for the cold winter ahead, perhaps? Either way, it made eating out an absolute dream.
We had a taster menu, which meant a lot of different dishes, so here’s a low-down on what we ate:
- Bread & tapenade
- Langoustine soup: this was probably my favourite part of the meal – a buttery soup with a slight peppery kick, and huge prawns nestled at the bottom. (Side note: we tried a different langoustine soup later in our trip, and it had nothing on this one. I could have happily eaten several bowls of this and nothing else for our entire ten days in Iceland.)
- Hot smoked salmon with greens
- Smoked duck breast with beetroot salad: this was a real fusion of flavours, with the tender duck, the richness of the beetroot, an apple mousse (a bit like an apple butter), served with pomegranate and potato crisps.
- Beef carpaccio salad, served with rocket, Parmesan & rock salt
- Fillet of lamb
- Arctic char with garlic
- And to finish: chocolate cake & ice cream, served with a berry compote
All of it was delicious, but my favourites were definitely the langoustine soup and the duck. Although if you haven’t tried Arctic char, it’s definitely one to sample while you’re in Iceland!
We were so full by the time we finished, that we even struggled to finish the chocolate cake! Which isn’t like us at all… But luckily, we only had to walk up the road to our AirBnB, where we could collapse on our beds, full and tired from the rich food experience.
SPLASH-OUT-AND-TREAT-YOURSELF DINING: Matur og Drykkur
10,000 ISK pp
Ok. It’s time to smash open the savings jar and let the coins roll across the carpet. Then gather them up & head to Matur og Drykkur for a bizarre, traditional, and surprisingly delicious Icelandic eating experience.
For dinner at Matur og Drykkur, you can choose the Icelandic, Seafood or Vegetarian menu. Each one is a set menu, comprising five courses, designed to give a sampling of traditional Icelandic food, with a modern twist.
All of the dishes are based on recipes from an Icelandic cookbook, written by Helga Sigurðardóttir. This and the restaurant’s setting, in an old salt fish factory by the harbour, give the feeling that what you’re sampling isn’t just food, but a part of Icelandic heritage and tradition.
Dried fish? Check. Cod’s head? Check. Trout smoked in sheep dung? Check.
At this point, I think it probably goes without saying that this is not the sort of food I’d usually eat at home. But that’s why I travel: to experience new things, to view new horizons, and to sample new flavours. And the menu at Matur og Drykkur is bursting with flavour.
Ok, let’s talk about the sheep dung bit. No, don’t worry, you don’t actually get a plate of lamb’s droppings (although you do get a plate of succulent lamb at one point, which is delicious). What you get is a wooden board, bearing crispy seaweed, dried fish, and slithers of trout with a faint smokey taste. Oh, and some of the best bread ever, baked overnight and kept warm on site, made with rock salt and cumin seeds, and served with light creamy butter.
I’ve already mentioned the lamb, but one of the other main meals is the cod’s head. You’ll probably notice this before yours arrives, as the open kitchen means you can watch the chef setting a blow torch to the outside of the cod’s heads, giving them a crispy glaze. Then, once you’ve been wowed by the giant flames, they bring it over to your table. Side note: cod are huge! I never realised how big they were until I was looking at the head of one, which was spilling over the edge of the plate. I took a deep breath to get past the fact it was a head with eye sockets (fortunately no eyes), and tucked in. And what I found beneath that crispy glaze, was tender flakey fish, full of the flavour you’d expect from any other part of the cod. (Or, in Jessi’s words: I’m eating a face and it’s actually really good!)
And, once you’re through the fish head, the tongue muscle and the sheep’s dung, there’s the best reward waiting for you at the end: Icelandic doughnuts and Skyr. OK, so there may have been a moment when we didn’t know what Skyr was, and Jessi panicked and thought we were going to be eating puffin for dessert… But luckily, Skyr is a sort of sweet yoghurt that’s really popular in Iceland. And Icelandic doughnuts… Well. They’re delicious sweet doughy twists, and with the caramel sauce they were served with at Matur og Drykkur, it was like eating a little bit of heaven.
So these are my three restaurant choices, one for each level of budgeting. Any other recommendations for places to eat in Reykjavik, let me know! Comments in the little box below.