Helsinki Banishes Ennui and Emerges From the Twilight Zone (International Herald Tribune 3/13/98)

Once derided for its quietude by the visiting German playwright Bertolt Brecht as a city where people were “silent in two languages” (Finnish and Swedish), the capital of Finland has been loosening up giddily since the welcome demise seven years ago of the Soviet Union.

The “Europeanization” of Helsinki has moved at an even faster pace since the Finns threw in their lot with the European Union in 1995, soldering their cultural — and culinary — ties with the Continent.

Perhaps the most obvious result, and the happiest from the standpoint of the wayfaring nighthawk, is a veritable profusion of late-serving cafes, bars and restaurants. And because virtually everything in this compact city of 500,000 on the Baltic is within walking distance, the cold winter weather need not be a deterrent. In fact, winter can be the hippest time to discover the new, cosmopolitan Helsinki. Just bundle up and stay ambulatory.

The best place to begin your walk on the wild side is with a late repast at one of the new wave of exotic international restaurants. Try Farouge, an imaginative Lebanese eatery on Yrjoonkatu, near the city center. A bistro offering such Finnish-Lebanese crossover dishes as fasolja bidxaax (chicken with horse beans, tomato sauce and Lebanese rice) and kriteya kielta (tongue marinated in garlic and lemon), served atop a soothing carpet of classical Lebanese music, it has become a fast favorite of the local cognoscenti.

Another restaurant that has caught on is Pigeon, an elegant French restaurant several blocks away, on the corner of Yrjoonkatu and Eeriknkatu. Pigeon’s striking, biomorphic decor, which features all-encompassing blue-green lines painted on ceiling and floor, and a caterpillar-like hut leading to the downstairs, is the work of the hot, young Swedish-Finnish designer, Stefan Lindfors. The nouvelle bistro, which serves late, is also a good place to spot local cultural heavyweights, like Steven Holl, the American architect who designed Kiasma — the ambitious new museum of contemporary art going up just around the corner on Mannerheimintie, the city’s main drag — and Raoul Grunstein, the gallivanting photographer-publisher of the cutting edge magazine Image.

The cuisine, which includes tasty items like escargots á la maison, and stuffed quail, is quite estimable.

Other nighthawks drop into Tony’s Deli, on the ground floor of the Hotel Klaus Kurki on nearby Bulevardi, which serves fresh pasta and all manner of Finnish and Continental delicacies.

Indeed, one can hang out far into the morning at the Klaus Kurki, or repair around the corner to the city’s most happening street, Uudenmaankatu.

The buzz today is coming from no. 9. Bathed in purple neon, coated with mirrors and Suprematistic art, and boasting a gleaming Formica bar right out of an American drugstore, this slinky bar-restaurant has become the new “it” place. Soda, a mirror image of no. 9 right across the street, is also quite popular after midnight.

The only thing one can’t do on Uudenmaankatu is dance. For that one must seek out a proper nightclub. Not long ago, the question “Voitteki suositella bvvaa yo kerhoa?” (“Can you recommend a good nightclub?”) would have elicited laughter in this once very square city. Today you are referred to one of several serious serious nightclubs that have opened up around town.

One is the Tenth Floor, a posh, sprawling bar and disco on Paasikiven aukio that takes up an entire floor of one of Helsinki’s largest office buildings and features a panoramic view of the downtown area and a hopping “Saturday Night Fever” dance floor.

Or you can head up Mannerheimintie to the Hotel Hesperia, a luxury hotel with a massive, Las Vegas-style ballroom in its basement, which is packed with high-flying partiers every Friday and Saturday evening.

On a recent winter’s evening the Hesperia was the site of a massive, raucous affair thrown by City Magazine, Helsinki’s equivalent of Time Out. The frenetic jamboree included a bevy of slightly attired maidens serving shots of Jagermeister and a wacky-cabaret-type floor show.

There was a n innocence about the bas, as well as an edginess, that reminded one of the party scenes in Blow-Up, the 1967 Antonioni film about Swinging London. Like London in the ’60s, Helsinki is coming into its own, after decades of hovering in a sort of twilight zone between East and West.

Were Brecht around, one suspects he might have a good time here, too.

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