Holidays are all about spoiling yourself, and while you wouldn’t eat out at Michelin-starred restaurants every night, there’s no harm in treating yourself once in a while. But it’s also possible to eat well on a less than royal budget. Whatever you have to spend on food and drink, here are a few suggestions for the best restaurants in Iceland.
Top restaurants in Iceland
Make the most of a tasting menu to be more adventurous with your food
Ordering a tasting menu is a great way of getting to know a new cuisine in a short space of time. Many of the top restaurants offer such menus; they’ll even suggest a wine pairing too so that you can experience Icelandic cuisine at its very best. DILL, opened in 2009, but was the first restaurant in the country to be awarded a Michelin star when it won the accolade in 2017. The menu is classically Nordic, simple yet creative, showcasing the finest ingredients that Iceland has to offer. At the helm is chef Gunnar Karl Gíslasson, whose inventiveness and talent ensure that diners are never disappointed at this world-class restaurant.
Other Michelin-starred restaurants worth considering include Matur og Drykkur, named after an Icelandic cookbook, Grillið at the Radisson Blu, whose panoramic views are a hit with guests and non-guests alike and the modern fare served at Nostra. But one of the best places to try a tasting menu of local favorites without such a hit to the wallet is at the cozy Tapas Barinn, in the center of Reykjavik. Order the Icelandic Gourmet Feast and sample Icelandic classics such as the smoked puffin, Arctic char, pan-fried blue ling, and minke whale, washed down with a shot of Brennivin, the Icelandic answer to schnapps. There’s no need to visit a cultural center – this is Iceland’s cultural heritage served right there on the plate.
Traditional Icelandic Cuisine
Traditional Icelandic cuisine has a loyal following, but some of its most famous – or should we say infamous – dishes take a bit of getting used to. Fermented shark, known as hákarl, is one such foodstuff. Greenland shark, if eaten straightaway, would be poisonous, so the meat is left to hang in large chunks so that the toxins drip slowly away.
If you’re interested to see how the process works, pick up your rental car in Reykjavik and take a ride out to Bjarnarhöfn on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. It’s only a couple of hours from the capital, which makes it a great option for a day trip from Reykjavik.
Keep your eyes peeled for a small sign in the shape of a fish and a gravel track will lead to the fascinating Shark Museum. Inside, there’s an eclectic mix of exhibits that inform and entertain – there’s not much you won’t learn about sharks and shark fishing. Outside, in open-sided drying sheds, you’ll see the meat hanging in the fresh air. Back in the museum, try small cubes of hákarl with some rye bread for the ultimate Icelandic foodie bragging rights. As you’d expect from an island nation, fish plays an important role in Icelandic cuisine.
Salted cod was traditionally prepared so that fish could be stored for long periods in the days before refrigerators. Stew is also a common choice when it comes to fish dishes. Plokkfiskur (literally “plucked fish”) usually contains some white fish like cod or haddock mixed with potatoes, onions, chicken stock, and a béchamel sauce. British visitors will be pleased to learn that fish and chips similar in style to those consumed at home is increasingly popular. But for something completely different, get your chops around hardfiskur. This fish snack resembles beef jerky in some sense of the word; you might prefer to eat it with butter as it’s a little more palatable if you’re not used to it dry. Fish fans, don’t miss Fiskfelagid, a cozy restaurant tucked away in the basement of the Zimsen building, and one of the best in the capital for all things seafood.
Iceland’s most famous dishes
If you’ve driven a rental car in Iceland, you’ll have seen plenty of sheep. Icelandic lamb is tender and flavourful, high-quality meat the result of free-range grazing on wild pastures. As well as roasted lamb, try hangikjöt, where the lamb is smoked over a fire fuelled by sheep dung and then salted, roasted and carved into thin slices, not unlike prosciutto in Italy or jamón serrano or Spain. Less common now is svið, a traditional dish made with a boiled sheep’s head. You might still find it at the Þorrablót mid-winter festival. The cheek’s tender and the eye are considered a delicacy, but it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
One dairy product that is synonymous with Iceland is skyr. Though it’s a relatively new addition to the supermarket shelves of mainland Europe, Icelanders have been eating it since medieval times. It even gets a mention in the sagas, so ingrained is it with Icelandic culture. Skyr is classified as a fresh sour milk cheese with the consistency of Greek yogurt. It’s particularly delicious served at breakfast where it’s customary to eat it with fresh berries. Vegetarians will also be pleased to know that the Gló chain has plenty of healthy options, including much to delight vegans. Reykjavik’s Svarta Kaffiđ is also worth checking out as it always has a great vegetarian soup option on its menu.
Cheap restaurants in Reykjavik
The best budget option isn’t a restaurant at all.
Proving you don’t need to entertain the idea of Michelin-starred dining, or even a sit-down restaurant for that matter, one of Iceland’s essential foodie experiences revolves around the humble hot dog. It might not be the first dish that springs to mind if you’re considering trying Nordic cuisine, but it’s every bit as authentic as the multi-course menus you’ll find in fine dining establishments.
If you want to get acquainted with Icelandic street food, ask locals to point you in the direction of the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur cart. They’re confident about their food – the name translates as “the town’s best hot dogs”. A fixture on the harbor since 1937, its fame spread far and wide when former US President Bill Clinton paid them a visit. Ask for it "ein með öllu" ("one with everything", that’s ketchup, mustard, fried and raw onion and remoulade). The Game of Thrones cast and A-lister Ben Stiller have also been spotted there during a break from filming. If your budget means you’re confined to cheap restaurants in Reykjavik, Iceland doesn’t get much better than this when it comes to fast food.
Restaurants at Keflavik airport
Stop off before you fly home for one last treat.
It’s almost an Icelandic vacation rite of passage to stop off at the Blue Lagoon on the way to or from Keflavik Airport. But don’t confine your experience to a dip in the spa, excellent though that is. Head upstairs to the Michelin-starred Moss restaurant and through its floor, to ceiling windows, you can gaze out over the lagoon and the rugged volcanic that surrounds it. It’s one of the best restaurants in Iceland, and evening dining doesn’t get much better than this. If your flight time is earlier in the day, the Blue Lagoon also has a café and the Lava restaurant which is a great choice for lunch. Like Moss, it’s as much about the setting as it is the fresh local ingredients and delicious food.
Eat well, Iceland fans. The diet can wait until you get home.