The first hamburger may have been sold in Iceland as early as 1941, Vísir reports. Visitors to the island may be more likely to think of lamb soup or cod cheeks when thinking of classic Icelandic fare, but while these are certainly more homegrown dishes, the country has long maintained a love affair with the hamburger. As such, Iceland’s preeminent food historian, Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, has set out to determine when and where this delicacy was first sold to hungry Icelanders.
Nanna has been outlining her research for Vísir and also in televised interviews, which has yielded a great deal of information from the public about early sightings of the fast food favorite. In October 1956, Kjörbar in downtown Reykjavík started advertising “hamburgers all day” and a rest stop grill near the Hvítá bridge in West Iceland also had them on the menu. A restaurant called Ísborg in downtown Reykjavík began selling burgers and French fries in 1957. The much-beloved rest stop grill and gas station Staðarskáli began serving up hamburgers during the summer of 1960. And in January of the same year, a restaurant called Smárabar in the Westman Islands started advertising them on their menu.
Fittingly, it now seems that the earliest documented hamburger in Iceland was likely sold at a restaurant on Aðalstræti, Reykjavík’s oldest street.
“The American army arrived in July 1941,” notes Nanna, “and that same month, they start offering hamburgers there.”
There are also stories of American soldiers teaching Jakobína Ámundadóttir, the owner of a cafe near Öskjuhlíð (the hill on which Perlan is located), how to make hamburgers during the war years. According to her sister Íris, Jakobína opened her café when the British built their base on the site of the Reykjavík Domestic airport and intended it to serve Icelanders who worked on the base. When the American soldiers arrived, however, they craved burgers and French fries from home and in addition to teaching Jakobína how to make a hamburger are said to have also baked hamburger buns for her to try as well.
These early hamburger-adopters would have been among several places that advertised burgers in newspapers that were published specially for servicemen, such as The Daily Post and The White Falcon.
Even as the meal gained popularity at cafes serving soldiers stationed in Iceland, however, it does not seem to have made a big impression on Icelanders as a whole for close to ten years. In a travel article written by Vísir journalist Thorolf Smith after a trip to America in 1952, for example, he describes hamburgers as a strange, unknown phenomenon: “some kind of ground beefsteak between two pieces of bread.” Another news article describes an Icelandic man’s shock at being served a hamburger for dinner by the chef of a canteen at the American base in Keflavík.
Nanna says that the American base in Keflavík became the de facto home of the hamburger in Iceland, but that by 1956, it had made its way to Reykjavík and had given rise to a number of hamburger joints, such as those mentioned above. All of these early restaurants are closed now, except for the Staðarskáli rest stop and grill. Nanna believes that it’s likely that Staðarskáli holds the honor of being the place that has sold hamburgers longest in Iceland.