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“There will be lots of jaw-dropping geysers, waterfalls and glaciers,” a friend who had recently visited Iceland told me. “But don’t expect to be blown away by the food.”
As others may have heard from their own sources, Iceland isn’t branded as a foodie destination. But my friend’s warning fell on deaf ears: As someone who travels not only for natural beauty but also for gastronomic offerings, I resolved to be my own judge on how palatable a trip to Iceland could be. Rather than scour for restaurant recommendations myself, though, I handed over the reins to The Reykjavik Food Walk — currently No. 1 on TripAdvisor for Reykjavik’s Food & Drink activities.
The Reykjavik Food Walk is run by local operator Wake Up Reykjavik, which launched in early 2014 with its first product, Reykjavik Bar Crawl. Its culinary-focused product followed in August 2015 and swiftly rose in status among visitors to Iceland’s capital city. Egill Fannar Halldorsson, who founded the company with business partner Daniel Andri Petursson, says the idea of The Reykjavik Food Walk stemmed from years in the service industry and from witnessing firsthand the tourism boom of the once-sleepy town, which has a modest population of about 120,000.
“We noticed how so many travelers were wandering around our city and, unfortunately, stumbling into the wrong bars and restaurants,” said Halldorsson, who was born and raised in Reykjavik. “We figured that with our experience in food and nightlife — and, of course, our huge passion for meeting new people — we had the opportunity to create something really special.”
Their mission statement encompasses visitors exploring Reykjavik like actual locals. As a result, participants won’t find some of the more eyebrow-raising dishes that Iceland is notorious for — such as fermented shark, ram testicles and sour sheep heads — on the tour product’s menu.
“Originally, eating those dishes was a matter of survival; you simply had to eat whatever you get your hands on to endure long, freezing-cold winters in Iceland,” Halldorsson said. “Some people still enjoy those traditional types of cuisine today, but they are not commonly eaten. We decided to focus on all the best Icelandic cuisines, instead.”
Trying Out the The Reykjavik Food WalkBarely visible under multiple layers, my friend and I joined a roughly four-hour tour with The Reykjavik Food Walk in late November, when Iceland’s winter season had just begun to rear its frigid head. As our guide, Kjartan, led the way, our group exhaled visible sighs of relief as we neared the first stop, Islenski Barinn, which literally translates to “Icelandic Bar.” Cozy and unassuming, the buzzing restaurant is one of the best in Reykjavik, and regulars frequently fill up on its traditional Icelandic cuisine and excellent brews off an ample beer menu.
Alas, sipping on a craft ale was not in the cards for us. We warmed up with a bowl of lamb stew dressed with rice, sweet potatoes and root vegetables that were grown and harvested on a farm run by the restaurant owners’ family. According to Kjartan, lamb stew is a characteristically Icelandic dish; in fact, the country houses almost five times more sheep than people. These sheep are kept in the wild, roaming free and grazing on natural vegetation such as Arctic thyme.
“They self-marinate,” he joked.
The top food and drink activity in Iceland’s capital city, The Reykjavik Food Walk ensures that travelers sample the best local eats, including an Icelandic hot dog. // © 2017 Valerie Chen
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is said to offer the tastiest Icelandic hot dogs in Reykjavik. // © 2017 Valerie Chen
Explore the town in the company of a local guide and fellow travelers. // © 2017 Audrey Wood
Islenski Barinn (“Icelandic Bar”) is known for its craft beers and lamb soup. // © 2017 Valerie Chen
Ostabudin is a popular delicatessen and restaurant. // © 2017 Valerie Chen
At the deli, travelers sample cured meats, including horse and sheep, as well as local cheeses. // © 2017 Valerie Chen
Don’t miss the rye bread ice cream at Cafe Loki. // © 2017 Valerie Chen
Fine-dining restaurant Apotek Kitchen + Bar was once a pharmacy. // © 2017 Valerie Chen
Tour-goers eat a dessert of meringue Skyr yogurt and berries at Apotek. // © 2017 Valerie Chen
Enjoy lobster soup at the seaside Saegreifinn restaurant. // © 2017 Valerie Chen
Gourmands will love Ostabudin, a popular delicatessen and restaurant. At the deli offshoot, we moseyed up to the counter to sample a curated selection of cheeses, including a smooth black gouda, a creamy cheese and an extra-moldy blue cheese. Here, we also had a small taste of the eccentric Icelandic dishes that are intentionally absent from the itinerary: cured horse fillet. The verdict? The jerky-like meat was lean, tender and actually quite appetizing, just like what followed: cured sheep flavored with fennel and hot goose breast served with a raspberry vinaigrette and champagne vinegar.
We marched onward to Cafe Loki, while Kjartan pointed out other must-stops and attractions, such as where to grab the best coffee in town (Reykjavik Roasters) and the first bakery to peddle sourdough bread (Braud & Co). In addition to an elaborate wall mural portraying the plight of ancient gods, Cafe Loki’s claim to fame is its homemade rye bread ice cream.
Other bites on The Reykjavik Food Walk include a rich seafood soup with lightly poached lobster at Saegreifinn (The Sea Baron) restaurant and an intricately beautiful dessert of meringue Skyr yogurt and berries at Apotek Kitchen + Bar, a former pharmacy that has been transformed into a chic restaurant offering European and Icelandic cuisine.
My favorite dish, however, was far from fancy — just a hunk of lamb sausage tucked between two sides of a crusty bun, then topped with the works, including ketchup, crispy and raw onions, sweet mustard and remoulade, a mayo-based sauce with sweet relish. And judging by the long line of customers encircling Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, I was not the humble hot dog stand’s only admirer.
Though the Icelandic frank is fairly ubiquitous (I even had a second, then a third, hot dog at Keflavik International Airport), Baejarins Beztu Pylsur has been hawking the famed hot dogs since 1937. Unsurprisingly, its name even translates to “best hot dogs in town.” Fun fact: Prior to becoming a vegan in 2010, Bill Clinton happily noshed on a hot dog here.
Besides suggesting that guests take the tour early on during their Iceland visit — as it serves as a great introduction to the country — Halldorsson has one other solid recommendation.
“It's very, very important to show up hungry,” he said.
The Reykjavik Food Walkwww.thereykjavikfoodwalk.com
Wake Up Reykjavikwww.wakeupreykjavik.com