Reykjavík’s old harbour area Grandi has gone through a rapid transformation in recent years, with new restaurants and bars popping up almost every month, it seems. Art galleries, museums, and delicatessens of various kinds. To put it in modern terms, Grandi has been gentrified. With a capital G.
And don’t get me wrong, very few people would see anything wrong with that. The streets are clean and accessible and there are heaps of things to do, try and taste. But before all that, there was only one place to go. The oldest operating restaurant in the country, no less.
Starting in 1935, Kaffivagninn, which translates to “The Coffee Wagon,” was a literal wagon, to begin with. People would sit in the back of a modest truck and drink their transparently brewed cup of joe. For decades, it was the only restaurant in the harbour area—a place where dockworkers, fishermen, politicians, vagrants, artists, students, and basically anyone could meet up in a classless environment, drinking coffee by the gallon, in essentially the first and one of very few Icelandic diners.
Kaffivagninn has been operated by the same family since the early 80s, but went through some changes in recent years, all positive—most significantly a liquor license and a brand-new deck with a magnificent view of the harbour and Harpa. The menu has stayed true to the people who frequent the place. Seafood and smørrebrød, breakfast and brunch, pancakes and pies. Comfort food, the way your grandmother made. Simply does it.
My companion and I came during lunch hour, which usually lasts until 3pm. His choice was the fish soup of Odin (2290 ISK), mine the fish & chips with three different sauces (2590 ISK). The soup was and delicious, consisting of mixed seafood such as cod, Arctic char and shrimps, along with fresh julienne-cut scallions and carrots. Whipped cream on top, classic. The fish and chips was another very presentable and generously served dish—perfectly cooked fish, crisp on the outside, yet flaky on the inside—as it should be. The fries were the McDonald’s standard cut kind—British chips would have been better. A lemon wedge was there to be squeezed but I would love to see some malt vinegar in Iceland one day. That said, I’m pretty sure Kaffivagninn is not out to emulate anything… this is how they’ve always done it.
And that’s the beauty of this place—It’s uniqueness is simplicity. It’s down to earth. Had Bruce Springsteen been born in Iceland, he would have written a song about Kaffivagninn, where everyone is equal. Where small-time crooks cook up their ill-fated schemes, rubbing shoulders with opera singers recuperating after a night out. And despite the gentrification of the area, well… it still looks and feels like something authentic. Like something real.