A love letter to Hlölli
One of the last times I went on a djamm night (or party night, if you’re not local), I naturally ended up staggering my way to the long and unruly queue snaking out from Hlöllabátar (aka Hlölli) in Ingólfstorg. “What are you having!?” bellowed a flailing, dishevelled oaf as I entered the ranks of the inebriated and hungry. “I’m paying for everyone!” he shouted to the crowd, who roared, laughed and questioned his sanity. I did all three, and ultimately declined his offer. He attempted to insist, but then when the time came to pay came, he turned tail and bolted. Then we all laughed. Really hard.
Another time, years ago, I was working at a nearby café that then shared owners with Hlölli. I would grab a half-boat for lunch pretty much daily. I’d usually take it to go, but this time I was sad, in the midst of a divorce and wanted to be alone. I sat inside the little shop, sitting on one of their classic 50s diner glittery red vinyl stools, looking out at the square while gloomily chomping my sandwich. “Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam was playing over the speakers and it was so perfectly comical that I immediately stopped feeling sorry for myself.
These are just two moments in a 17-year love affair I’ve had with the legendary good-food-fast restaurant since my first trip to Iceland in 2006.
Opened in 1986, Hlölli has been feeding the masses of Reykjavík at central and satellite locations that keep increasing in number over the years. Their official website shows four of their locations, but leaves out the iconic downtown stand, perhaps because its inclusion verges on “no duh.”
Serving up a wide selection of submarine-style sandwiches – or, as they’re known in Iceland, boats – it’s the kind of meal that is both extremely satisfying and also induces self-loathing. But the good kind. That “I just cancelled plans so I can stay in my sweatpants and watch a series I’ve seen a hundred times” kind of energy. It’s a fine line between self-loving and -loathing, to be honest. And when I get myself a Hlölli, I ride that line like Tony Hawk on the half-pipe. I fucking shred.
Their once neighbour and fellow boat-purveyor Nonnabiti sadly shut down their downtown location a couple of years ago, so the “Hlölli vs. Nonni” wars have ended, much to the dismay of many. Why has Hlölli endured? Perhaps their economic sustainability has come from the bolstering of their parent company, Veitingafélagið, who own numerous popular local restaurants (they recently took over ownership and management of disgraced Mandi). Perhaps it’s the hordes of drunks who drop coin every night, especially on weekends, like the place was going out of business. Perhaps it’s just the old adage: location, location, location!
Why it endures for me, why I go back for a Stóri Hlunkur time and time again, is that it simply slaps. When you get to the end of the wrapper, where you practically have to drink down your last saucy bite, that’s gotta be one of the best decisions you made all day. Or more likely, night. Thank you, Hlölli. Keep those boats coming.
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