Café Riis Hólmavík: Icelandic history, cuisine, community… and the country’s best pizza
By Lena Hunter | Photos: Fannar Freyr Snorrason (FANNARART)
The enchanting village of Hólmavík in Strandir, north-west Iceland, is a photographer’s dream. With some 400 inhabitants, the village fronts the sea and is overlooked by a beautiful old church on a high crag from which magnificent panoramic views stretch to the Steingrímsfjörður fjord. This serene outpost is home to Café Riis Hólmavík – a Parisian-café-style restaurant with an Icelandic sense of hospitality.
23 year old Guðrún Ásla Atladóttir is the young restauranteur behind Café Riis. “I’m an architecture graduate, but I have worked in hospitality alongside school since I was sixteen. When the opportunity came to acquire and manage Café Riis, which my relatives had been running for the past seventeen years, I was finally able to combine my passions for hospitality and architecture,” she says. “Now, I am doing what I love, running my own restaurant in a listed building from the 19th century!”
The Riis building, remarkably preserved, is the village’s oldest. It was originally a trading outpost constructed by the Danish merchant Ríkharður Riis in 1896 but has operated as a restaurant since 1996. Its interior has been carefully renovated with driftwood from nearby beaches. Skilled local artisans have handcrafted all the interior woodwork, including Café Riis’ three mesmerising bars.
“We love to tell our guests the rich history of the Riis building and its impact on the surrounding area. It’s almost like a free historical tour of Hólmavík’s history from the Viking era to the present day!” Guðrún Ásla explains, adding that the town attracts both local visitors and international tourists looking for an authentic taste of Strandir and the Westfjords.
Today, the restaurant is a beloved neighbourhood hub for conversation and relaxation, and a refuge for travellers refuelling for the journey ahead. “A typical Parisian café is more than a coffee shop – it has an all-day menu, bar and great wine selection. This is what Café Riis offers, so you could say that we’re like a Parisian café, but with Icelandic hospitality and food,” says Guðrún Ásla with a wink.
Spread across three floors, Café Riis comprises a main dining area, two halls of beautiful ambience that can be entirely sectioned off for private dining, and a top floor boasting a cosy ale lounge and bar where guests can enjoy locally made beer, different variations of ‘brennivín’ (Iceland’s original Aquavit spirit) and exclusive single-malts from the Scottish Highlands.
“Carrying the entrepreneurial flame at Café Riis is a privilege. My responsibility is to keep enhancing the café-style tradition through high quality food, drink and service, and to match the tranquil vibes of Hólmavík and Strandir,” says Guðrún Ásla.
Icelandic staples and superior pizza
Café Riis proudly serves Icelandic staples, with a focus on Strandir’s authentic cuisine and ingredients sourced by local farmers and fishermen. “Our shrimp-supplier is across the road and our fresh mussels and fish come from a town fewer than 30 minutes away. We get our lamb from a farm 15 minutes away, which is the first in Iceland to achieve an EU protected designation of origin certification,” Guðrún Ásla says.
Favourites on the menu include the intriguing small dish of ‘hangikjöt’ (lamb prosciutto) – a perfect starter before the signature butter-fried ‘cod chins’, or the hearty seafood soup of mussels, cod, king prawns and shrimps in lobster broth. “The soup will immediately transport any Icelander back to their grandmother’s kitchen!” says Guðrún Ásla fondly. Meanwhile, new dishes like the lightly salted ‘bacallá’ cod complement renowned stalwarts like the Strandir fillet-of-lamb, and wines, lagers from Iceland’s exciting new Galdur Brewery, and soft drinks are expertly paired throughout. To finish, the delectable locally made desserts include superb ice cream from a nearby farm, and a homemade skyr-cake.
The distinctive quality of Café Riis’ menu extends to its famous pizzas. In fact, guests regularly travel to the village for these alone. Guðrún Ásla suspects their popularity is thanks to the high-quality homemade dough, superior freshness and taste, and the generosity of the toppings: “I always tell my kitchen staff: don’t be stingy with the pepperoni, put as much on as you would if you were making it for yourself at home!” Such high-quality takeaway pizza is unusual for a village of Hólmavíkur’s size and has made Café Riis a favourite pitstop for frequent commuters between the Westfjords and other parts of Iceland.
A community hub
As the only large standalone restaurant in Hólmavík, Café Riis plays a huge role in bringing together the local community. When Guðrún Ásla took over the business two years ago, she decided to keep it open during winter. “It was important to offer a little hub for people to come to during those colder months, where you can get pizza to go, or to stay with a draft beer, or attend community events like pub quizzes and wine, beer and whisky tastings,” she says. “Guests will come into Café Riis with the intention of grabbing a quick bite and end up staying much longer. When you walk through the door, time slows down. The relaxed atmosphere allows you to leave your stresses behind.”
Another jewel in the Café Riis’s crown is Bragginn – the old 1946 community hall and former military barracks. Today, it seats up to 150 people for concerts, comedy and other live performances, and up to 90 for lunches and dinners. The venue is also popular for private family gatherings and weddings. “Next year, I plan to set up a pop-up movable museum in Bragginn for guests to explore our rich history in an authentic historical setting,” says Guðrún Ásla.
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