Believe it or not, fish restaurants are relatively new in Iceland. Cod was sold from Iceland to the rest of the world, but wasn’t available to the average Icelander. It was, like everything here, too expensive.
Of course cheaper fish was a staple, such as haddock. A dish like Plokkfiskur, or fish stew, was a way of getting fish and padding it with the calories of potatoes, making Icelandic comfort food. Nowadays, tourists want fresh fish almost as soon as they arrive. Icelanders want to enjoy the spoils of the Cod War against Britain. How you want your fish, depends on your mood. It also depends on where you go.
Sometimes you just want fresh fish deep-fried. Icelandic Fish & Chips does this well. I would argue, much like football, Iceland does this better than Britain. The fish is fresh and the batter is light and crispy, with Skyronnes®, a skyr-based dipping sauce that comes in nine variations (with the standard tartar sauce included). This is the best way to try Icelandic fish—especially for the picky eater. If it’s fresh, try the steinbítur, Atlantic Wolffish. It’s as ugly in life as it is delicious in death.
We all have a friend or relative who can cook fish perfectly. It’s almost annoying. You can see their smug face when their fork pierces your overcooked salmon, flaking it off the skin before they announce to the table that everyone should come over for dinner at their house sometime. Messin is that person. It makes simple meals: fish, potatoes, vegetables—all cooked, and this isn’t an advertisement, to perfection. It only opened a few weeks ago, but Messinn is Reykjavík’s answer to the Ísafjörður institution Tjöruhusið, which is a good comparison for their chefs, if not their accountants.
Matur og Drykkur is a restaurant based on the classic Icelandic cookbook of the same name. It gives a much needed boost to classic Icelandic cuisine. It’s fine dining that gives you a gentrified culinary history of Iceland. You will be suspicious of some items: trout smoked with sheep’s dung and cod’s head cooked in chicken stock with dulse. Don’t be. Sheep’s dung was traditionally used to smoke things in Iceland. There aren’t a lot of trees in general. Cod’s head was the cheap part of the fish that Icelanders could afford to take home, while selling the rest of the fish to richer nations.
Have fish while you are in Iceland. If this article was a listicle, it would be titled “Three Places To Eat Fish In Iceland From Least To Most Adventurous.” That wouldn’t be exactly fair, though. I think a normally picky eater would enjoy Matur og Drykkur and a foodie would love Icelandic Fish & Chips. The prices aren’t too different either. It’s Iceland. Everything is expensive so Icelanders can make enough money to afford to eat out too. Well, at least when their foreign friends come to visit and take them out.