I meander down to café/bars where I try to fit in among the hipster/musicians born from Iceland’s punk/new-wave/alternative music boom of the 1980s. I sit among them in my favourite window seat upstairs in Prikið to people-watch. In Kaffibarinn, I stare at my ibook and join the pretentious crowd of Macintosh worshipers. I meet friends at Kaffibrennslan where we ponder the latest album by Erlend Øye. Together we sip a standard-yet-satisfying cup of coffee to an artsy soundtrack.
It’s the same thing week-in, week-out and I’m starting to get bored. I realise that when it comes to cafés, sometimes less is more.
And that’s exactly what I find as I sit with my richly brewed cup of joe in Grái Kötturinn (The Gray Cat), a special “artist-run café” tucked-in across from the National Theatre on Hverfisgata.
“We get six people here and it’s rush hour,” says the guy working the counter. I notice that the place is really that small, but it’s filled to the brim with an unpretentious blend of books, from Danielle Steel to George Bernard Shaw.
I am introduced to Hulda Hákon, who runs the place with her husband, Jón Óskar. The walls are covered with art and photography by the couple. Hákon plugs her latest art show at a nearby gallery and explains to me how they were able to pay for the opening of the café with their artwork.
A regular stops in to order pancakes and read the paper. He chats with the workers like old friends. I feel welcome to join in or enjoy my coffee alone. When the conversation lulls, I notice the absence of progressive-rock tunes in my ears and feel at ease.
The two oldest cafés in town, Kaffi Mokka and Tíu Droppar, also dare to brave the coffee world in the sound of silence. Mokka offers groovy 1950s décor with deep, brown tones and some tasty java to boot. And sitting inside Tíu Droppar, owner Hérdís Kírsten Hupfeldt welcomes me warmly in Icelandic, despite my fast-talking English.
When I start to feel weighted down by all the rich, black coffee served around town, I step into the competitive Kaffi Tár on Bankastræti to peak my caffeine high with a final zinger.
With a wall of trophies from both national and world barista competitions, Kaffi Tár takes pride in the unique iced-coffee drinks created by its smiley staff. I order the recommended “The Naked Lime,” which combines espresso, milk, caramel syrup and lime with tongue-twisting talent. I had forgotten that coffee could be light and refreshing.
The downtown location (one of four Kaffi Társ in Iceland) has a more drink-and-run style, with young and old customers entering and exiting in swift rotation. Manager Sonja Grant explains that the hot-colour scheme of the café was chosen to resemble the tropical locations where coffee is grown.
Energized and a bit shaky from all the caffeine, I recognise the key behind many of these cafés: they don’t serve alcohol or try to double as a bar. And many of them have only daytime hours. The focus, then, stays on what matters: the coffee. And good service, of course.
I ask Grant about her experience before the coffee business. “I was a carpenter,” she replies. I guess multiplicity is impossible to avoid.