Reykjavík’s “kleina” and hot dogs are invading England’s South Coast
In Southsea, Portsmouth, UK, where Castle Road meets Kent Road, you’ll find 101 Reykjavík, a cosy Icelandic café.
Huh? An Icelandic café?
Yup. There is such a thing. 101 Reykjavík (the café, not the postal code, novel or film) is indeed an Icelandic café in Portsmouth that the owners say is inspired by the ambiance of Icelandic cafés and bars. At 101 Reykjavík, you can chow down on some Icelandic hot dogs or kleinur while sipping on Icelandic beers and listening to Icelandic music. You can do all this in Southsea, the southernmost tip of the city of Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, just two and a half hours south of London. That’s a lot of souths for one sentence, but as we learned, 101 Reykjavík’s owners couldn’t be more inspired by the North.
And puffins, of course
Iceland obsessives Christopher and Lisa Whitear’s café is rather atypical for their hometown. After multiple trips to Iceland, the lovely Southseans decided to create a local platform to serve as their beloved Reykjavík’s extended living room. Inspired by their impressions of Iceland, 101 Reykjavík is meant to suit both early morning coffee drinkers as well as the pub crowd, hosting lively performances, art exhibitions and movie nights. And of course, the café is decorated with Icelandic posters and postcards—you’ll see a lot of puffins at 101 Reykjavík.
Over cups of coffee in Reykjavík one grey autumn day shortly after the Airwaves festival, the couple told me how they soaked up the local café culture “which is done so well here in Reykjavík,” and how it inspired them to create a place that would serve as both a café and a venue. “We just love Iceland to pieces. We really wanted to bring a part of it to our hometown.”
They started a joke…
What’s the story behind the café?
C: It started out as a joke among our mates and us just after we came home from our trip in 2009. It was Airwaves that brought us to Iceland in the first place, and we fell in love with the vibe, city and the people. That year and every year since we’ve been back and each time we’ve brought new mates along.
L: We love the combination of café and a music venue, like you’ll see at Kex Hostel, along with the “huggulegt” [“cosy”] living room atmosphere. So we started discussing the idea of opening an Icelandic café that would embody these elements, and after two years of pondering the idea, it somehow became a real thing, we felt like it was the right time to just do it. We thought, “You know, we’re in our thirties with no obligations, if we’re going do this, now should be the time.”
C: We both wanted a change from our current jobs, so we started looking for an appropriate venue. In February of 2014, 101 Reykjavík finally opened. At the right time, in the right town, and on the right street.
L: That’s were we’re from, we did look around but the Southsea part of Portsmouth and its waterfront is such a lovely area, which is so important to us.
C: The castle road in Southsea is quite an independent road with local shops and you find lots of quirky little businesses there. The property came up, and we decided to buy. It was bigger than we had in mind, but the premises were good, so we gave it a go. We also thought the café would fit so well in with the other shops on the streets, which is its own village where everyone supports each other.
How does your café differ from the other ones?
C: “Inspired by Iceland” is the selling point, and we try to capture the “café-bar” spirit…
L: …which is not done well in England. I mean, the café and a pub in one is not easy to find in the UK, at least not outside London. The notion that you could come in for breakfast, or dinner and a drink in the evening, is not very common here.
And how is the business going?
C: It’s been good. We import many things from Iceland, but we also support local shops and communities in the Southsea area. The local butcher and so on. We’ve got a staff of nine which, we task with running the business while we expand and visit Iceland to establish relations with new breweries! It’s fun, because it just started out as a joke, and then ended up being so real.
L: Just like everything we’ve done in our lives, it started as joke!
C: We have our cook there who’s Icelandic, and she makes the “kleinur” and “vöfflur” after her mom’s recipe!
L: Yeah, and we have Icelandic sweets like Hraun and Opal. The liquorice is quite tricky though, as it’s a different palette in England for sweets. But people are willing to try!
C: And beer of course. Boli beer is on try at the moment. We import beers for a trial, to determine where there’s a demand. But we had to establish the licence to import and sell alcohol beforehand, which was quite the process.
L: We want to fill our palette with as many things as possible, beers, and sweets and dried codfish or shark. It’s just hard to stock it so we can’t have much at a time.
C: It’s really just an on-going process and we’re still learning from it!
It’s a Thursday þing
What’s happening at night?
L: Every week we feature an event called “Thursday þing,” where we have music, films, talks, book readings or Icelandic language lessons.
C: We’ve screened films like ‘Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre’ and ‘101 Reykjavík’. Then we had Quentin Bates over who did a talk on Nordic crime fiction.
L: Also, we host art exhibitions by local students and we’re always open to suggestions from others who want to display their works. We’re interested in getting involved with local festivals such as Southsea fest and offer our warm café up to performers. It’s like a small-scale Airwaves, so there will be a lot of things going on in town.
Where do you get you Iceland-style food and drink?
C: Anna is our Icelandic chef, and she makes kleinur, waffles and kjötsúpa from her mom’s traditional recipe, but Icelandic pylsur, crumpets and smoked lamb are also on the menu.
L: We can’t import everything, and we want to support the local butchery and bakeries, so we get our rye bread and meat from them, for example. We get a variety of beers and ales from the breweries Ölgerðin and Steðji. We’re seeing possibilities and negotiating with more small breweries. They’ve been really helpful and are keen on representing their products abroad. The same goes for MS, we get a shipment of skyr every six weeks, but its lifespan is so short that if it’s not eaten quickly we might have problems! The demand is definitely present, though, people are interested in tasting it and they don’t seem to get bored of it. Still, we’re figuring out the best ways to ship everything to the UK.
C: Einstök beer and Reyka Vodka already have a UK presence, so getting them is easy. We also have our own unique 101 Reykjavík beer, with our logo on it!
Small and by the sea
Who comes to 101 Reykjavík?
L: We have a great mixture of people from all walks of life: students, the elderly and everyone in-between. The café’s family-and-dog-friendly ambiance attracts all sorts of people of no particular age group. They’re curious to try a different place in town and many come in not knowing it’s an Icelandic bar.
C: It’s a nice place to visit and we have some travel magazines and books for people to look at. We talk about Airwaves and Iceland to them; we’re actually a busy travel agency!
And do you receive a lot of Icelanders there?
C: Yeah we do occasionally. The online presence is massive, and a part of the Icelandic community in the UK has been over for a drink. The few Icelanders who live in Portsmouth are regulars, but they’re not showy, they just come in and have a drink and then perhaps leave with a “takk”—that’s when we realise they’re Icelandic.
L: Or they come in and say something in Icelandic, which we don’t speak a word of!
Are there any seasonal delicacies or surprises to be expected?
L: For Christmas, we’ll hopefully have smoked lamb for a special. We want to get into the Yule spirit by offering jólaglögg, malt og appelsín and Christmas beers with the lamb.
What do you think Reykjavík and Portsmouth have in common?
L: It’s just as cold there as it is here!
C: The two cities have a small population of about 300,000, and they’re also both by the sea. Southsea is Portsmouth’s creative hub, full of independent shops, music venues and a dynamic culture. Not unlike downtown Reykjavík!
1 Kent road, Southsea, PO5 3EG. Located in the Sellers Coffeehouse building, at the end of Castle road.