Trail of the unexpected: Helsinki's Restaurant Day

Four times a year, hundreds of pop-up snack stalls fill the streets, says Christopher Hirst.

Despite its off-putting name, Ruttopuisto (Plague Park) is a pleasant patch of greenery in the heart of Helsinki. At 11am on a sunny Saturday in May, its appeal was enhanced by an outcrop of tasty offerings. At one stall, Johannes Dunbel sold bagels made in the authentic way ("yes, they're boiled") and filled with either prosciutto and tomato or pesto and hummus. Since I had the foresight to skip breakfast, I was able to try both. Excellent. "I only had three hours' sleep last night," said Johannes. "We made 100 bagels and have already sold 70 in 45 minutes."

"I've never been so stressed," admitted his female partner.

The stall was part of Helsinki's Restaurant Day, a four-times-a-year event for people who want to try their hand at catering. (You can get a taste for the concept next weekend.) Johannes, who normally spends his days studying for a PhD in tumour immunology, provided a cheering explanation for his deviation into bagels: "You need to bring happiness to people."

Other pop-ups in the park were run by housewife Marja Aspelund, who offered Mediterranean muffins with sour-sweet additions of lemon, olives and cheese. Then, there was restaurant worker Oskari Sandstrom, whose freshly fried blinis, topped with smoked salmon and cream cheese, were so good that I could happily have spent the rest of the day snacking there.

But there was plenty more to sample in Helsinki's outdoor banquet. A dozen stalls punctuated Iso Roobertinkatu, one of the city's main shopping streets. Artist Tarja Saikkonen was selling heart-shaped waffles smothered with strawberry jam. A pop-up Mexican restaurant called El Puesto drew a 40-strong queue for its tacos (chicken and tomato or vegetable and mushroom).

Outside her father's snack bar, Balzac, 10-year-old Kreeta Koskijolei was selling madeleines from a stall named La Fille de Balzac. "They're the bee's knees," I told her. After a brief elucidation, she beamed. "I'm so pleased."

Throughout this elegant city of half a million, the pop-ups produced cheerful chat and contented chewing. This was the aim when the first Restaurant Day was held in May 2011, when 40 pop-ups appeared. But there was a more subversive intention, as one of the three founders explained. "We have many regulations that prevent the street food enjoyed in other countries," said Timo Santala. "We thought: what if just for one day these rules didn't exist and we could do all these things we dream of. Maybe 25,000 people offer food on Restaurant Day ... in a population of half a million, it's a tremendous number."

The authorities usually turn a blind eye on Restaurant Day, but an indication of the deep-rooted Finnish desire for order was evident at a solitary stall on a long street lined with apartments. At first, I thought the police car had stopped for a snack but it turned out that the cops had been called by a local resident fearing the anarchy that might result from the sale of American cakes (carrot, Boston cream, peanut and banana) made by students Mirkka Ollikainen and Annamari Jukkolalii. On finding that only waistlines were threatened, the law moved on.

A year on from the first Restaurant Day, 680 temporary restaurants took part. About half were in Helsinki; the rest were scattered around Finland with a sprinkling as far afield as Germany, Switzerland, the US and Canada. Hoping that the concept will spread, Timo and his colleagues invited potential organisers from cities including London, New York and Tokyo. However, Restaurant Day seems particularly suited to the city where it was invented. Helsinki is the ideal size and there is a deep desire to enjoy the customarily prohibited street food.

The variety on offer encourages a snack-punctuated tour of this city where Russian classicism rubs shoulders with Twenties Art Deco and cutting-edge design. (Helsinki is also this year's World Design Capital.) In her lingerie boutique on Punavuorenkatu street, Tyra Therman served a somewhat surreal afternoon tea. Amid racks of silken scanties, I sipped Earl Grey with the full accompaniment of scones, strawberry jam and cream.

In Bergmansgatan park, Matthew Rusting-Morey from Los Angeles and his girlfriend Maria Peltonen had a stall called Mekong Munchies selling salmon and vegetable summer rolls (like spring rolls but cold). Irresistibly light and delicious, just a couple remained. "We have sold 100 in 95 minutes," said Matthew. "I wish there was something like this in LA." In a reclaimed industrial area at the seaside, a serious pop-up called B Smokery served generous cuts of smoked pork from half a dozen big American smokers. "We marinaded 140kg, enough for 600 portions," said Mark Luoff. Were they professional cooks? "No, we work in a film company. There's the cameraman. He's a screenwriter, and I'm the producer."

Mark admitted that the outfit was due to open a restaurant downstairs from its new production suite in Helsinki's Meatpacking District. "I've never had so much fun in my life. It's really good to do this and bring lots of people together."

My final pop-up of Restaurant Day was on a small, ancient wooden jetty in Helsinki harbour, where there was a cheese and wine stall that added interest with a temporary sauna in a well-worn tent. As the sunset rippled on the gently lapping water, a stream of young people tripped into the steamy enclave as naked as Adam and Eve. An interesting and likeable people, the Finns may claim to be confined by rules but in many ways they are freer than we are.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Helsinki airport is served by Finnair (0870 241 4411; from Manchester and Heathrow; British Airways (0844 493 0787; and Blue1 (00 358 20 585 6240; fly from Heathrow; and Norwegian (00 47 21 49 00 15; flies from Gatwick.

More information The next Restaurant Day is on 19 August, with another in November:;

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas