Running a restaurant is an unforgiving business in which a ten-year run is considered noteable. Yet, it if you look around, there’s no shortage of spots that have been around longer than the Internet and burrito bowls combined. One such outlier is the neighborhood restaurant Hornið, which celebrates its 40th birthday this month.
Hornið was established in 1979 by husband-and-wife duo Jakob Hörður Magnússon and Valgerður Jóhannsdóttir, and has been owned and operated by them and their children ever since. This makes the restaurant at Hafnarstræti 15 one of the oldest restaurants in continuous operation in Iceland.
This may not seem like anything special to a foodie from mainland Europe, but the restaurant tradition in Iceland is very young, for a diverse list of reasons—a small population, geographic isolation, a lack of disposable income among the general populace, and perhaps even lack of faith in Iceland being capable of operating quality kitchens≠ it was hard to sustain such businesses until relatively recently.
Shifting culinary landscape
Hlynur Jakobsson is the son of the founders, and helps run the place. Speaking mid-service over steaming pots of pasta, he described how the tourist boom has affected Hornið. “There has been a lot of growth in restaurants and pop-up restaurants in downtown Reykjavík in a small area,” he says. “We have more competition—but there’s always been competition. The big change has been the spread of the two-for-one deals, as locals now expect to pay half as much anywhere they go.”
Hornið clearly hasn’t been deterred by the shifting culinary landscape, sticking to their ladles and continuing to serve dependable Italian fare. This is a continuation of their pioneering work in introducing Italian food to Iceland. They are generally thought to be the first to serve made-to-order pizza in Iceland. It was love at first sight, and locals have been gobbling it up ever since.
“We’ve had the Italian focus from day one,” says Hlynur. “The only Italian thing you’d get before we opened was spaghetti with tomato sauce. I think my dad picked it up in Denmark, and even though we are doing simple food we had to figure out everything ourselves. Dad had to make the pepperoni from scratch, and we couldn’t find coffee beans anywhere in the country, so we had to source it ourselves.”
To coincide with the occasion, Hornið has reopened their basement jazz bar, Djúpið. Dormant since the turn of the century, the bar was well-known as a hang-out for dipsomaniac journalists, and for giving bands their first gig. One band who played their first concert there, under the name of Victory Rose, later changed their name to Sigur Rós. “The jazz bar was another concept we helped introduce to Iceland,” says Hlynur.
As our time comes to an end, I ask Hlynur what Hornið’s secret is. He gets a wistful look in his eye (or maybe it’s the onions he’s cutting). “It’s a family business from start to finish,” he says. “My dad is still working 40 years later, and myself, my brother and sister divide the roles between us. We don’t change things much, so two generations can sit down and know exactly what to expect. I think the family bond and consistency are the two biggest reasons we’re still around after all this time.”
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