Challenge: Restaurant Day

A slight growling in my stomach. It’s Saturday and we’re standing in front of an apartment building in Munkkisaari at 10.30am, wondering if something would happen. Then, it does: the head of a young man pops out of a second floor apartment. “Do you have a restaurant up there” I ask hesitantly. “Of course we do, come on in!” We are the second customers of the day; the first is sitting in the hall enjoying his flambéed crêpes Suzette – we end up choosing the salty option: a crêpe stuffed with ham, bacon, lettuce, onion and mayonnaise. A hefty breakfast for a chilly morning, enjoyed in a cosy apartment with nice people and basically for free. What is going on?

This November, the Restaurant day was organized for the third time. What is remarkable is that the first national set-up-your-own-restaurant extravaganza was held only six months ago, which means the event is as good as rooted in our urban culture already. This time there were over 300 ‘restaurants’ to pick from, something for everyone all over the country. Sushi, sausages, desserts, barbeque, tapas, you name it. The amount was so overwhelming that my friend and I decided to make a list beforehand of the places we definitely wanted to visit. Hungry for some breakfast, we directed our course for Munkkisaari.

The ‘restaurant’ was called The Hefty Crêpe, and it had an actual (ex) cook preparing the dishes. They had only decided to sign up two days before and were not exactly sure what to expect. After all, in August, at the second Restaurant day, almost all places ran out of food. We, however, were well organized and would not be left hungry. Every place from breakfast until night snacks was written down in chronological order – those that served only breakfast or lunch to those who concentrated on late snacks and music. The only problem was that after the first visit there were still 13 places left – we started to doubt our eating capacity.

Fortunately, Restaurant day is not just about eating. It is a phenomenon that encapsulates a whole urban culture: snacks are served in art galleries; DJs are playing their music or choirs singing in the background. A drink enjoyed at a backyard sale, Wannabe Ballerinas handing out glögi and soup, eating dinner while watching performance art. The community spirit is at its highest at times like these – you feel like smiling at and greeting everyone you come across on the street. It is like a piece of sunny July day in the middle of November, all the woollen layers covering our faces coming off and revealing our smiles – what a wonderful city this is!

Now back to cuisine. After our mighty crêpes we concentrated on drinks: café au lait at a vintage shop (seasoned with a pair of sunglasses), hot chocolate served by moustached children straight out of a window, and an earl gray cupcake, which, technically, isn’t a drink, but nevertheless heavenly, at café Caneli. We lost ourselves for a bit in a girl’s wardrobe in Kallio, literally: she was leaving for Australia for a year and sold all her earthly belongings, some of it straight from her closet. Naturally there was also pie. I left with three pairs of shoes and a big smile.

As the night started to fall (at three-thirty in the afternoon, thank you November) we started to look for a bit of groove. We had the perfect solution: where else to look for a crazy party mood than in a Vappu-pop-up restaurant? Unfortunately, we had to face disappointment – this Vappu was extremely sombre. They should be punished for using the word for such a joyless event; even the balloons looked sad hanging on the walls.

We finished quickly our potato salads and doughnuts and headed for Wannabe Ballerinas’ glögi spot. On our way there we were suddenly pulled inside the parachutists’ headquarters in Töölö, who were holding a lottery at the time we came in. The mood was ridiculously cheerful, and it didn’t take us long to find out why. Everyone had brought their own flasks! This is because the authorities had announced they would inspect the pop-up restaurants this time, no one should be caught serving a drop of alcohol with the meals. You need a permission for it, see.

So what! It is also forbidden to serve food without permission – who is looking after the hygiene, Evira? It would be logical to think that the police would have something better to do on a Saturday evening in Helsinki than to chase people who are doing something worthwhile, such as serving strangers a nice glass of wine to go with their pasta. We did run into some rebels, though. In some places a shot of alcohol was called a ‘warmer’ for glögi, in others a bottle of sparkling wine, for example, was ‘just laying there’ on the table, and a coin could be left in an adjacent cup according to conscience. Hopefully bureaucracy will not come to stand in the way of evolving, lively urban culture.

Our final score was 11 places. We left the last one behind at 10pm, which was a classy underground recording studio in Katajanokka: funk and soul music and improvised food by Italian musicians. The whole day was an amazing rush of zest in the middle of the darkest time of the year, and it left me impatiently waiting for the next one (4 February, for the record). Let the imagination run wild and set up your own (I might myself)!

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