Top Reykjavik Restaurants
Blonde visited Iceland on a mission to enjoy the top Reykjavik restaurants and learn their paths to success in the city’s competitive (but friendly) culinary scene. People are often surprised to learn that Reykjavik is such a foodie paradise but it is. It isn’t inexpensive (that comment applies to the whole country) but then high quality food in top restaurants rarely is.
Blonde has been strictly a food consumer and never really cared much about how restaurants achieved their success. But Iceland is so remote in terms of the cost of importing food, has such a stubbornly strong culture and with the 2008 collapse of the banks there had to be a story here. It turns out that there are several stories of restaurant success and none of them involve just being lucky.
This husband and wife owned establishment is currently ranked #2 on Trip Advisor so surely qualifies as being one of the top restaurants of Reykjavik. Chef Johann Helgi Johennsson and his wife Ragga Helen Edvardsdottir (these names are leaving spellcheck in the dust) have worked literally every day since the restaurant’s opening in October of 2014. The day of the interview was only the 4th night the chef had taken off work . If he isn’t there his wife is and frequently they both are.
Chef Johann, or “Jòi”, started apprenticing as a cook 30 years ago and has been perfecting his skills and developing his own distinctive style ever since. He had a mentor, Chef Runar Marvinsson, who is renowned for his skill in cooking Icelandic fish. Over the years Chef Jòi worked at various establishments in Reykjavik and gained a devoted following.
In October of 2014 he and Ragga (a former graphic design artist in LA) took over an old pizzeria near the bus station (which will soon become a food market). In less than a month they literally remade the place and opened for business. Regga’s father is a carpenter, her design abilities created a warm, cozy feel and friends and family pitched in to make it all happen.
The entire staff consists of friends and family which helps to explain the homey, relaxed atmosphere.
Most guests come here primarily for the fish although the lamb is also excellent. If the names of the fish aren’t familiar to you the staff is very helpful in describing them.
Resto’s dinner prices are reasonable by the standards of top restaurants in Reykjavik (which is to say roughly under $70 USD per person assuming one glass of wine).
Fishmarkadurrin (or Fish Market to you)
Chef Hrefna Rósa Sætran owns two establishments consistently rated as being among the top restaurants in Reykjavik; Fishmarkadurrin and Grillmarkadurrin. Hrefna made her way up the ladder while still in her 20s. She and all of her staff, including waiters, are graduates of the Hotel and Restaurant School in Reykjavik which has students rotate between classroom learning and apprenticeships. The waiters each have 3 years of training before they can be waiters on their own.
Hrefna noted that during the economic downturn in Iceland chefs had to get more creative. It was simply too expensive to continue to import many of the items that had traditionally appeared on the menus. Chefs started devising dishes with things such as puffin eggs, Minke whale steaks and even the occasional reindeer here and there. Over time Icelanders have come to prefer the fish and other foods native to their country. By the time the economy rebounded no one wanted to go back to the old foods.
Fishmarkadurrin has, spoiler alert, some of the best fish you can find anywhere. Hrefna suggested our group do the tasting menu and we obediently did just that. It was 9 shared courses of heaven. We were lucky enough to be given a discount but the menu price for the food and wine tasting menu comes to $178 USD per person. You may want to order a la carte, but don’t miss this place.
Matur og Drykur (or Food and Drink to you)
Gísli Matthías Auðunsson is the chef, one of the owners and the manager of this restaurant with its casual, friendly vibe and tasty reimaginings of old Icelandic recipes. Gísli’s path to success was via working summers in a small restaurant which he, his parents and his sister own, Slippurinn, in the Westman Islands of Iceland. In the winters he worked for experience, not pay, in restaurants in France, New York City, Italy and Denmark and learned how to take the best ideas from each cuisine. Now that Matur go Drykur is open and a sought-after destination Gísli’s winters are being spent in Reykjavik ( victim of success anyone?).
Sometimes chefs, especially as they gain fame, seem to combine bizarre ingredients almost more for the shock value than the taste. Not Gísli. He has some odd (to non-Icelanders) combos; how about the double smoked lamb with grated nutmeg, and buttermilk with strained whey that was part of the Icelandic tasting menu? Or the Halibut soup with dill oil which is an update on one of his grandmother’s recipes? Unusual as these may sound they are very pleasing to eat. Sometimes it’s better not to ask what you’re eating if you aren’t feeling open-minded.
Although Blonde isn’t one for mixed drinks she’s giving a shout-out to the award-winning Birkidropi which is a combination of Icelandic birkir snaps, citrus liquor, citrus juice, birch syrup and egg white. The mixologist (they probably use a less pretentious term) insisted I try one and maybe that’s why everything else tasted so good…
Another special mention is merited for the restaurant’s artwork which is done by Gísli’s partner and is a combination of whimsy, Mad Men, fish heads and tastefully naked ladies in cocktail glasses!
Commonalities of the top Reykjavik restaurants
You need a reservation no matter what time of year you are going. As Hrefna said “every night is Saturday night now”. You can make reservations ahead of time via their websites, Facebook pages or email addresses but don’t wait until you’re in town especially if that’s going to be between June and late August.
You don’t need to ask where the locals go because they go to the same places you are going. You may have an edge on the locals as they’re slow to warm to the idea that they have to make reservations.
Go for the tasting menu at at least one restaurant. These have been put together very lovingly and thoughtfully and are unlike menus you will encounter elsewhere in the world.
Don’t rush – they don’t try to turn over your table and usher you out the door so take your time, put down your iPhone and enjoy the experience. You’re eating someone’s life work so pay attention.
Walk back to your hotel, even if it’s in Norway, after you have a chef’s tasting menu because your digestive system will need some encouragement.
Disclosure: Blonde came back 4 pounds heavier after 4 days in Reykjavik. Also our party was given a major discount on the Chef’s tasting menu at Fishmarkadurrin and Blonde ditched her friends for a free meal at Matur og Drykkur. (Actually they went to the Blue Lagoon at night and sat in sleet instead. Who said blondes are stupid?)