Have you ever dreamed about opening up your own restaurant? Or simply just thought it would be fun to share your best culinary creation with the public? I sure have. From a young age, I’ve always been a big baker, cook, and eater, and the idea of opening my own coffee shop, bakery, or restaurant has been floating around my head for many, many years. But what seemed like the perfect idea to 12-year-old me became more and more “just a dream” as I grew older and, well, figured out that you need more than a notebook full of ideas to make a café happen. But what if you could try your idea just once, if even for a single day, before getting down and dirty with all those overwhelming real-life details? What if you could get your product and name out there without an expensive kitchen license? Well, during a food festival aptly named Restaurant Day, this is all possible. Obviously, I had to experience this brilliant idea for myself, back where it all started — my home country’s capital, Helsinki.
Restaurant Day started out as a simple idea borne of a “why not” attitude shared among three friends: Antti Tuomola, Olli Sirén and Timo Santala. Although they were all interested in the culinary world, they found the bureaucracy involved in opening a restaurant frustrating and limiting, and when investigating the hows and whys of the restaurant business, an idea sparked: Why not create one day when anyone could open up a pop-up restaurant (since this, apparently, is a way around the usual regulations)? Today, what was an idea and dream among friends has evolved into a real food revolution, most recently involving 2,479 one-day pop-up restaurants in 34 countries.
Different from a regular food festival, Restaurant Day is a day when anyone — no matter his or her age or culinary experience — can sell his or her food without having to get any sort of license or pass a food hygiene inspection. The “restaurant” can be a food stall in a park, a street corner set-up, or even your own apartment or office space. In Helsinki — the birthplace of Restaurant Day — the food festival has become extremely popular, attracting people of all ages eager to serve their best culinary creations, from trendy foods like raw cakes to Finnish classics like rye bread toasts to more international flavors in the shape of falafel and dumplings. Restaurant Day now also takes place in several other cities around not only Finland, but the world — from Nepal to Kenya.
When I visited Helsinki during the most recent Restaurant Day on May 16, I was not only overwhelmed by the hundreds and hundreds of food stalls to choose from, but amazed to see how well-received this event was. The city’s three main parks were filled with pop-up restaurants and crowds of eager tasters. I witnessed everything from parents buying pancakes from their kids to an old couple enjoying coffee and a cinnamon bun to a young hip group of friends walking from stall to stall picking up raw food, American barbecue, and thickly topped rye toasts.
Restaurant Day takes place four times a year, out of which two times fall during the cold winter months in Finland. While the summer months are usually perfect for leisurely strolls from food stall to food stall and in-between-eating breaks in the parks, Restaurant Day in February and November quite likely mean close-to-zero temperatures and snow-filled streets. Though I personally have yet to experience a Restaurant Day in the winter, I’ve heard reports on surprisingly lively and well-received events. Then again, knowing the resilient “we can do it” mindset that’s still part of Finnish culture, I am not too surprised. A good pair of winter boots, hot cocoa in hand — why not? If the food and atmosphere is anything like my first Restaurant Day in May, I cannot wait to be there.
The next Restaurant Day will take place on August 16. See all the participating cites and how you can get involved in this food-movement here.