I was in the bad part of downtown Finland, “Helsinki’s Kitchen,” where roving gangs of youths terrorized neighborhoods with ebullient conversation and flagrant loitering. Turf wars were evidenced by graffiti, over-written with spelling corrections. I was warned not to enter after dark, strange advice in a place where darkness is from 3:30 a.m. to 4:10 a.m. I was looking for the beer tram, a tour-n-pour package deal sponsored by the Sinebrychoff brewery. I never found it.
Lost tours aside, Helsinki turned out to be a burg with a range of nightlife choices that’d make your head spin faster than a locally-made Valmet hybrid on ice. For example, take the joint with the challenging moniker “Liberty or Death.” It’s a funky book nook you wouldn’t expect to find in the trendy Eira designer district, stuffed floor to ceiling with wooden bookcases, punctuated by post-office-type mailboxes and run by a trio of thirty-something entrepreneurs. They concoct cocktails with the dedication of a true calling. Bar Manager Ramses Showlah shoved a house special my way: ‘Literugia Horarum’ is a wiseass blend of citrus and anise. Another potent potion is their ‘Cran Martinez,’ which looks like a Cosmo but has more inner city going for it.
To the sounds of rap artist Steen1 (in Finnish slang), I stole up the Esplanade, a tree-lined park corridor in the heart of the city. I soon found myself wandering the warren of Teatteri with its bars, restaurant, Summer terrace, and two nightclubs. The drinks must have been stronger than I thought because, in their adjacent theater, I couldn’t understand a thing! Fortunately, I remembered I don’t speak Swedish and the stage attached to the complex specialized in productions in that lingo.
There is a lot going on in the immediate hood: the Kamp, arguably the city’s best hotel since 1887, has a clubby bar that attracts every level of Finn society. Right across the Esplanade there is the Savoy, capped with a rooftop bar and restaurant in classic thirties design. They serve a vodka, aquavit, gin, and vermouth “Ryppy” named for the architect. The Savoy has a central city sniper’s eye view, just beyond their herb garden. Since I was already accustomed to the height, I also checked out the Hotel Torni, bypassing their ground floor American Lounge for their twelfth-story rooftop Ateljee bar, where the art elite mingle with folks whose business is espionage (this is a documented fact). The view is the best thing; the drinks are good, their prices are fair, and the small space is crowded but nerve-rackingly sedate.
Not so with Rymy-Eetu, translating to ‘Wildman’s Bar’ –a name full of promise. It’s a pseudo-German tavern, but one that paid off with genuine rowdiness: singing, dancing on the tables, buxom fake fraüleins, serious bouncers, and an anxious queue of guys and gals waiting to get in. The beer selection was also impressive.
I had too much good drink and felt that I was losing my edge, so I went for something to eat at Juuri. The name means “root” and they take pride in local, organic sourcing which they present in a creation they call sapas, a take on tapas. I’d never had grub quite like this, which included mousse-like smoked reindeer tongue, cauliflower pudding, and roach soup (it’s actually a type of fish). Of course, with appetizers like the ones featured, there had to be accompanying drinks and, naturally, I had to be an obliging guest. I ordered a Kuusenkerkkå: Hendrick’s gin, Finlandia grapefruit vodka, and spruce sprouts syrup, for nine euros. If you want to make one yourself and can’t handily tap a spruce tree, use some agave syrup.
As long as I was sliding my way upward, I decided to go for the top: the A21, awarded by Jameson distillers the title of “world’s best cocktail lounge.” I had to ring the doorbell to get in. But this was no speakeasy: they made vast seem cozy in an all white space where implied infinity is broken up by gauzy ceiling-to-floor curtains, creating intimate areas furnished with low, square stools. There’s a fireplace dining and drinking area, complete with a solar eclipse light installation(!), a darker private dining room, and a chicly-inhabited black-floored disco. Creator/Co-Owner Niko Autti said that, in 2007, he “wanted to bring cocktail culture to Helsinki.” And he’s done so with a vengeance, having educated more than five thousand people in his special events cocktail school.
Satiated and happy, I braved the near empty streets of the city in the cool light of a midnight sun, having survived the challenges of Helsinki’s Kitchen and looking forward to my next adventure: a Russian riverboat.