No matter your politics, this summer is a great time to plan a trip to London, as the city has never been a better value. Art and food have always made a beautiful match, and as the city's galleries give their dining options a boost, now is the perfect time to plan a cultural and culinary feast.
Inspirational art and delicious food are two of life’s most sensual pleasures, and there has long been a natural symbiosis between the two. Restaurants and cafés have functioned as unofficial artist’s salons for centuries, and many European painters would pay for their supper with art. The Colombe d’Or in Provence is famous as much for its walls bedecked with Picasso, Matisse and Miro paintings as its hearty Provençal cuisine, having wisely accepted paintings in exchange for bowls of coq au vin (and, presumably, just vin) from this crew of impoverished artists throughout the1920s. Meanwhile, London lore recounts that English painter Bridget Riley dined regularly at The Ivy for years, settling her ongoing tab with the occasional artists’ commission.
With public funding for the arts at a low, London’s restaurants today are stepping up and functioning as more intimate, less stuffy exhibition spaces. Take Mark Hix’s Tramshed (32 Rivington St) in Shoreditch, for instance, which features a specially commissioned Damien Hirst formaldehyde cow that looms eerily over diners. “Restaurants are a great medium for art,” says Hix. “As long as there's a connection and story behind the work, that is.”
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"] Tramshed, courtesy Jason Lowe[/caption]
This year, the boundaries between gallery and restaurant are becoming increasingly blurred. Many innovative London restaurants host artists-in-residence who curate everything from the cutlery and menu to the artwork hanging on the walls, as Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva and Anna M. R. Freeman have done at Michelin-starred Pied à Terre in Fitzrovia (londonpied-a-terre.co.uk). London restauranteur Mourad Mazouz has invited both Turner winner Martin Creed and Turner nominee David Shrigley to redesign the Sketch gallery in Mayfair; currently 239 new Shrigley works line the restaurant’s walls (sketch.london). And at 34, the Emin Room houses specially commissioned work by artist Tracy Emin (www.34-restaurant.co.uk).
The art and dining connection is very much a two-way street; as restaurants are becoming more like galleries, galleries are taking their restaurants much more seriously. Art fairs and museums are fast realizing that the best way to engage the public with art is by appealing to their taste buds. “Important conversations have always taken place around the dinner table,” observes London-based Simon Sakhai, co-founder of The Moving Museum (themovingmuseum.com). “Fusing food and art can be a very effective way of getting people to experience art in an intimate setting in a particular place.” Modern galleries must offer more than just art; they must provide a forum for discussion about art.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"] Courtesy Sketch[/caption]
This summer, culture-craving and culinary-minded Londoners are already salivating over the five new dining options at the all-new Herzog & de Meuron designed Switch House, a 10-story extension to the Tate Modern on the South Bank (www.tate.org.uk). Switch House, (named after the section of the power station that the new galleries occupy) expands the Tate’s existing gallery space by 60% to accommodate surging visitor numbers. Last year, museum visitors reached 5.7 million—more than double the footfall anticipated when the Tate Modern opened in 2000. This new space will enable the museum to showcase over 250 artists from around 50 countries alongside a 100-seater Tate Modern Bar and a 150-cover Tate Modern Restaurant. Here, it’s clear the chefs and restaurateurs have put as much effort into selecting small suppliers (Emmetts of Suffolk home-cured hams, free-range Yorkshire Wold chickens and a bespoke Tate beer, for instance) as the curators have in choosing the art exhibited. Forward-thinking gallerists aren’t settling for simply serving good food; they want their dining options to harmonize with their overall artistic ethos, and to add volume to the same statement.
If your tastes lean more towards the classic over edgy, however, mentally bookmark Spring, the beautiful new restaurant by Skye Gyngell at Somerset House (springrestaurant.co.uk). With a grand setting overlooking the Thames River, the eatery is drawing new visitors to the cultural center thanks to Gyngell’s seasonal, adventurous and instinctive cooking. Dine on meltingly slow-cooked pork shoulder or crispy turbot, then sample Somerset House’s summer exhibition, Utopia, as dessert —a whimsical exploration of the concept of utopia through art, music and literature.
Craving more of a smorgasbord of pop culture? Head to the Saatchi Gallery, which is currently housing the hotly-anticipated Rolling Stones retrospective, Exhibitionism, through September 4 (www.saatchigallery.com). The Saatchi’s Gallery Mess is a delight, but if you’re after a more rock’n’roll meal, head next door to rockstar chef Russell Norman’s decadent Polpo for aperol spritzes and chargrilled octopus.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="620"] Courtesy Saatchi Gallery[/caption]
Slightly more under-the-radar but a staple in the secret address book of art-loving Londoners is Bonham’s, the new Michelin-starred restaurant and wine bar by Tom Kemble. Tucked underneath the venerable art auctioneers Bonham’s of Bond Street, this hideaway is also minutes from the designer boutiques. Here you can feast on elegant dishes like Cumbrian rack of lamb with Pertuis asparagus and seaweed butter, and explore the truly excellent wine list (www.bonhams.com). Check the auction house’s website for current exhibitions and auctions to view after lunch.
If you’re of the opinion that fine food is best accompanied not just by art, but by views that have inspired artists for centuries, then don’t miss the National Portrait Gallery: a true gem in Trafalgar that travelers often overlook in favor of the bigger, busier National Gallery (www.npg.org.uk). Here, gaze at the sea of faces showcased at the BP Portrait Award Exhibition, then climb the stairs to sip a killer cocktail and dine on shared plates of burrata and razor clams in the Portrait Restaurant, which boats unbeatable views over Westminster. Art, food, a bustling cityscape—that’s every sense, sated.
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