Fancy popping a few coins into a wicker basket, one that’s tied with a rope and dangling from out of the second-storey window of a Helsinki town-house?
As it’s hoisted up, a queue begins to assemble to your side, and you check the map on your phone, noting the position of the next stop on your route. An exchange above, the basket descends, and delivers to you, a couple flawless slices of chocolate-coated bacon. This, along with over a thousand other eateries spread across cities in thirty countries, will only stay open for business for a few hours, or until their supplies run out. It’s Restaurant Day, an event that occurs four times a year, giving amateur restaurateurs the opportunity to open their doors – or their windows, back gardens, boats even – to adventurous gourmands with an appetite for good, home-made, and diverse cooking.
Started in 2011 in Finland, the intensely popular concept has expanded quickly, with events now taking place in over 200 cities each Restaurant Day. Since they are run completely according to their organisers’ tastes; restaurants’ fare and styles range from the professional or near professional, with multi-course meals and deluxe preparations, to casual distributions of baked goods and street foods. Likewise, their locations vary, with some restaurants popping up outdoors, some in businesses, but many more still are hosted in the chefs’ own living rooms. Participants serving food, register online where they can publish menu information and opening hours – attendees are able to track them on the Restaurant Day website or with the organization’s mobile app.
On Restaurant Day, all kinds of participants benefit, whether it’s somebody trying their hand at preparing and sharing 100 servings of their favourite family recipe, or the guests who will taste it.
One notable feature of Restaurant Day is its potential to bring people into shared spaces. In this way, it bends traditional social dynamics, since participants are often welcomed to someone’s home neither as a personal guest, nor as a traditional customer. Laura Myllymäki describes her experience participating in Restaurant Day in Tampere. “Even though the idea of spending time eating cakes in living rooms of people you don’t know might sound awkward at first, it is actually very easy, natural, and fun.” Chatting with other guests may seem matter-of-course, but it doesn’t go unnoticed.
“That’s already something you don’t always do in Finland – start a conversation with a stranger,” says Myllymäki.
Eeva-Maria Soikkanen, who organised a restaurant in Turku on the second-ever Restaurant Day in August 2011, also noted this element of the event. “I love the idea that people are willing to open their homes to people they don’t know. Some places also ‘force’ strangers to talk to each other. That is not a easy thing to do in our culture, so I do see a lot of good effects in this happening.”
Considering this sense of community, most restaurateurs are serving for the fun of it, and not to make a profit. Soikkanen explains, “We didn’t have any purpose to get profit out of having a restaurant and we set prices low. It was just to have an experience and serve food and cakes we thought were delicious.
The prospect of many unique dishes at reasonable prices is enticing, however, and it means that supplies often run out quickly. Sebastian Koskinen visited restaurants in Turku on Restaurant Day in 2011. “The food is made and served super fast. If you don’t get out of your flat early there will be no food for you. But prices are really fair, no complaining about this.”
The event is hugely popular, and it is advisable to have a well-formed plan of action when you take part, either as a restaurant organiser or as a visitor. Soikkanen, who served a mixture of cakes and savoury dishes in her garden, describes her experience serving on the second Restaurant Day. “We had no idea that the place was going to be crowded. It totally surprised me when the first customers came before the opening and we realised we didn’t know them. By the time we opened, the place was already full. I actually have no idea how many people visited but we had to turn some people away, because there wasn’t enough space or food. We sold out everything in a few hours.”
The event provides a grass-roots opportunity for would-be restaurateurs to try their hand at the food-industry game, and works as a venue for concocting dishes that are largely unavailable to the community otherwise. “Especially if you want to try something a little bit different in a field of food (especially vegetarian and vegan, or have a pop-up restaurant) it’s too much work and bureaucracy to do so,” explains Soikkanen. The event is also significant of a social thrust that favours independent effort. Myllymäki says, “The concept of Restaurant Day is a good illustration of how young urban people in Finland don’t just wait for something to be organised for them. Instead, they organise their own events and make them look like they themselves look.”
On Restaurant Day, all kinds of participants benefit, whether it’s somebody trying their hand at preparing and sharing 100 servings of their favourite family recipe, or the guests who will taste it. Says Koskinen, “it’s a really nice way to meet new people, build reputation, train cooking skills, and build trust. There is no better way to socialize than by eating – or cooking – together.”
The next Restaurant Day will take place on August 17. Register or find more information at Restaurantday.org
Zoë Robertson is a writer currently based in Aarhus, Denmark. She is studying a Masters in Journalism, Media, and Globalization.