Homemade pelmeni (Russian dumplings) served in a slow-braised veal stock on a Helsinki street. Marinella Ruusunen/Restaurant Day

The pop-up food event that started in Helsinki four years ago has already spread to 68 countries around the world.

Timo Santala had a dream: to launch a mobile bicycle bar for selling drinks and snacks to picnickers. But red tape in his home city of Helsinki thwarted the idea. Frustrated with the bureaucratic restrictions he kept bumping up against, the event producer and a few friends decided to organize a pop-up food carnival for amateur restaurateurs that would only be open for a single day.

That initial action in May 2011, dubbed Restaurant Day, has since become an international phenomenon, with 16,000 temporary restaurants in 68 different countries serving an estimated 1.8 million customers at quarterly events over the past four years. The original Restaurant Day, which will next be held February 15, has been officially embraced by the Helsinki city government and sparked moves toward more open, creative uses of public space.

“Restaurant Day is a prime example of the new urban culture created by residents and supported by the city,” says Helsinki Deputy Mayor Pekka Sauri. “It has shown everybody that citizens can organize events without supervision, and has helped bring the community and the city organization closer together.”

Several collective community events inspired by Restaurant Day have since sprung up in Helsinki, according to Santala, who was recently appointed head of "food culture strategy" for the city. “There’s now lots of different kinds of ‘Days’ when you do something [together],” he says. “The most popular is Cleaning Day, where people take things out of their houses to sell—it turns all of Helsinki into a huge flea market twice a year.”

A Cuban pop-up restaurant on a downtown Helsinki sidewalk.  (Roy Bäckström/Restaurant Day).

The volunteer-run Restaurant Day has spread around the globe thanks to a website in 17 languages, a Facebook network of “Restaurant Day Ambassadors” who promote the event in their own cities, a free mobile app, and an online map where people can sign up to host a restaurant or find one nearby. The temporary eateries serve anything from formal multi-course meals to drinks and simple snacks, and are located in private homes and public parks, on sidewalks, boats, and beaches.

More than 1,160 one-day restaurants are already listed on the map for the next event, mostly in Western Europe but as far-flung as Quito, Ecuador, and Novosibirsk, Russia, where the hosts say they plan to serve “traditional Italian dishes.” Most hosts are amateur cooks seeking to share favorite foods and connect with others.

“We live in such a busy time and we barely know who lives in our apartment building,” says one host in Prague who goes by the alias “Psychologie chuti” (Psychology of flavor) and sells her own homemade Parisian-style macarons. “Restaurant Day is one of the best opportunities to meet, get to know each other, and feel like a part of a community.”

Fostering that community helps create “safer, more vibrant neighborhoods,” says Kathryn Sharaput, a pastry chef who has participated twice as a Restaurant Day host in Montreal. “It’s also sparked a few small businesses, which is great for the local economy.”

Montreal is the biggest North American success story for Restaurant Day, which has been slow to catch on in the United States. “It’s a festive event that animates our neighborhoods and is full of surprises and great encounters,” says Restaurant Day Montreal Ambassador Frédérik Nissen. Last fall, the Montreal city council unanimously approved a motion to support the local Restaurant Day movement, a decision Nissen says has “made the event more official and guarantees its growth in the future.”

Restaurant Day is “a great display of the quality of life, and the spirit of living together that you only see in a vibrant, inhabited urban core,” says Montreal City Councilor Steve Shanahan, who set up his own restaurant last November serving free tea and cookies. “In a democracy, we want the most people possible around the table sharing ideas and effort, and Restaurant Day really embodies that principle, and makes it easy for people to put that concept into practice.”

In Helsinki, citizen-organized events like Restaurant Day “have certainly had an indirect influence on the drafting of the new City Master Plan,” according to Deputy Mayor Sauri, who says the draft plan prioritizes walkable and cyclable urban environments.

But the biggest change, according to Santala, is a mental shift: “It’s the perception that people have nowadays of what is possible in terms of public space, how it really belongs to the people and [how] we can act ourselves and make the cities we live in better places.”

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