A scraped plate is the sign of a happy meal. But these days, the plate may be for sale too, if it takes your fancy. This is not a willingness in austere times to make profit from any quarter, but rather a way to draw attention to the other components, such as art and design, that fill out the dining experience.
Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed is currently designing a refit of the Gallery restaurant at Sketch in Mayfair, hand-picking everything from the tables and chairs to the knives and forks, by brands from Versace to Ikea. Many of the pieces will later go on sale. The restaurant-cum-artwork, which is scheduled to open on March 1, is the first in a series of planned artists’ restaurants at Sketch. Look down at your feet to catch Creed’s “Work No. 1347” a zigzagging pattern of 96 different types of marble.
Later this month, another “take home” pop-up restaurant will be created by the brilliant industrial designer Sebastian Bergne, who has shown work at Somerset House, taught at the Royal College of Art and made a bespoke mobile ice-cream machine for Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner. A Table, at Great Western Studios in London, will be an exhibition of Bergne’s work that people will eat their food off. His clever tableware, from champagne glasses that stack into a teetering column to a casserole dish he designed for Tefal, will be on show during the day, laid out on a long table. Come the evening, guests will sit down at the table and use these pieces for their dinner, with every item for sale.
Bergne fell in love with food during a seven-year spell living in Bologna with his family, eating simple suppers such as guinea fowl with raisins and chestnuts, and drinking local wine. “Also at that time I started working for Seb, which owns Moulinex and Tefal, and I got more involved in designing tableware,” Bergne says.
With his distinctively wry humour, he has since twisted many classic table forms. A glass with a cork for a stem, for example, reverses our trust in the cork’s capacity to hold liquid. “Some people don’t believe that it won’t leak… There is a psychological moment where they have to see it.” Or a wine dispenser places the foil bag of a wine-box in an elegant glass structure, to show, as Bergne says, that this mass-market item “can be incredibly beautiful”.
Bergne’s much-copied “Dizzy” glasses will serve the soup course. With peaked bottoms like a child’s spinning top, rolling the liquid around, instead of holding it still, these glasses are a link to Bergne’s wedding, for which he made 200 as shot glasses for trou normand. For theatre the soup will be brought in on a tray at A Table, so the many glasses turn in a wobbling circle. “On a tray they behave a bit like a flock of birds, they all move together,” says Bergne.
The Art of Dining, a London-based pop-up run by Moro-trained chef Ellen Parr and artist Alice Hodge, is also using food as a way to sell art. In collaboration with The Horsebox Gallery, it stages themed events, with art on show for browsing between the courses.
Like Bergne’s exhibition and Creed’s restaurant, every piece of the dinner has an important part to play.
The pair were so meticulous about their last themed event, “Hackney-on-Sea”, that they hired a donkey to greet diners and wrapped the scampi course in original 1970s newspaper. (Ellen is the daughter of photographer Martin Parr, and though food not photos are her passion, Hodge says his work may be shown at a future event.)
“The sort of angle we play to is that the venue, the theme and the set design all work together to create an experience, it’s about the whole experience,” says Hodge. “All the other [pop-ups] are geared to good food, which is lovely, but it’s like going to a restaurant. Whereas ours is a pop-up – a way of buying art in a relaxed evening context.” 6
The suite course: food and music
There is the sound of pots and pans, a faint whistle of steaming water, but otherwise complete silence has descended on the open kitchen at Galvin La Chapelle. The Sixteen choir is singing in the restaurant for the diners’ supper, a procession of satisfying French dishes with spellbinding intervals of early music in between the courses.
This sell-out event last December was part of Spitalfields Music’s programme of Tafelmusik – literally table music – reviving the spirit of serenaded feasts popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The next Tafelmusik event, in June, will see the London Handel Players perform in the English Restaurant next to Spitalfields.
Music in restaurants is not an easy feat, and neither is it always welcome. Harry Christophers, director of The Sixteen, says: “These evenings are always very difficult because you don’t know quite what the audience is going to be … whether they are there because they want to be dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant or because they’re coming to hear the music.” On this occasion, the restaurant was rapt.
But classical music has yet to make a full comeback on restaurant menus. A quartet from the London Philharmonic has played successful concerts at Helena Puolakka’s Skylon on the Southbank. Quaglino’s is planning opera nights and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is taking baroque music into pubs with its Night Shift tour. But, as Christophers says, there is scope for more. “Years and years ago I used to really love the string quartet at Pizza Express... It would be wonderful if we could get back to live music where it serves a purpose.”