On one February Sunday, all around Helsinki stalls with street food sprung up for the day. This could only mean one thing: It was Restaurant Day! This event has its roots in Finland, where food hygiene & safety laws are so strict, that street food vendors are almost non-existent. So at some point, food lovers in Helsinki were tired of these strict regulations and launched their very own celebration of food, during which everyone who wanted could open a restaurant for one day. Around 40 restaurants participated in this first Restaurant Day in 2011 and showed off their home-cooking and -baking skills in Helsinki and around Finland. Visitors had the chance to taste cuisines from all around the world: Immigrants were preparing their favourite dishes from home, avid travellers replicated things they had liked on the road, and surely there were plenty of local delicacies as well. The pop-up restaurants also cater for all sorts of food requirements, from vegetarian and vegan to gluten free and halal, a clear sign to the real restaurants that there is a growing demand out there that is not yet satisfied by them.
The concept spread quickly: From 45 restaurants in Finland in May 2011 to 2497 restaurants in 34 countries in May 2015. Restaurant day happens four times a year, but the most popular so far have always been in May. You can find more statistics here. Restaurants can be in people’s own homes, in parks and on the street, as well as some public buildings: For example Helsinki’s libraries welcome restaurants and provide spaces.
On my first Restaurant Day in February, we walked around all day trying different foods: I had some lovely, gluten free cake for breakfast in a park, where there was also a stall where refugees prepared middle eastern goodies as a thanks to the Finnish people. Then we went to sample Sami specialities: Reindeer heart, reindeer blood dumplings and a berry mousse as desert. Some Russian smetana-dumplings and Borscht later we were too late to try the insects served at a cafe in Kallio – apparently they ran out within an hour, as there was such demand. So we continued to a local community centre, where seemingly all Philippino families of Helsinki had come together to show off their cuisine: The hall was lined with around a dozen or more different stands offering all kinds of delicacies. We concluded the day with a stroll around the Esplanades, where more stalls were lined up tightly, serving dishes – sweet and savoury – from all around the world.
The upcoming Restaurant Day on 21st May will be the 5th birthday of the event – and might well become the biggest so far! Whether you live in Finland or abroad, have a look at the map to check if there are any restaurants near you! Or why not participate yourself? It’s easy and free, just find a place to sell your favourite homemade treats, register on the website and have a great day!
And if you are in Helsinki, drop by at the One Cat Cafe, where I and some friends will take your taste buds on a vegetarian journey around the world with delicious German cakes, American fudge, Texan breakfast, and Iranian treats! Another recommendation is Kaisaniemen Puisto, where another friend will be preparing authentic Nepalese momos.