If you have traversed downtown Reykjavík in recent months, you will have undoubtedly noticed multiple areas of construction disrupting the city. What might surprise you is just how many of these building sites are the locations of new mathöll—food halls in English. This rapidly growing global dining trend has not passed Iceland by, and Reykjavík will soon boast two more food hall options—making for a total of eight—in a city of only 120,000.
Gig economy culture
Our obsession with food halls reflects our changing attitudes to dining. For our parents’ generation, a meal out was a special occasion and the significance of the experience was reflected in the service, the environment, and the price. Think heavily starched white napkins and credit cards slipped inside leather bill holders to conceal hefty price tags. Transformations in the way we work, socialise, parent, travel and prioritise our spending have resulted in a casual dining culture that mirrors other sweeping social changes, like the gig economy. Food halls provide an eating experience that meets many of the same criteria as those that drive interest in apps such as Uber and Noona: fast service, low prices and an abundance of choice.
For Iceland specifically, this approach to dining makes a lot of sense. Food halls provide a convenient way to feed a lot of people quickly and efficiently in a relatively small space. With 1.9 million tourists expected to visit the country in 2023, this is an issue the country can’t afford to ignore. Mathöll have even popped up outside of the capital, with two opening last year in south Iceland, one in Hveragerði and another in Selfoss.
A taste for all?
There’s something undeniably fun about the food hall experience, when done right. It’s thrilling to rock up to somewhere with a group of friends of an evening, without a care in the world about confirmed numbers or arriving in time to make your reservation. With many different restaurants on offer it’s easy to find something for even the pickiest eaters, and the relaxed atmosphere means that spontaneous social interactions can occur with friendly neighbouring tables. Some food halls even go for the full-on canteen approach, with large communal tables where strangers sit side by side.
The downsides, however, are pretty blatant. The noise level in these places can quickly become overwhelming, as large groups of people mill around shouting orders, looking for tables, and just generally trying to be heard over the din of scores of other diners all doing the same thing. Forgoing dedicated waiting staff means that the table cleanup job is generally relegated to one or two despondent looking bussers, who are inevitably overwhelmed by the expanse of abandoned plates and pint glasses littering every surface. While there is no pressure to keep a reservation, there is also the flip side of there being no way to reserve a table, resulting in people hovering hawk-like next to you as you eat, so that they can swipe your spot the moment you step away.
Still though, the building works continue and the food halls just keep coming. Iceland has a history of taking an idea and running with it far beyond where it seems reasonable to stop (see also: puffin shops, the 2008 financial crash, the entire history of the vikings). Whether food halls are a trend here to stay, or just another bubble waiting to burst remains to be seen.
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