Finland’s pop-up carnival of good taste

Restaurant Day lets anyone set up a pop-up resto. The Helsinki idea has quickly spread in Finland and abroad.

Invented in Helsinki and first held in May 2011, Restaurant Day allows anyone to set up their own café, resto or bar for one day. It has quickly spread to other cities and become a Finnish tradition, also gaining popularity abroad (see slideshow below). It happens four times a year: February, May, August and November.

Exotic aromas, bright colours and African flair greet Guests in Paloni, a downtown Helsinki design shop that is acting as the Picnic in Ghana Restaurant for Restaurant Day. Chef Kojo Owusu has prepared specialities from his homeland Ghana. Together with Johannes Wienss, a cook from Düsseldorf, Germany, he has created a menu consisting of bean salsa, couscous and fried bananas, as well as a refreshing ginger drink to wash it down.

Picnic in Ghana was one of the numerous restaurants that appeared in Helsinki on one Restaurant Day. The event takes place every three months, and the number of participants – and the number of active countries – has increased impressively over time. Restaurant Day now bills itself as “the world’s largest food carnival.” In its first five years, it included a total of more than 22,000 pop-up restaurants in 75 different countries from Argentina to Uzbekistan, serving an estimated three million people. May 17, 2014 set a record with 2,724 restaurants in 35 countries.

The concept is extravagant yet simple. On Restaurant Day anyone at all can open a restaurant, café or bar for one day. Anybody who would like to invite guests to their own restaurant can sign up on the Restaurant Day website. The name and nature of the pop-up restaurants, as well as the menu and prices, are completely up to the participants.

Opening hours: Today only

Creativity knows no bounds. This becomes apparent each time Restaurant Day is held: the selection is enormous. Whatever the weather, crowds of culinary adventurers turn up to sample the cuisine.

You may discover American cupcakes, French bouillabaisse, Iranian nan bread or German curry sausages, not to mention Finnish specialities such as lihapullia (meatballs) and korvapuusteja (cinnamon buns). Nothing is lacking.

Although Restaurant Day originated in Helsinki, eateries also pop up in many other Finnish cities on the big day, and the event is attracting numerous participants abroad. In dozens of countries, back gardens, living rooms, boutiques and galleries are temporarily transformed into restaurants.

“It’s a great concept,” says Wienss. “Too bad it has been slow to catch on in Germany so far.” But things change fast, and there’s always the next Restaurant Day.

Chef for a day: A gallery of Restaurant Days

Le Frog, Helsinki: Maria Njari is working on her crostinis. Le Frog offered its guests a French three course meal. (Photo: Roy Bäckström/Restaurant Day)

Tokyo Kitchen, Helsinki: Yumi Matsumoto serves Gyozas and corn soup from a window in the Punavuori neighbourhood. (Photo: Kimmo Lind/Restaurant Day)

Kuchnia Polska, Helsinki: Ida Kukkapuro enjoys Polish beetroot soup in the biggest inner courtyard in the Nordic countries. (Photo: Timo Santala/Restaurant Day)

Mikko Kjellberg lowers down sandwiches in a basket on Alppikatu in Helsinki. (Photo: Tuomas Sarparanta/Restaurant Day)

Punavuori Tearoom, Helsinki: Lingerie designer Tyra Therman serves tea, pie and cupcakes in her boutique. (Photo: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day)

Sluprsnam Window Kiosk, Turku: Sluprsnam serves customers through a window. (Photo: Eino Nurmisto/Restaurant Day)

Puutarhatontut (Garden Gnomes), Tampere: Two-year-old Anni enjoys a bun on a Restaurant Day in winter. (Photo: Ella Kiviniemi/Restaurant Day)

Le Petit Crêperie de Rue, Helsinki: Crêpes are being prepared for the crowd while a concert on a Hammond organ entertains hungry guests. (Photo: Tuomas Sarparanta/Restaurant Day)

Le Garage, Helsinki: In the suburb of Kulosaari, this couple paid a visit to a restaurant run by their neighbours. (Photo: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day)

Puuteri (Powder) Bakery, Helsinki: A pop-up cafe in a women’s clothing store serves coffee and tea with sweet pastries, inspiring the owners to toast the occasion. (Photo: Kimmo Lind/Restaurant Day)

3 Mishki (3 Little Bears), Helsinki: Tanja, Nikita (front) and Andrei are making and serving traditional Russian food in their own kitchen. (Photo: Heidi Uutela/Restaurant Day)

Pyöräbaari (Bicycle Bar), Helsinki: Michelle enjoys a tapas platter from a mobile eatery on the first Restaurant Day. (Photo: Timo Santala/Restaurant Day)

By Ansgar Frankenberg, May 2012, updated August 2017