Kenneth Nars

Kenneth Nars is all about sharing food. The food writer and World’s 50 Best academy chair for Scandinavia and the Baltics co-founded World of Mouth, an app that serves the global food-loving community by sharing experts’ knowledge of top dining experiences, from hot dog joints to remote fine-dining restaurants. Nars lives, works and plays in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, a unique gastronomic destination that is proud of its Nordic-Baltic food culture and keeps short-lived fads at arm’s length.
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Summer and Winter in Helsinki

The best time to visit Helsinki is June through August. August is great because it’s the height of summer: when it’s warm and everything is green. The Flow Festival is among the top urban rock festivals in northern Europe and takes place in the middle of August in a former gasworks area. It’s a whole weekend with a great musical lineup over five or six different stages. It has not been organised for a few years because of the pandemic, but it’s happening this August. It’s a really fun time to come here. The venue is a 10-minute walk from the centre of Helsinki and there’s plenty of good food and drinks. All the restaurants in town will be working full-steam. Visiting Helsinki in late January or February is opting for an alternative vacation style. The Gulf of Finland – the eastern arm of the Baltic Sea –  that surrounds Helsinki is frozen around that time, so you can walk out to the small islands: an experience for both Finns and people visiting from abroad. It’s great to witness the city in a frozen winter state. There will be plenty of snow too. In February, the sun shines, so winter sports are ideal and are pretty much accessible in the centre of town or just a 20-minute drive. These range from ice skating on the sea and open lakes to cross-country skiing. A combined trip to Helsinki and Stockholm is very easy to do since the cities are a one-hour flight apart and there’s a ferry option as well. 

An Introduction to The City’s Dining Scene

The restaurant scene in Helsinki struggled during the lockdown like everywhere else. Fortunately, most restaurants managed to pull through without catastrophic implications and, surprisingly, there have even been a few new openings during the pandemic. Chefs often tend to take inspiration from other countries, but if you compare Helsinki with Stockholm or Copenhagen, you’ll find that the city has a personal way of doing things and not allowing trends to dictate what restaurants do. Helsinki is a small city with many alternative places that celebrate being different and having a unique style. 

A Neighbourhood With Plenty To Offer Eaters

One place that I really like is called Bona Fide which is on a quiet side street in Kruununhaka: a district that has become quite well-known in the past 30 years for having great restaurants including a couple of Michelin-starred ones. It was opened last July by two young chefs and Johan Borgar – one of the town’s well-known sommeliers. It’s a small 18-seat place where they’re having a lot of fun with the menu without going too luxurious. It’s really affordable by Helsinki standards. They serve a set menu and use great local produce from different farms and fishermen. They offer fun wines to enjoy with the meal. The interior is out of the ordinary: colourful and slightly crazy. It’s a great place and differs from pretty much everything else. There’s an izakaya on the same street called Sake Bar & Izakaya that’s getting a lot of hype right now. 

“This Would Be the Favourite Restaurant of Many in Helsinki”

In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot more chef-run places opening and they tend to be small. It seems small places tend to survive. A handful of them are natural wine bistros that you spot in other cities around the world. The fun thing with most of them is that they’re quite personal and don’t do any of the obvious things you’d expect from such places. In fact, most of the ones here differ a lot from one another. They have a unique style of cooking and are all doing well. Just a few blocks from Bona Fide is a produce-driven bistro called Kuurna. This would be the favourite restaurant of many in Helsinki. I have sent a lot of people to this place over the years. It’s super cosy, especially in the wintertime, and has a vaulted ceiling, open kitchen and warm atmosphere. It doesn’t necessarily have cutting-edge food, but it is delicious food in a three- or four-course menu that’s good value for money. The wine list is great and features traditional natural wines. 

A Relaxed Restaurant with a Bistro-Like Atmosphere 

One place that has to be mentioned is Grön. It’s a relaxed place that uses a lot of foraged ingredients and local produce that it pickles, dries or smokes. It was sort of a pioneer among these kinds of restaurants. You could call it “New Nordic”, but they’re trying to move away from that idea. It’s slightly upscale but still has a fun bistro-like atmosphere. 

From Fine-Dining To Fried Chicken

There’s always something fun and crazy happening at Inari. Named after a village in Lapland, the restaurant is by chef Kim Mikkola who is a Noma offspring. In the beginning, it had a clear Asian – especially Korean – influence, but Mikkola has slowly moved away from that. He opened another business about a year ago: a super-relaxed, fried chicken place called Kot Kot. It started off as a food truck and became a brick-and-mortar that serves chicken wings and fried chicken burgers. Five euros for a fried chicken burger is cheap by Helsinki standards, and it’s the proper stuff: no corners are cut. 

The Most Fun You Can Have in Helsinki (If You Find a Seat)

When it comes to natural wine bars, the guys from Basbas are really killing it in Helsinki. French-Finnish restaurateur Nicolas Thieulon is a well-known name in the scene. A few years ago, he and Kalle Kiukainen opened two places across the street from the old docks of the shipyards of Helsinki. Upstairs is Baskeri & Basso Bistro. It’s notoriously hard to get a table there. You’ll have to try a dinner walk-in after 9 or 10 o’clock. They serve simple, delicious food with daily blackboard specials and really good wines: mostly French and pretty much completely on the natural side with some traditional old-school producers. They have a different walk-in concept in Basbas Kulma (“Kulma” means corner in Finnish) downstairs. It’s more of a counter wine bar where you can have a bite and drink pretty much the same wines as upstairs. It’s an industrial space that they’ve fixed up really nicely and a really fun place with great staff who know a lot about the wines. 

A Zero-Waste Restaurant With Its Own Microbrewery 

Nolla (“zero” in Finnish) is another fun place that has received quite a bit of publicity. It’s a zero-waste restaurant that opened a few years ago in a beautiful location on a busy shopping street by three guys who all happen to be immigrants: one from Serbia, one from Portugal and one from Catalonia. They were in for a surprise. The location they found came with an existing microbrewery which they got as part of the deal. They’re now making really good beer in the old tanks. They sell the beer on-site and in growlers to take home. They work according to a “zero waste” principle and have a system in place for returning bottles, otherwise they use no packaging and use their produce smartly. They mostly do set menus serving really delicious food, all of it locally produced and mostly organic. It’s also worth mentioning that the service is great.

Iconic Architecture, Tradition and Unbeatable Views 

The Savoy restaurant tops the list of traditional meeting places for the Helsinki crowd. It’s on the eighth floor of a building by what we call “The Esplanade” in downtown Helsinki. The restaurant was built in the 1930s by Finnish architect couple Alvar and Aino Aalto and still has its original interior. The view it boasts is beautiful. More importantly, the atmosphere is great and the food is always super delicious. Helena Puolakka is the chef there and worked in London for decades before coming back to Helsinki when the Savoy got an upgrade two years ago. Her cooking is very seasonal and can be quite simple, but she always uses great produce. It’s almost like a luxury brasserie, so it’s not a cheap place. Business people meet there and families gather to celebrate important events. 

“The Finest Dining in Helsinki”

Many people would agree that the Palace restaurant is the finest dining you can have in Helsinki. It’s the kind of restaurant you would compare to Geranium in Copenhagen or Frantzen in Stockholm. It’s a really beautiful space from the 1950s with a super great kitchen team that has been working there for quite some time, led by chef Eero Vottonen. They source a lot of their produce from Finland.

An Old-Time Favourite

I’ve been going to Kosmos for tens of years. It’s another great meeting place for the Helsinki crowd smack in the middle of downtown. It was founded in the 1920s and has been in the same location for almost 100 years. It has pretty much kept the original interior: slightly-dim lighting, chandeliers in the ceiling, old-school palm plants and booths that can seat four people. It’s like a fancy diner, basically. It serves what we call Helsinki-style cuisine, which is a combination of Finnish, French and Russian. It can be anything from a really good wienerschnitzel to Russian-style blini served with fish roe and sour cream, which is quite common in Finland. You could get great pâté, sautéed lamb kidneys with mustard sauce, or fried Baltic herring with mashed potatoes. We’re talking about honest food with a slightly fine touch. It’s always fun to go there, especially with people from abroad. If not, I go there for lunch with my friends. It is among the more affordable places to eat in the city. The service is also great with a slightly senior staff who know their customers. 

Finnish Gin, Rye Whiskey and Helsinki’s Best American-Style Barbecue

The Helsinki Distilling Co. is located in the Abattoir, a slaughterhouse area from the 1930s. Nowadays, the restaurant wholesale trade happens there so you’ll find everyone from the city’s butchers to its fishmongers. It’s a really fun place where new things are happening all the time. The Finnish rye whiskey and gin distillery is in one part of it, but there are plenty of restaurants around from a woodfired pizzeria to a taqueria. It’s a great place to go for lunch in the summertime and sit on a communal table in the yard. One place that I really love there is B-Smokery, a barbecue place with a big smoker oven and the best barbecue in town. 

Helsinki Coffee Culture: The Old and The New

Way Bakery is a great breakfast place with super simple but tasty stuff like bread, butter, cheese and charcuterie. And great coffee. It’s basically a bakery-slash-cafe that also serves lunch and great wines in the evening. It’s really a favourite of mine. If I’m after the coffee alone, I choose We Got This, a coffee shop with simple breakfast but excellent coffee. For old-school coffee tradition, it would have to be the town’s grand cafe, Ekberg. It was founded in 1852 and I think it’s the oldest cafe in the Nordic countries that’s still trading. It’s where the Helsinki crowd – old and young – meet for breakfast, lunch, an afternoon coffee or a bite in the evening. Think Vienna-style cafes with specialties that rotate with the seasons. It’s the kind of place grandmothers take their grandkids to for hot chocolate and a pastry. It’s a beautiful traditional place on Bulevardi (boulevard). Next door is Ekberg’s bakery shop where you can buy breads, viennoiseries and birthday cakes. 

A Quick Escape for a Perfect Meal

Southern Finland is not a huge area: everything is three hours away at most. The beautiful mediaeval town called Porvoo is a one-hour drive east of Helsinki and it was built quite differently from the capital. While Helsinki is easy to navigate, Porvoo is all about cobblestone streets and pretty little shops. There’s a brand new hotel I’ve stayed in there called Runo. It opened last year and has 56 rooms with a nice sauna upstairs and a small breakfast restaurant. It’s in the middle of town and there are quite a few restaurants and a lot of old school cafes around. A few blocks down is a tiny new restaurant called VÅR, one of the top dining-out experiences in Finland which came as a great surprise for me. The chefs are from Porvoo and do some really good work. They serve a set menu with tasty food made mostly from local produce. 

A Five-Room Inn With Finnish Island Hygge

Somewhere else I recommend for a weekend trip are the Åland Islands. They’re in Western Finland near Sweden and you can fly there or take a five-hour drive including ferries. There’s a five-room inn called Carlsro in an old shipping merchant’s house in a small fishing fishermen village by the sea. Carlsro is run by a couple: the husband is Danish and the wife is from the islands. They moved there from Copenhagen in the middle of the pandemic, renovated the place and started receiving guests. It’s got a distinctive Danish-Nordic style with proper Archipelago hygge, Smørrebrød sandwiches and Scandinavian food. People go there in the summer as part of their boating holidays while visiting the western Archipelago of Finland. It’s also a great experience in the winter: they have a sauna by the sea and a peer from which you can jump into the water all year round. It’s really beautiful.

Photography Credit: Anton Sucksdorff

Our guides are fact-checked and updated regularly. Read more here.

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