The tiny old field of Austurvöllur, in the middle of the busy and eclectic Reykjavik city centre, has seen Iceland change from a rural society of farmers and fishermen to a modern country eager to carve out its place in the world. One of the manifestations of the latter, the infamous expansion of Icelandic banks into foreign territories and subsequent bust, saw this parliament square flooded with protesters demanding justice and accountability from the government. Icelanders have paved the route to recovery partly by welcoming an influx of tourists with an array of hotels, bars, and restaurants in the old city centre, with the jazz bar Skuggabaldur being a recent and most welcomed addition, overlooking the parliament Alþingi, Reykjavik Cathedral and many of the buildings heralding a new age for Iceland in the early 20th century.
Skuggabaldur is in fine company, sitting between two icons of gastronomy and hospitality but carving out its own identity through innovative service of quality food, an array of classic and cocky cocktails but maybe most importantly giving a platform to the local jazz scene with live performances every night and many a late afternoon. It has a certain edge to it, maybe in some way resembling the creature from which it takes its name, Skuggabaldur, a beast from Icelandic folk belief, offspring of a tomcat and a vixen, often associated with evil spirits.
However, in the hands of founder Snorri Helgason, this Skuggabaldur is somewhat benign, although some of its spirits can be unforgiving. Snorri is a musician who has played a prominent role in Iceland's music scene since the early noughties composing folk and melodic sounds over six albums, here collaborating with his restaurateur friend Jón Mýrdal, with an equally impressive background opening some of the most prominent eateries in town. These include the successful bar Húrra in the old harbour frequented by Reykjavík's cultural elite and bohemians alike and the aptly named Röntgen, one of Reykjavík's most popular bars. Then suddenly, last summer Skuggabaldur entered the scene, born from an idea of mixing music, food and the best drinks for a discerning audience who like to enjoy a vibrant yet sophisticated atmosphere.
What makes this jazz bar different and sets it aside from others? Besides being the cool contender and the new hot spot, hosting live jazz bands seven nights a week, making it a delightful way to spend your evenings listening to the most talented musicians, both established and up and coming, Skuggabaldur offers an array of delicious food and impressive cocktails. From the ever-popular Aperol and Limoncello Spritz to the more classic Old Fashioned and Negroni or a Margarita, you can savour a variety of Icelandic beers, which is a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture. The bar manager, Ólafur Sverrir Traustason, delivered a concoction of his own for us, cocktails mixing Icelandic herbs and Icelandic gin and you might even see him mingle with the musicians in a Chet Baker number or a 'chanson française'.
If you fancy celebrating, then a bottle of Bollinger or Louis Roederer is also available and not much different from London prices. The food menu is eclectic, light and fun; we opt for the tasty Argentinian prawns with chili, garlic and flatbread, the flavoursome squid tempura with lemon aioli, and our vegetarian option is the appetising galette with fried portobello mushrooms: Delicious, high-quality plates, an excellent selection of wines and great service. A night or two spent in the company of the beast Skuggabaldur might not be out of place in your manifesto for a joyful life!