When the Argentína Steakhouse closed its doors earlier this year, it left a big rib-eye shaped hole in the downtown dining scene. Of course, many restaurants have beef and lamb steaks on the menu, but there’s something to be said for the simplicity and precision of the humble, out-of-fashion yet ever-popular steak joint. With fewer items cluttering the menu, there’s more of a focus on the cuts, their preparation, and, of course, grilling each steak to perfection, often over hot coals and for just a couple of minutes. With that in mind, we got wondering: is anywhere in Reykjavík ready to claim the steakhouse crown?
Despite the recent trend towards small plates and vegan and veggie options—and excluding a couple of high-end options—there are three out-and-proud specialised steakhouses in downtown Reykjavík. There’s the veteran Hereford Steakhouse on Laugavegur, the Grillhúsið on Tryggvagata, and Steikhúsið by the old harbour on Geirsgata. We made an extra hole in our belts, and headed out to scope out the contenders in a three-night steakhouse steak-out.
First up is The Hereford Steakhouse. A first-floor franchise restaurant, we visit during prime-time dinner hours on a weeknight. Only two other tables are occupied, so we get window seats with a Lee Harvey Oswald-ish view of the Laugavegur street life below.
The decor is, in the unerring tradition of stuffy masculinity that surrounds steakhouses, firmly in the slate-and-wood palette. But even by steakhouse standards, Hereford feels a bit dingy. In fact, the furniture is worn and grubby enough to have taken a couple of laps through Freecycle. There are pens dangling on strings around our knees, so—in a table-service time-saving measure that barely feels necessary—we fill in the order on the provided paper slip: one medium-rare mesquite ribeye with a baked potato and pepper sauce, and one medium-rare fillet steak with bearnaise (both 4,650 ISK).
They arrive briskly. The ribeye is a thin, fatty cut that disintegrates under my knife and fork. It’s a surprise, then, to discover that it’s also somewhat chewy, and lacks that distinctive wood-smoke mesquite flavour. The pepper sauce is a dark gravy with no peppercorns nor any tingle of heat, and the baked potato has been been sitting for so long that its skin has become an inedible crust. The fillet steak is chewy and unseasoned, and the bearnaise a tasteless goop. The salad—a sundry that, for some reason, is charged for—is unremarkable to point of invisibility, and goes back to the kitchen with the from-a-jar feta and olives all but untouched.
We’re left with the unhappy combination of feeling completely full and entirely unsatisfied, and wander off to Mikkeller for a commiseratory drink. Tomorrow must be better. Right?
With decals of the dishes plastered onto the windows, our second steakhouse comes without airs and graces. It turns out to be a bright, cheerful, no-frills diner—one of three in a chain that can also be found in Borgarnes and Sprengisandur. There’s a gumball machine, a neon clock, portraits of American cars and film stars, and a TV blaring out “My Sharona” and “Satisfaction.” It has a congenial family vibe, and the staff are quirky and welcoming, giving the place a casual and upbeat atmosphere.
There are, surprisingly, only two steak options amongst the burgers and such: a T-bone (4,590 ISK), and a peppered tenderloin (4,190 ISK). When they say peppered, they’re not kidding: the inch-thick medallion of meat arrives dressed in a black breastplate of seasoning. The thing is here, it just works: the pepper sauce is rich, spicy and savoury, and the steak is juicy and entirely enjoyable, with crunchy onion rings and a buttery baked potato on the side.
My companion’s T-bone is a thin but generous cut that’s tender and smoky. The side salad, unlike at the Hereford, is included in the price, and has managed to rocket out of the 90s and into the 00s with arugula leaves instead of your grandma’s shredded iceberg lettuce bowl.
Grillhúsið focuses on flavour-first comfort food in an unpretentious diner environment. This time, we head to Mikkeller with a smile on our faces. This steakhouse did what it said on the tin. Tomorrow could be better… but will it?
And so, the final round. As soon as we enter through the heavy pub-style door, Steikhúsið feels the most grown-up of the three. Our smartly dressed waiter ushers us past a temperature-controlled display unit full of hanging black Angus beef and seats us at a window table looking over to the old harbour. The black Angus, he relates, is from a hand-picked U.S. farm, and is hung for 3-4 weeks in total, then grilled in an oven that can get up to 700 degrees after a few hours of stoking the coals.
We opt for a bottle of fruity Argentinian Shiraz (5,900 ISK), with starters of langoustine tempura—which is, as it turns out, more in tune with British-style fish ‘n’ chips than light Japanese-style tempura batter—and some decadent deep-fried foie gras with plums. For the mains, we go all-in, ordering the 800g Porterhouse (10,490 ISK), and a black Angus ribeye (2,700 ISK per 100g, working out at 6,750 ISK) with sauteed baby potatoes (650 ISK) and sweet potato croquettes (790 ISK).
The courses arrive at a leisurely pace, during which the large dining room almost completely fills up. When the steaks arrive, they fill the air with a delectably smoky coal-grilled aroma; as we’re sharing, they’re served on a sizeable platter and sliced into strips. Both are cooked to medium-rare perfection, with the slightly charred exterior giving a savoury coal-grilled flavour while preserving the tenderness of juicy pink centre. The steaks are a bullseye, and the absolute focus of the menu. Our advice? Skip the tempting starters, and just take your time with a bottle of wine and the delicious main event.
We roll out of the door towards Mikkeller completely stuffed and sated.
In the great Reykjavík steak-off, the results are clear: for a chill time and a tasty, affordable meal, get a pepper steak and a pint Grillhúsið; if you want to focus on sharing a massive, high-quality piece of meat, skimp on sides and split a Porterhouse and a bottle of red between two people at Steikhúsið.
Finally, we can authoritatively advise against trying all of these three on concurrent evenings—unless you, too, want to be left staggering home, borderline-hallucinating while you come up hard on beef, becoming quickly vegan-curious and mumbling about the manyfold merits of a juice cleanse.