Move over brunch, breakfast is in town
Contrary to popular belief, breakfast is a fairly modern concept of a meal. Morning meals and their popularity has ebbed and flowed depending on political circumstance, religious beliefs of the day, or in more recent history, an artificially created panic (looking at you, Kelloggs).
During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church looked down upon the moral weakness of those unable to fast until midday, a clear sign of gluttony! Food writer Heather Arndt, in her book Breakfast: A History, writes that, ‘’it was presumed that if one ate breakfast, it was because one had other lusty appetites as well.’’
Most cultures didn’t really engage in a ‘break the fast’ ritual, either, and it is only in the 15th century that the term is coined, with the Industrial Revolution that followed normalizing this once scandalous meal. The adage, ’breakfast is the most important meal of the day,’ is newer still and is credited to a marketing campaign by General Foods in 1944 to, well, sell more cereal.
Icelandic breakfast traditions
Culinary accounts of our fledgling cuisine reveal an innate affection for all things porridge. With a multitude of words ranging from grautur, vellingur and súpa, gruel of both grain – rice, oats, barley, to the fruit variety – and fruits enjoyed both hot and cold, almost always sweet rather than savoury. While scarcity endured, this was unadorned sustenance, perhaps with a bit of skyr or whey stirred in, and improved circumstances reflected in the generous use of cream, butter and, of course, sugar.
Breakfast hasn’t really been a grand affair in Iceland, save for the advent of boxed cereal and the subsequent pat on the back pride for consuming the most Cocoa Puffs. Per capita, of course. Articles from the 1980’s reflect changing habits, with many respondents referring to porridge, as ‘old-fashioned food, not in tune with the modern breakfast of coffee and toast.’
It is no surprise, then, that this breakfast modesty translates to a similar dynamic on the high street. While bakeries and some cafes cater to that coffee-bread craving, breakfast is still somewhat of a unicorn in town, albeit a cookie cutter one.
Don’t be fooled by the numerous brunches on offer; breakfast and brunch are solemnly distinct. There is a languid pleasure in a sit-down breakfast. Take the everyday mundane and plop it in the midst of a mid-week outing, and the routine is at once decadent. We put our best foot forward over several mornings to sniff out the best breakfasts Reykjavík has to offer.
The first place to offer breakfast in Iceland (since 1997!), The Grey Cat is a legend alright. Regulars reminisce about the best hangover fix. Walking in feels like you are at grandma’s place, the air is heady with the smell of sizzling bacon and the low murmurs of early birds. The Truck (3500 ISK) is a grand feast for one — two sunny side-up eggs, a hunk of homemade toast, an Iceland-appropriate slab of butter, mini pancakes, bundle of bacon, some pan roasted potatoes and tomatoes alongside, all meant to be drenched with the accompanying maple syrup. They make their own bagels and tuna salad, if you are so inclined, but really you are here for one and one thing only. Children-friendly portions are offered, a thoughtful touch we appreciate. OJ is available in both its fresh squeezed and canned avatars and out of all the places I visited, they had the best tea service – loose English breakfast, sugar and milk on the side. The only thing that is better than homemade breakfast is breakfast that tastes like it, but one you didn’t have to make. That sentiment is served in spades here.
We don’t place this bakery-ish joint here lightly. Between Grái Kotturin’s dedicated breakfast focus and the bakeries with their baked-from-frozen wares, breakfast has been largely overlooked in this city. That was until Deig decided to shake things up and offer made-from-scratch savoury and sweet treats that would warm the most jaded diner. Their poor man’s offer may be their most well known, but we are weak for their lightly toasted bagels filled with an assortment of fillings (chances are there is something for everyone). The 7 a.m. calm is a particularly delightful seating, as the fight for the large window high seats hasn’t begun yet and it is just you and your trusty bagel. Our top pick — the Madonna (1790 ISK), grilled bell peppers and a McMuffin style egg, melty cheddar cheese and swoosh of mayo, is the perfect way to fuel your day.
Call ahead and pre-book a table at Sandholt and the long line is a thing of the past. While the legendary bakery is known for its laminated, buttery delights, don’t sleep on the hot, fresh breakfast served everyday. Children under 12 eat for free, kind of a well-kept secret. If you can put up with the fickle service, you are in for a sublime treat. Coffee and chocolate lovers can break their fast a la nobility from the Renaissance. The waffles (2490 ISK) stacked with fried eggs, bacon and syrup is a textural delight, but may we steer you towards the savoury waffles instead, studded with teeny jalapeno and parsley bits. Practically every dish is super-sized – the simple sourdough toast with jam and butter (1150 ISK) will easily feed two.
There is something about a hotel breakfast, especially one in the city that you live in. It awakens muscle memories of holidays abroad, of indulgence, a taste of the good life where numerous trips to the buffet counter puts a spring in one’s step. Tides has a little cafe adjacent, but the breakfast is where all the action is. The buffet (5500 ISK) is a well stocked continental affair with nods to Icelandic tradition. Expect salmon smoked and graved, thin slices of hangikjöt, rye bread, pancakes, sausages and other buffet staples. The a la carte menu however really shines. They make a mean mug of matcha and the Tides Eggs Benedict (2300 ISK), served with a twist of lightly spiced tomato on brioche is a welcome respite from hunky needs-a-saw crusty bread versions. Although why an English muffin, true to the original, evades us is baffling. But these are thoughts easy to push aside as you sip on their carrot-orange-seabuckthorn juice (1900 ISK). There is no other breakfast in town that feels as exclusive as this one, making you feel like you have one extra zero in your bank account.
We went to this newest addition with zero expectations and walked out with giant smiles plastered on our faces. Even if it isn’t advertised as such, the everyday breakfast buffet is open to everyone, walk-ins and hotel guests alike. At 7900 ISK for two, this is the most bang for your buck breakfast deal by a mile. With their tall windows overlooking Austurvollur, this is perfect for a cosy morning date, business meeting, or a grown up group outing. What we especially enjoyed was their table side serving of warm dishes. Translation? Expect a cute stack of fluffy, warm pancakes made to order. Poached eggs that haven’t been sitting around dully. And in case you forgot where you were, the shot glasses of lysi, lemon slice in tow, serve as a firm reminder you’re still in Iceland.
Hear me out on this one, sure it is being offered as a brunch, and only on the weekends, and only at their Grandi outpost. But when you are the lone star in a sea of sameness, it is but our responsibility to shine light on this South Indian breakfast nee brunch. The masala dosa (3290 ISK) is a golden tube of crunchy delight, surrounded by bowlfuls of sambhar, coconutty chicken curry, ginger spiked alu palya and two kinds of chutneys. Dosa is a crispy-soft, griddle cooked Kannadiga breakfast-tiffin dish made from a fermented rice-lentil batter. Technically demanding, this is a hard to execute dish, especially this North of warmth. But here, the dosas and the accompaniments have consistently gotten better.
You tear off a bit of dosa, scoop up one chutney, one sambhar, one curry at a time, an explosion of varying flavours in each bite. Psst… you can tack on an extra dosa to your order. They also offer steamed idlis, with crispy medu vadas, perfect for some sambhar dunking, and big-as-my-face stretchy bhaturas with a clove scented kheema masala. Washed down with a cup of steaming hot masala chai, this slightly late breakfast slaps like no other.
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