Review: restaurant day in St Petersburg

When you walk into Olga Polyakova’s cosy apartment on Masterskaya Street, the first thing you notice is the shoes. There are around 40 pairs at the door, and a further 40 coats piled up on a couch in the hallway. The sound of energetic chatter is next to grab your attention, along with a mixture of enticing aromas. The usual furniture has disappeared from the living room, and neighbours, friends and strangers occupy the tables, chairs and beanbags that now stand in its place. Music plays as the relaxed guests eat and drink from paper plates and plastic cups. The kitchen is a constant flurry of activity as volunteers run in and out with new orders and old dishes. Today, Olga’s apartment isn’t just an apartment, it’s a restaurant.

People sitting on the window of Olga's apartment enjoying their food
Enjoying dessert on the windowsill in Olga’s apartment

Olga’s ‘restaurant’ is just one of over 200 that participated in St. Petersburg Restaurant Day on Saturday (November 15). The premise for this movement is simple: every three months, the world stages a grass-roots carnival of food, where anybody on earth can open their own restaurant for a day. The event started in 2011 in Helsinki and has since sprouted to 35 countries. Pad thai, Georgian lobio and Jewish kugel were all on the menu in St. Petersburg as locals served up a smorgasbord of old family recipes and professionally made treats.

Saturday was the 7th Restaurant Day in St. Petersburg, and Olga and her friends helped bring the event here in the spring of 2013. Olga first saw it while holidaying in Helsinki. “It was amazing, so we started promoting the next Restaurant Day with our friends,” she said, adding that the event immediately resonated with the locals. “Over a hundred and fifty different restaurants opened around the city.”

A long, thin blackboard in the living room offers a menu of dishes that Olga and her friends enjoy eating themselves. Russian blini, cooked pears and creamy pumpkin soup are all available and selling well. Prices are extremely low, and it’s up to guests to place their roubles in a large jar marked ‘Donations’. “We went to the market to find the cheapest ingredients,” Olga said. “It’s not about earning money.”

Restaurant Day at Radiobaby
Cooking up pad thai for strangers

Restaurant Day is also a chance for people to open up their hidden culinary talents to public judgment for the first time. On Kazanskaya Street, Nastya stirred a wok and carefully chopped garlic as strangers eagerly lined up in front of her. Nastya had discovered Thai food while on holiday two years ago, but this was her first ever taste of cooking for a large audience. “Today has shown me I could start cooking for more people,” she said. “Many Russians have never tried traditional Thai food, but they can try it here – you can try so many new things.”

Filling up one’s stomach is a fine art, and the large and loyal contingent of customers tend to share the love by eating a lot of little dishes. Katya, a St. Petersburg local and Restaurant Day veteran, recommends visiting as many places as you can across the city. “I visited Robocat first, and then Bar Niko second, and… hold on…” Katya fishes into her purse and retrieves a home-made list of seven restaurants, complete with a scribbled map. “Ah! We also went to the restaurants in Peterskirche! And to Love, Eat and Travel.”

Ten metres down from Katya, Anna is selling her tomato soup. She is part of a group that met last year on Russian social networking site VKontakte and began sharing their best homemade recipes. This is their fourth Restaurant Day, and they’re slowly developing a reputation. “Today there was a guy who came especially for our food for the fourth time. It’s very cool, it’s an incredible feeling,” Anna said.

Anna and her friends selling their home-made dishes in Radiobaby
Anna and her friends selling their home-made dishes in Radiobaby

Nastya and Anna are both selling their food in Radiobaby, a nightclub that rarely opens its doors during the day. The club’s owners decided to provide free space for ten food stalls this year, as well as playing soul music and selling drinks at the bar. “It’s our first food event here”, said club owner Alex Kapustin. “It’s very unusual, but it means a lot. It’s a good experience.”

Different people can enjoy this in their own way. Some share personal recipes with the community, while others take the chance to bravely exhibit a private talent to public judgment for the first time. Yet for some, it is also a business opportunity and a space for commercial ambition to thrive. “We started to bake together just before the first Restaurant Day last year,” said Ekaterina from Cake Time restaurant, where business cards and glossy advertising leaflets are displayed alongside a stunning collection of sweets. “Our first Restaurant Day was a success and now we have our own small business.”

Opening a one-day restaurant is an exciting experience but it requires serious preparation. Organisers recommend being creative in your recipes and cooking only your best dishes. “Take care of promotion”, said Olga. “Restaurant day is a good possibility to invite old friends to come over and meet a lot of new people.” The Restaurant Day website also features an online guide on how to become a one-day chef, and although the carnival is technically not legal in St. Petersburg the authorities usually turn a blind eye.

It takes time, energy and courage to open up a restaurant, but the people sharing their happiness in form of borsch and burritos will tell you it’s worth it. If you want to try your luck, you’ll have to wait three months until the carnival starts all over again.

You can start planning your one-day restaurant for the next event, which will take place on February 15. To find out more, visit www.restaurantday.org

NATALIA SMOLENTCEVA AND RICHARD ENSOR

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