Published September 19, 2017
The highly anticipated Hlemmur Mathöll opened its doors this summer, promising to be a food hall that showcases “all kinds of food, for all kinds of people.” Several setbacks during the course of the project meant a delayed opening, but any frustrations are forgiven now that the place is operational. Downtown Reykjavík’s stinky old bus station is now spiffy and bright, holding ten distinctively designed new food stalls.
The hall has caused a current of excitement to run through the city’s food community. There’s space to stretch your legs, and nibble on some delicious, fairly affordable fare (it is still Reykjavik, after all). We met Bjarki Vigfússon, one of the two founding partners of Mathöll (with Haukur Már Gestsson), and Ragnar Egilsson, the CEO in charge of day-to-day operations, to learn more.
The Mathöll development is reminiscent of Torvehallerne in Copenhagen. Bjarki explains, “In 2014 we were thinking about how food markets were gaining popularity internationally, and about bringing that to Reykjavik. So when Reykjavikurborg advertised in 2015 for the revival and redevelopment of Hlemmur, and the surrounding neighbourhood, we applied.’’
Bjarki has lived around Hlemmur, and knows the history of the place quite well. “The first restaurant in this space was built in 1904,” he says. Ragnar adds, “It’s fitting that with so many dining options around, things are coming full circle.”
The mere mention of challenges causes Bjarki to burst into laughter. “The main challenge was the size of the place,” he says. “It’s around 530 square metres, so fitting in ten vendors, and storage, was a task.” I persist in asking about the elephant in the room, and, indeed, the city—regulation. “It was quite a problem,” Bjarki admits. Ragnar adds that some regulatory bodies are still grappling with the idea of what such food halls are trying to do.
It’s no secret that Reykjavík City’s planning and health departments are often behind the times, with regulations that err from caution to overkill. One local 80-square-meter restaurant has about nine wash basins, just to satisfy regulations. Even Mathöll—a pet project of the city—suffered a year’s delay. But Reykjavikurborg eventually convened the policy makers and stakeholders, so perhaps one can hold out hope.
I ask Bjarki how close Mathöll is to their original vision. “I’m 90% happy with the result,” he says. “We’re trying to find a balance of offering people dishes they can eat here, and then produce, meat and fish they can take away. The latter is more of a challenge [regarding regulations], because we want to open early, and close late.”
The potential and plurality of food culture in the social life of cities cannot be ignored. Food markets are an insight into the sights, smells, and tastes a place has to offer, and act as a counterpoint to supermarkets. To that end, Mathöll seems well on its way to becoming a community, as well as tourist favourite. “Perhaps this will apply gentle pressure on the authorities to take notice, by exhibiting the need and demand that’s there,” says Ragnar. “There’s unity among the people behind Mathöll in this vision. With enough demand, maybe people will wake up to the potential of Hlemmur, as participants in what we are doing.’’
“Someone opening up a meat and fish store around the corner would be a huge win,” finishes Bjarki. For now, the food hall certainly seems poised at the cusp of a culinary revolution in Iceland. Whether it will be a paradigm shift remains to be seen.