Running a bar in Reykjavík has never been the most stable of businesses. Indeed, for the past twenty years, 101 Reykjavík has seen hundreds of bars open their doors briefly before vanishing into the ether (or bankruptcy). Most of them have a short lifespan and are mourned by few (mostly their creditors), but some have left a permanent mark on the city’s consciousness. One can regularly hear veterans of the nightlife reminisce over them. The following list is by no means complete and is based on no scientific data whatsoever.
Location: Klapparstígur 30
Clientele: Artists, foreigners, heavy drinkers, a melting pot of hipness
Painted in turquoise and green with palm trees on the front entrance on Klapparstígur, Sirkús looked like a tropical haven in the middle of an urban desert. The 40 square metre ground floor supported steel tables, old chairs of various kinds and only two toilets. This was the place where a big chunk of the Icelandic creative task force gathered any day of the week, musicians, writers, visual and performance artists. Frequent guests were the whole krútt-scene, like the kids from múm, Sigur Rós and Seabear. “I’ve never known a bar that had so much good music. Bodies exploding on the dance floor, sweat dripping from the walls, people cheering for their songs. High on life, high on love,” Helga Þórey Jónsdóttir, former doorwoman, describes the atmosphere to me.
It hosted a moustache competition before they became fodder for cancer awareness campaigns. When Sirkús closed, over 200 musicians, from Sigur Rós to Páll Óskar, performed a music marathon in the bar over a whole weekend to protest the planned demolition of the house (which never happened, mostly because of the economic collapse). The bar on the other hand was closed but the legacy lives on. As a testament to its influence the whole bar was recreated as an art installation at London’s Frieze Art Fair and a bar with the same name was founded in Þórshöfn in the Faroe Islands with the intention of preserving its heritage.
Location: Hafnarstræti 17
Clientele: Club kids, dance music enthusiasts, people who didn’t want to go to sleep
There has never been a strong club culture in Reykjavík. Many attempts have been made but one of the few successful ones was Kaffi Thomsen which was located in Hafnarstræti. It started as a small café on the upper floor but as a result of the booming dance music craze of the mid to late ‘90s it slowly morphed into the decadent monster of a club on two floors it was during its peak around the turn of the century. It had a massive sound system and the finest DJs in the country spinning techno, drum ‘n’ bass, deep house and whatever sub-genre of electronic music you can think of every weekend. During the summer of 2000, the Reykjavík city council was experimenting with free opening hours for bars and Thomsen was the place where everybody went when other bars closed. Walking out from a nightclub at 9 AM and stepping into the morning sun feeling like a vampire is an experience I haven’t enjoyed since.
Location: Laugavegur 22
Lifespan: Spring 2009 until summer 2010
Clientele: Young indie kids
Karamba had a short but good run and seemed to fill a certain void that had emerged after Sirkús but before Bakkus. The crowd was young and wild and the atmosphere during weekends was like a zoo on amphetamines. People dancing in the window ledges and up on every table was not an uncommon sight after 2 AM and bands like Retro Stefson and FM Belfast played frequent concerts there. Unnsteinn Manúel, singer of Retro Stefson, resident DJ and bartender told me “There were no rules at Karamba. You could play any song you would think of and nobody was playing it cool”.
Location: Lækjargata 2a where the bookstore Iða is now
Peak: Early to mid ‘90s
Clientele: Concertgoers of all kinds
Tunglið served a similar purpose as Nasa has done for the past ten years, a medium sized concert venue open for all kinds of music and debauchery. Prodigy performed there in 1995 and Ham performed their infamous final show there in 1994. The club went down in flames when the house burned to the ground in 1998 and was sincerely missed by the whole spectrum of music lovers in the city.
Location: Lækjargata 2a, in the basement of Tunglið (see above)
Clientele: Rave kids and rockers
Peak: Ca. 1994 around the same time as Reykjavík rave culture
It started out as a hybrid between a rock bar and a dance club but was soon overtaken and became headquarters for the country’s emerging rave scene. “It was a down and dirty party basement where sweat dripped from the ceiling” DJ Kári told me. Rósenberg was later sold and became more of a rock hangout again before it burned down alongside Tunglið.
Location: The corner of Klapparstígur and Hverfisgata
Peak: Mid ‘90s
Clientele: Movie buffs, bohemians and music lovers
Located on the corner of Klapparstígur and Hverfisgata and was a sort of precursor to Sirkús as a gathering place for musicians, bohemians and indie kids. It used to show movies on the upper floor which was covered in movie posters and memorabilia, while DJs like KGB and Kári hosted dance parties in the sweat soaked basement. Legendary Icelandic bands like Quarashi, Stjörnukist and Botnleðja all performed there.