With the dramatic rise of tourism over the last 10 years, Iceland has quietly gained a reputation for its self-defined “simple, honest food”. With an emphasis on blending ancestral legacy with spirited modernism, indigenous ingredients with sustainable practices and clean food production, local epicurean vanguards are garnering international acclaim; the country recently awarded its very first Michelin-star by way of celebrated luxe-Scandi restaurant Dill. With the growing popularity of local gastronomy, a preference for fine spirits and bespoke beverages has followed, with splashy new establishments popping up across the country.
Here’s our guide to discovering Icelandic's exciting food and drink scene:
In downtown Reykjavik, epicureans eagerly await March 2019’s Food and Fun Festival. Dubbed a “culinary circus”, global chefs will converge and collaborate with participating restaurants to highlight Icelandic ingredients on specialty menus.
In the meantime, swing by the new speakeasy-inspired restaurant ÓX, where chef Þráinn Freyr Vigfússon showcases an ever-evolving 14-course tasting menu. Dishes are peppered with tradition and nostalgia; try the sweetbreads course, seasoned with indigenously grown wild thyme and angelica stems, then lacquered with a salt licorice glaze and topped with puffed Icelandic barley.
Inspired by Iceland's mineral-rich and aquatic surroundings, chef Ingi Þórarinn Friðriksson of Blue Lagoon’s Lava Restaurant offers fresh fish of the day, including plump perch caught from the Grindavik harbor, accompanied by a delicate langoustine sauce.
For the adventurous, Hlemmur - Mathöll, the first food hall in Reykjavik, has sprung up in a former bus shelter. One of our favorite outposts is Skál! ("cheers!"), poised as an experimental bar and restaurant. Chef Gisli Matthias Audunsson offers progressive dishes such as seaweed cured smoked carrots; the umami-enriched sheets appear as salmon-hued accordion folds over grilled sourdough with dollops of mayonnaise fortified with lovage, an indigenous celery-anise flavored herb.
Marshall restaurant is in Grandi, a waterfront neighborhood 15 minutes from the center of Reykjavik. The property was formerly a processing mill owned by HB Grandi, a leading sustainable fishery company. Marshall owner and chef Leifur Kolbeinsson’s cuisine captures the spirit of new Nordic fare with Mediterranean embellishments. He uses HB Grandi’s freshly caught cod and pan-sears the meaty and creamy flesh, the dish served with a beurre blanc sauce and salsa verde.
Strikið acts as the culinary mascot of Akureyri, considered the unofficial capital of the north (and second largest urban area after Reykjavik). Opened in 2005, chef Robert Hasler fuses Scandinavian and Icelandic fare with flavorful twists, best exemplified through his grilled Icelandic langoustine dish, placed on a purée of dates, basil, and hazelnuts. The sweet, supple coils are finished with noisette-aïoli.
East of Akureyri is Mývatn, a volcanic lake surrounding a series of tiny villages. In the town of Hella, Reykkofinn Farm and Smokehouse, owned and operated by Birgir Valdimar Hauksson and Steinunn Ósk Stefánsdóttir, sells specialties such as double smoked lamb legs and sustainable, aquaculture-raised smoked rainbow trout; both are produced with homemade dried sheep manure (which is burned to create the smoke), and based off ancestral recipes.
Up until 1989, beer was banned in Iceland, but a tour de force of breweries are making up for lost time. Many are in anticipation of 2019’s Icelandic Beer Festival (a celebration of suds from across the country); but in the interim, visitors can quench their thirst with a flight of Einstök, made from pure Icelandic glacier water (and including a white ale, pale ale, and toasted porter) at Olstofa Akureyrar’s Brewer’s Lounge in Akureyri.
Kaffi Kú is a 14-minute drive south of Akureyri. Since 2011, it's the only cowshed and cafe in the country completely automated with robots that clean the grounds and feed the animals—even its 150 cows know how to self-milk on machines. Owner Einar Örn Aðalsteinsson offers a refreshing glass of natural, unpasteurized milk to guests; it’s the perfect companion to their chocolate-toffee-pecan cake, a sweet tooth's dream.
Vogafjós is another beloved bovine barn and restaurant. Situated along glimmering Lake Mývatn, owners Jón Reynir Sigurjónsson and his wife Ólöf Hallgrímsdóttir opened the space to guests in 1999. Here you can toast cocktails with cows; order the sunshine-hued golden plover that features rum, house rhubarb liqueur, lemon juice and sugar syrup.
Back in Reykjavik, saunter into the newly opened Konsúlat Hotel for the bar’s happy hour. Flourishes of its previous life as a grand 19th-century department store are woven into the historic property. Soak up the ambiance with local specialties such as Foss Distillery’s amber-hued Björk liqueur. Like sipping on a woodland retreat, the distilled grain spirit is infused with Icelandic birch and its syrup.