• Restaurant Day is celebrated four times a year. Photo: Timo Santala

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 21 February 2016.

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.”

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. Over 38,000 restaurateurs have operated the popup restaurants, and they have served an estimated 1,000,000 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

See also:

Delicious Helsinki

Eat in Helsinki