Restaurant Day is a carnival of food
Four times a year local residents in Helsinki get together to have fun with food. Next Restaurant Day is celebrated on 17 May.
Restaurant Day lets anyone become their own restaurateur for a day. Hundreds of popup restaurants appear throughout Helsinki – and dozens of other cities in Finland and abroad. All you have to do is sign up on the Restaurant Day website and get cooking – it’s that easy!
Timo Santala, one of the founders of the event, cannot get over the enthusiasm that Restaurant Day has generated.
“One guy took a week off work in order to fish for pike and serve fresh fish & chips on Restaurant Day. Participants really put a lot of effort into their restaurants,” Timo says.
The great thing about Restaurant Day is that once you hear about the basic idea – to establish a restaurant for a day – you immediately start coming up with ideas. And when you see all the amazing restaurants set up by others, you get even more inspiration.
“People really let their imaginations go wild, creating something that has never been tried before in terms of the food or the concept. The dedication and joy of the participants is wonderful, as is the way in which people get involved and get to know each other around the table.”
Restaurant Day transforms the entire city
According to Timo Santala, the best thing about Restaurant Day is how it changes the face of the city. It creates a one-day carnival atmosphere in which people see things in different ways. The social atmosphere that Restaurant Day encourages is really positive, and even the stereotyped withdrawn Finns find it natural to talk to new acquaintances.
When Timo talks about Restaurant Day, it is clear that a sense of community plays a major role. A vast number of professionals in different fields volunteer to make the event possible.
“An unbelievable amount of work goes into setting up a restaurant just for one day, also behind the scenes. We have had over 400 popup restaurants in Helsinki alone. In order to make this event a success, a lot of help from volunteers is needed.”
Timo Santala’s expertise is in event management and communications. Among his colleagues, Antti Tuomola works in the restaurant business, Jyrki Vanamo is responsible for coordinating internet and mobile apps, and Kirsti Tuominen is in charge of communications. Many other people are also involved.
“In order to grow, we need a good website and mobile apps. Our website is already available in 15 languages, and our mobile app operates on four platforms. These services make it easy for tourists too to get involved with Restaurant Day.”
Indeed, Restaurant Day’s mobile services have already been awarded. You can hear the pride in Timo’s voice when he tells how the mobile app he and his team created in a single weekend was named “Best Mobile Service in Finland 2012”, beating much bigger companies in the process.
“Restaurant Day definitely helps boost the image of Helsinki. We receive a lot of messages from tourists who are keen to visit Helsinki specifically for Restaurant Day,” Santala says.
A legend is born
The idea behind Restaurant Day arose from frustration over all the bureaucracy involved in running a restaurant. Wouldn’t it be great if for just one day anyone could operate their own restaurant with no bureaucracy whatsoever? Three friends, Antti Tuomola, Olli Sirén and Timo Santala, came up with the solution.
“We brainstormed the idea and thought of everything Restaurant Day could be. Antti and I set up a bike bar to sell drinks and tapas, and at the same time we encouraged others to join us,” Timo Santala remembers.
The first Restaurant Day was held on 21 May 2011 and featured 45 popup restaurants in 13 locations around Finland. The second Restaurant Day was held the following August and featured around 200 popup restaurants in four different countries. The sixth Restaurant Day was held on 19 August 2012 and attracted a record 784 popup restaurants in over a hundred municipalities.
Over 10,000 restaurateurs have operated the popup restaurants, and they have served an estimated 150,000 customers. Restaurant Day is certainly helping to boost the images of Helsinki and many other cities four times a year.
City of dreams
One of the biggest benefits of Restaurant Day is how it nurtures a “yes we can” feeling, which is vital for urban culture.
“Absolutely anybody can participate. Restaurant Day is a group effort. We take the city into our own hands and make it a dream place in which to live,” Timo Santala says.
Restaurant Day has inspired many other events, and the team spirit has helped nurture an environment in which everything is possible.
“Our role has been to light the fire, to provide the initial spark. The true heroes of this event are those who have helped set up around 3000 popup restaurants to date.”
The founders of Restaurant Day picked up the Finland Prize from Minister of Education and Culture Paavo Arhinmäki in December 2011, and on the first anniversary of the event all the people who had set up popup restaurants were likewise rewarded.
“It’s amazing that this important artistic recognition was awarded to a loose group of people who haven’t created art but a somewhat cultural food event instead,” Timo Santala remarks.
Restaurant Day opens eyes, doors and mouths
A group of 50 volunteers is working hard to spread the idea of Restaurant Day around the world and encourage other people to do the same.
“Restaurant Day is spreading rapidly, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t work in different environments. For some, street food has exotic appeal, while for others it is a chance to eat in the homes of strangers. On Restaurant Day you can set up a popup restaurant just about anywhere, even places that you wouldn’t normally associate with restaurants,” Timo says.
The phenomenon has been good for the restaurant business on the whole.
“Restaurant Day encourages people to go out to eat. Even on Restaurant Day itself, normal restaurants are packed! It also allows new restaurants to test their wings. For existing restaurants the event provides valuable free-of-charge market research that can’t be bought for money. It reveals what is hot and pop right now, what are people interested in, what is needed?”
What began as a small act of rebellion has become a popular and positive public event. In addition to the Finland Prize, Restaurant Day was named Cultural Act of the Year 2011, Food Phenomenon of the Year 2011 by Gloria food and wine magazine, and Best Event 2012 in the Best of Helsinki competition. The creators of the event are also pleased that the Mayor of Helsinki Jussi Pajunen has noted that the city’s organisation has a lot to learn from Restaurant Day.
Text: Mariaana Nelimarkka
Restaurant Days in 2014
16 February 2014
17 May 2014
17 August 2014
15 November 2014
Timo Santala recommends:
Berries and mushrooms
The best flavours in Finnish cuisine come from the forest. Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, lingonberries and all sorts of mushrooms taste best when you pick them yourself. Raspberries can be found alongside nearly every forest path in late summer, and in autumn I like to pick mushrooms in the forests of nearby Sipoo.
The Finnish sauna purifies and relaxes not only the body but also the soul. In summertime you are spoiled for choice when it comes to delightful sauna alternatives, and in wintertime the Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall, Kotiharju Sauna and Sauna Arla take you back in time. At the modern Kulttuurisauna “culture sauna” you can also try ice swimming.
The wonderful islands off the coast of Helsinki provide a fresh perspective on the city. My own personal favourites are Pikku Leikosaari, Gåsgrundet, Pihlajasaari and Lammassaari.
We Love Helsinki Midsummer Dances
When all the locals leave the city for their summer cottages at midsummer and tourists wonder how the capital soundly became a ghost town, there is still one place in town where you can still enjoy traditional midsummer celebrations, where the girls are pretty, the men are handsome and the music is nostalgic.
Jatkot – After Parties
After parties are somewhat of a national institution in Finland, and there is no better place to enjoy them than on the piers and in the parks of Helsinki in the early morning midsummer sun.
mbar terrace - As soon as the weather permits in early spring I like to enjoy drinks outside. Mbar at Lasipalatsi has a great terrace – fine atmosphere, nice people and good music.
Ihana Kahvila - The nicest and most surprising summer café in Helsinki can be found at the end of the one-kilometre-long graffiti wall in Suvilahti – enjoy the great view to the sea and comfy hammocks.
Ravintola Kokki - This training restaurant is quite far away, but it serves the best lunch in town – well worth the effort.
Lentävä Lehmä - The “Flying Cow” in Hakaniemi Market Hall sells the best selection of cheeses in Helsinki – perfect for picnics and daytrips.
Kakkugalleria- The “Cake Gallery” serves an amazing cake buffet – go crazy!