I’m sitting on a bus snacking on sukhariki, toasted bread flavoured with different ingredients from chocolate to garlic. The bus is wending its way around Nizhny Novgorod and dropping off passengers at pop-up cafes serving everything from pies to pelmeni, Russian ravioli. It’s Restaurant Day, which means that, for one day, anyone in the city can open up a cafe wherever they want, in a public space, park or even in their homes.
The event has taken place in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth largest city, five times now and on each occasion, more and more residents participate either as vendors or consumers. Since launching, Restaurant Day has gone from being a niche event to a citywide occasion. As I look around, I can see people everywhere holding their Restaurant Day maps, ticking off the various eateries as they go along.
The first Restaurant Day in Nizhny Novgorod was organised by Tatiana Gorbunova, the manager of the city’s branch of Ziferblat, a chain of pay-per-minute cafes across the country. She had read about the global event, which originated in Helsinki in 2011 as a way of showing the Finnish government the entrepreneurial spirit that could be fostered if the rules on opening up cafes were eased. Since then, Restaurant Day has grown from 45 restaurants in 13 cities to 1,383 restaurants in 190 cities in 31 countries last year. The only catch is that you’re not allowed to use your pop-up to promote a business or for financial gain.
St Petersburg. Photograph: Dmitry Tsyrencshikov. To see more picture from last year’s Restaurant Day, click here.
“I read about the event and thought: ‘How great, there are no borders’,” says Gorbunova. “You can take part in a global event and wherever you are, you’ll feel as if you’re part of a worldwide community.” Restaurant Day, which takes place four times a year, has sparked a mini-gastronomic revolution in Nizhny Novgorod with people taking a greater interest in food and eating out. Despite being one of Russia’s most important cultural centres — during the Soviet Union, the city was even known as Gorky after the writer Maxim Gorky, who was born there — Nizhny Novgorod is noticeably less cosmopolitan than Moscow or St Petersburg.
With a predominance of chains and swanky eateries, the restaurant scene is fairly uninspiring. The dearth of cosy cafes serving traditional Russian fare has left residents yearning for something that resembles their grandmother’s home cooking. “So, for example, the girls from First Spinach [one of the cafes] were saying that people were coming to them and buying six slices of pie because there’s nowhere in the city where you can buy tasty homemade pies,” says Gorbunova, “It’s always something artificial.”
“You can take part in a global event and wherever you are, you’ll feel as if you’re part of a worldwide community”
The knock-on effect is already apparent: the city now boasts its first meatball cafe and Bootlegger, the first bar to serve craft beer. Gorbunova has also overseen the launch of REPA, a local food market that’s become part of the official City Day celebrations in September. “The street market is meant to popularise local food. We select participants, work with them and help them to work out their offering,” she says. “We invite farmers to REPA so that people can see that there are still a handful of people in our region who still produce food themselves.”
According to Gorbunova, part of the appeal of Restaurant Day is that it gives local residents the opportunity to mingle. “People are less uptight,” she says. “At a time when there’s a tendency towards isolation, they’re prepared to stand in queues and chat. Plus, it’s kind of like a gastronomic quest. You have a map and use it to find your way to a flat or a kindergarten, which turns out to be an Indonesian cafe smelling of spices with rugs on the floor and a DJ.”