Published November 11, 2016
Reykjavík is a relatively small city, but even so, sometimes you need a bit of local advice to find what you’re looking for, whether it’s a good people-watching spot, somewhere to see some contemporary art, or the best place to catch an Icelandic movie. Don’t worry, friends—we’ve got you covered via our Best of Reykjavík 2016 series. Here are some of our favourite spots in Reykjavík, for all kinds of super-fun days and nights out. Enjoy! And if you try our list, you can let us know what you thought of the selections via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Colours Of The World: Spice Up Your Life
Icelanders have a bland palate. They share their Celtic neighbours in Ireland’s culinary tradition of boiling everything. The traditional flavour notes in Iceland consist of bitter, sour, salted and smoked. The reason for this was isolation, lack of trade, and an abundance of sheep shit and rotten milk—or maybe flavour became redundant with everyone insufflating large amounts of dry, old tobacco (if you get offered some here, don’t do it. The black ooze draining from your sinuses in the shower will terrify you the next morning).
With the increase of trade, the first real addition to the Icelandic palate was sweet things. To this day, the dominant characteristic of anything from mustard to pickles tends to be sweetness. Eventually, with more Icelanders travelling and returning with tales of this magical sensation called “flavour,” the demand for a larger culinary spectrum grew.
Which brings us to today. Where can you, traveller or local, get a restorative and spicy meal in this one-street town?
By far the most impressive and flavourful restaurant in Reykjavík is Austur-India Felagið (or “The East India Company”). The owners have been showing and guiding Icelanders, and now tourists, through the complex and spicy world of authentic Indian cuisine since 1994. Many places in Iceland start responding to complaints and criticism by bending to the Icelandic palate and “Icelandifying” their menu. Austur-India Felagið stood their ground and educated rather than placated. By doing so, they won the admiration and love of an entire population. It’s a great sit-down dinner after a particularly cold or windy day.
Another Reykjavík staple is Noodle Station. Its steamed windows and billowing clouds of coriander scent are one of the perks of a dark and blustery winter here. It’s not inherently spicy, but you can ask for extra spice or add your own flaky chili sauce until your nose runs, your tongue throbs and your gums howl. Its bar-style stool seating and cheaper prices (for Reykjavík) attract prudent solo travellers.
If you’re looking for something quick and portable, the spiciest option is Ali Baba. Now before some of you locals or frequent visitors send me an angry email—feel free, by the way—you could also go next door to Mandi. The premise of this little piece, though, is “Best Places For A Spicy Meal,” and Ali Baba has hotter, more intense chili sauce on their shawarma (when you request it). I will concede, happily, that Mandi has better falafel, which can be made spicy, and placate (yes, twice in one article!) your hunger and murder-aversion simultaneously.
Maybe you want to enjoy the sun and have a little spicy kick on the side. Tacobarinn is a beautiful venue, a glass atrium split into two levels with plants and large table seating. They have a non-traditional Mexican menu that is constantly changing, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, but there is always something for everyone, both vegan and carnivore. Their black bean soup and chili sin (without) carne is always good.
Now, for you heat junkies, the hottest place in town is Ban Thai. This place has been a consistent favourite of locals and the Grapevine for years. It’s open for dinner, starting at 18:00, but also has an affiliated take-away place called Yummi Yummi. Thailand may be thousands of kilometres away, but these places can, if you close your eyes, whisk you from the North Atlantic to Southeast Asia in a couple of mouthfuls.
You’ll notice, like my preamble suggested, “spicy” food is often a cuisine from other places—maybe even where you yourself are from. You flew here to see Iceland, to taste Iceland, to immerse yourself in all that is Icelandic. Well, I might have been a little too harsh about the Icelandic palate earlier. Mátur og Drykkur specializes in turning traditional Icelandic flavours and dishes into flavourful fine dining—a feat previously only accomplished by Dill, Iceland’s best fancy meal. Mátur og Drykkur is open at lunch and for dinner service and the Icelandic spices and herbs can be surprisingly subtle or intense.
Read more of our Best of 2016 lists here.