The Rivoli in Albertinkatu, a street only a short walk from the main thoroughfare Mannerheimintie, is one of the few Helsinki restaurants that have kept the same name and remained in the same place under the same (family) ownership for many decades. When Ragni Rissanen opened it in 1962, it was something new in Finland. Until then, restaurants had strict dress codes, which were rigorously enforced by unsmiling bouncers at their doors, but now the Rivoli actually admitted men without neckties. Another breath of fresh air was the excellent range of seafood on the menu: lobsters, shellfish and oysters, items that better restaurants had offered before the Second World War, but which had disappeared until the Rivoli became the first establishment to import them again.
Small in stature and straight in posture, Ragni Rissanen walks briskly in her high-heeled shoes. It is difficult to believe that this energetic lady is closer to seventy than to sixty. She is undoubtedly one of the leading lights of the Finnish restaurant business and an entrepreneur in her body and soul. Her career has not been smooth sailing all the way, of course, but not even the grim years of recession in the early 1990s were able to subdue this courageous lady's spirit.
Enterprise and grit
Ragni Rissanen does not enjoy reminiscing about bankruptcy, but there are a few things that can be told, by way of showing what a real spirit of enterprise and grit actually are. The Rivoli was followed by a large number of other restaurants, which she either established or bought as going concerns. She also set up her own hotel chain, Rivoli Jardin. At its peak, her empire employed over 400. Problems began in the sector when demand collapsed in the early 1990s and all of her companies went bankrupt. Ragni Rissanen lost everything, including her personal wealth, and soon she and a friend were selling baked potatoes at a stall in the market square.
"I have a lot of determination and it didn't suit me to go out of business when the bank wanted, but instead when I wanted. Not for an instant did I dream of quitting," she says.
What drove her on was her spirit of enterprise and a desire to prove that she would cope. And indeed she has managed quite well in her new life. Now she is running a new company, which is in her grandchildren's name and includes the most beloved establishments from the old family: the Rivoli and Bellevue restaurants and the Rivoli Jardin Hotel in Helsinki. They are all doing well, especially the hotel. Ragni Rissanen is not content with just "managing", but also has an active role as the Rivoli's headwaitress during the day.
Ability creates ambience
The Bellevue in Katajanokka is Helsinki's oldest Russian restaurant and Ragni Rissanen wanted to keep it as it was, with nostalgic respect for its old style. Right next door to the Rivoli is the Rivoletto, an Italian-style lunch restaurant, a very successful step into a newer age. The Rivoletto is popular with a clientele that spans the full age spectrum from baby to granddad.
The Rivoli is the up-market side, a place with a special concentration on the quality of both the food and the service. This and the skilled staff together create the distinctive Rivoli atmosphere, in which a dash of the sumptuous leavens the homely. Patrons go there to eat well, but less expensively than in the city-centre gourmet restaurants. The food is served elegantly, but the Rivoli has not fallen into the trap of trendy "frilliness", which only puts up prices whilst doing nothing for quality. The menu is interesting and varied and still features a good choice of seafood. The restaurant deserves special mention for its outstanding selection of Finnish freshwater fish. The menu also has a section dedicated to some of the restaurant's classics, which have remained firm favourites through all the years and trends.
Many of the items on the menu are "souvenirs" that Ragni Rissanen has brought back from trips abroad. When she finds interesting dishes in foreign places, she often photographs them and, with the aid of her taste buds, tries to find out what ingredients have been used. Then back home in the Rivoli kitchen, the team develop the recipe together until they are satisfied that they have got it right.
The Rivoli is one of those old-fashioned houses where the mistress teaches everything from the basics on. Ragni Rissanen is full of praise for her staff, many of whom have been with her from the beginning. She finds the younger members no less admirable than the faithful old retainers: "This junior team is also very receptive and ready to learn anything I can teach them."
More about the Bellevue