In Iceland’s Costly Capital, Two Cool Bargains

In Iceland’s Costly Capital, Two Cool Bargains

Arctic gusts pelted our faces with marble-size hailstones as we trudged through downtown Reykjavik, Iceland, after dark. The plan for the first night of an early spring stopover was pretty unambitious: dinner, preferably something warm and tasty and cheaper than a baseball box seat.

My travel companion and I stopped in at the first place recommended by our guidebook, a wood-shingled bungalow supposedly renowned for its seafood. But we never got past the menu posted on the door: Appetizers started at US$20 for fish chowder and soared well beyond, and entrees were about twice as much.

Well, we figured, the night was young. But everywhere we went it was the same story. An all-you-can-eat fish buffet at what looked like a spruced-up Red Lobster for the price of a barrel of oil (about $60, according to the paper that morning). A Pakistani chicken curry for $27. Then a first, at least for me: a medium pizza for $18 (toppings were an additional $5 each).

We stopped at an information booth to plead for help but were met with a befuddled stare. “I don’t eat out in Reykjavik,” the woman finally told us.

In the previous few years, I’d had dinner in plenty of places known for mealtime sticker shock: Hong Kong, Tokyo, Dubai, New York and, earlier in this same trip, London. But Reykjavik was something else: hands down the most expensive place where I’d ever tried to eat out.

Hungry and demoralized, we made our way to the waterfront, searching for a seafood place we’d heard served the best lobster soup in town.

Tucked among the fishing boats and docks, Saegreifinn (Sea Baron) had a nautical feel, with finished pine walls and low-slung ceilings draped with buoys, mesh netting and the dried remains of sea creatures. (The owner, Kjartan Halldorsson, cooked for four decades in the galley of a fishing boat before opening the restaurant three years ago.)

We were seated next to a raucous group of forty-something Icelandic women celebrating a birthday. The waitress took us through the menu: The daily catch included salmon, scallops, monkfish, cod and minke whale, all served shish kebab-style with grilled peppers and onions. The lobster soup more than lived up to its billing, its savory pink broth piping hot, spiked with chunks of white meat and accompanied by a basket of bread. I decided to try the whale, despite the waitress’s warning that it came a bit “bloody.” (It tasted like sirloin.) The bill came to about $45 for two entrees, two soups and two domestically brewed Viking beers.

As we left, we asked the women seated near us whether there was anywhere else around that could rival Saegreifinn for value. “Right next door,” one told us, “is the best hamburger in Reykjavik.”

That was all we needed to hear. The next day we went back to the waterfront for a late-afternoon lunch.

Hamborgarabullan (Hamburger Joint) was a stark contrast to the old-world authenticity of the night before. The walls were plastered with pictures of pop-culture icons including the Blues Brothers and John Mellencamp. Large windows framed panoramic views of the wharf. At 3pm the place was jammed with locals.

We ordered a cheeseburger, a veggie burger and fries from the counter, along with a milkshake. (“If I only have one more milkshake the rest of my life, it should be vanilla,” the co-owner, Orn Hreinsson, told us. We followed his advice.) Wrapped in wax paper and nestled in wicker baskets, the food was as good as the price, less than $30.

Hreinsson, who also helps cook and run the register, said he opened Hamborgarabullan soon after a week-long trip to New York City four years ago during which he ate every night at a Midtown place called Burger Joint.

Iceland, of course, is about far more than the food. We spent most of our time exploring its otherworldly geology of geysers, crater lakes and hot springs. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to beat a good meal at a good price. With a little bit of work, we found two of them. (Jonathan Finer/WP)

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