Hveragerði is an odd town, occupying a strange space in the hearts of elder millennials and Gen Xers. The town, which is only 40 minutes away from Reykjavík, used to have the only theme park in Iceland. It wasn’t much. There were a few rides, but nothing impressive. The reason this was doable in the 80s Iceland, was because it was inside a huge colourful warehouse that shielded guests from ever-changing weather. Not only that, but there used to be a shop called Eden next to the theme park. There you could play arcade games and buy ice cream. There were rumours that there used to be monkeys in Eden, but if that was the case, they were there for a short time and we never saw them. Later they were replaced with a mechanical monkey that spoke if you gave it some change. His name was Bóbó. And it was silly. We loved him.
Fire and bankruptcy
But all good things end eventually. The theme park went bankrupt in the 90s and Eden burned down in 2011 after a series of failed ventures in the building.
Hveragerði was on the cusp of becoming one more tragic Icelandic small town with a colourful past. But its proximity to the city kept it relevant. Artists, writers and such, started moving to the town because of the low housing costs and the nature. Slowly, tourists discovered this once famed town, and more importantly, the beautiful geothermal area around it, which has one of the best hot rivers in Iceland a short hike away. It has been clear for years now, that Hveragerði has some serious potential as a tourism destination.
Things have been looking up in the past few years. And the new addition of Gróðurhúsið (The Greenhouse) to the community provided a serious facelift providing the town with the oxygen it needs to become a bustling little outpost in the countryside.
I, along with my namesake, former Reykjavík Grapevine editor-in-chief and a well-known historian and a novelist, Valur Gunnarsson (we will go by our last names to make things more simple) decided to visit Gróðurhúsið, try out the food and examine the new future of Hvergerði.
Fantastic interior designing
The house follows the popular idea of a food hall but has also adjusted its business to meet the needs of tourism. It’s a hotel as well as a market that offers some of Iceland’s best design brands. Although the house doesn’t look like much from the outside, the interior design is just off the charts. And there is a good reason for that. Hálfdán Pedersen is an interior and set designer responsible for everything inside the house, which is elegant and rustic at the same time. It’s easily the best-designed food hall in Iceland and elevates the experience considerably.
And then there’s the food
But Mr. Gunnarsson and I were there for the food. Gróðurhúsið smartly offers five restaurants, and the foodhall’s managers curated them well, ticking most of the eating out options you’d be craving.
Grettisson: The “Peanut Dream” was not as impressive as one might expect. It had rice noodles, chicken, mushroom, spinach, cashew nuts, satay sauce and peanuts in it. It could have done with more seasoning to make it more memorable. The dish had no real character but is more than sufficient if you want to have a proper meal between destinations if travelling or you’re just plain hungry. The portion was generous.
Gunnarsson: I, for one, dream of peanuts often, but I found this dish a bit light on peanuts and heavy on the wok. It’s decent as such, but not all peanut dreams came true.
Grettisson: The tacos at Tacovagninn follows the Asian and South-American fusion trend and do so in a solid way. It’s a hearty bite to grab and it’s inventive enough to make your day if you are up for some fancy tacos. The cauliflower taco was outstanding and the only downside is that we wanted more.
Gunnarsson: This is obviously a local favourite, since there was a queue. The best bet seems to be a selection of different tacos. All in all they weren’t bad, but perhaps the secret weapon here are the nachos.
Gunnarsson: Hipstur is the Greenhouse fine dining restaurant. The fish was excellent and perhaps the most Icelandic item here, if that’s your thing. More importantly, they have beer.
Grettisson: Hipstur is hands down the fanciest restaurant at the Greenhouse and offers cuisine of the best possible standard you can find in Iceland. We decided to try out fish of the day, which happened to be my favourite: ling. The dish was served with cauliflower, grilled onion and cherry tomatoes and was refreshing and multilayered in taste. The freshness of the dish was amazing. The only thought we had was how incredible it is to have access to such fie food on the road, while travelling in the South.
Gunnarsson: The surprise of the day was PÜNK. You think you know chicken and fries, but this manages to be different. Just the right amount of spicy and the fries are halfway between crisps and chips. The sauces are nice, too.
Grettisson: I have to admit that I wasn’t really expecting much from PÜNK. Not because it’s bad, but because of the fierce competition in the food court. But they surprised in a very pleasant way with a bit of an old school dish executed the right way. The dish was PÜNK signature, which entails two boneless chicken legs, coleslaw, fries and homemade PÜNK sauce. The chicken was perfectly cooked and the fries reminded me in some ways of the 80s when everybody was experimenting with fries in different shapes. This was an honest dish that didn’t try to be anything more than it was. I was impressed.
Gunnarsson: A safe choice, but could do with more spice. Perhaps ask for extra sauce.
Grettisson: It’s hard to add anything more to what we have already said about Yuzu. They are at least one of the two best burger places in Iceland and offer burgers with a South-Korean/Japanese twist. We had the very popular and famous Yuzu dish of deep-fried chicken in kimchi and Yuzu hot sauce with a splash of coriander. The burger was good, the bun was done right, although it felt slightly dry, but nothing to worry about. The chicken was perfect and the whole experience was as solid as it can be when it comes to a burger. That said, it needed a little bit more of a kick in the spice department.
The overall experience from the food court is that it is outstanding in various ways. Icelanders have been very excited about the place, and finally, we have one more reason to visit the wonderful Hveragerði, which also has one of the most beautiful swimming pools in the country. Our prediction is simple, and perhaps not a hard one; this could be the hottest destination in Iceland this summer (and in coming years), for travellers and Icelanders alike.
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