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Showcasing art in restaurants is hardly a new concept – a thermopolium or snack bar in Pompeii, uncovered after two millennia lying under volcanic ash, clearly showed that decoration was an important part of the experience of eating out with paintings of the gods Mercury and Bacchus on the walls. La Colmbe d’Or in Provence has walls filled with works by once-hungry artists including Picasso, Matisse and Miro.
Combining art and food makes sense. While dining, for once people have that rare luxury of time to appreciate their surroundings, to take in the room and to focus on the walls. Art can be crucial to the overall aesthetic and environment, be it sculpture or photography, a million dollar Old Master or an up-and-coming local artist.
Not all choose to embrace it: Fergus Henderson famously avoids both art and music at St John, his legendary Smithfields restaurant in London. He finds it too distracting, unnecessary, meaning that diners see only bare white walls, the only sound that of their conversation.
But Henderson is in the minority and most restaurants, particularly fine dining, feature art throughout. In addition to the aesthetic, it can also make business sense: Galleries have a unique window to allow a captive audience of potential clients to slowly fall for their works over a glass or two of wine. In most cases, of course, works are not for sale, but restaurateurs around the world have countless stories of diners offering to buy pieces at the end of the night.
Art can also complement the dishes being served, changing with specific tasting menus or the seasons to reflect the work on the plate, while some restaurants also feature works by the chef themselves, another channel for their creativity.
Restaurants around the world reflect these various motives for art and serve up a feast for the eyes:
Bibo, Hong Kong
The multiple, discrete video cameras hint that you’re dining somewhere special. Keith Haring, Banksy, Damian Hirst all feature. What about Shepherd Fairey of Obama’s ‘Hope’ poster fame? A triptych, no less. More than those hanging, there are the works sprayed, chipped, pasted and splashed across the walls. One in particular, where the artist used a jackhammer to create a face on one massive wall, is extraordinary. Overall it’s a remarkable collection and testament to the anonymous restaurant owner’s eye.
Nikau Café, Wellington, New Zealand
The Kiwi capital is a burgeoning, laid- back dining location, giving its much larger northern rival Auckland a serious run for its money in the restaurant stakes. Nikau Café is an institution for its simple but beautiful menu but also for works on the wall by Ans Westra. Now 79 and still working, her precise, unposed and beautiful photography of New Zealanders going about ‘the business of living’ have struck a chord with diners and art fans alike.
The Gallery at sketch lives up to its name with no less than 239 drawings by celebrated British artist David Shrigley lining the restaurant’s walls. The Turner prize-nominated Shrigley has transformed the Gallery as part of a long- term programme of artist-conceived restaurants. The theme continues with new ceramic tableware featuring Shrigley’s distinctive drawings and texts, in a holistic interaction with Pierre Gagnaire’s food.
Four Seasons Restaurant, New York
Until last October, the Pool Room at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York featured one of the world’s most striking works in a restaurant, a twenty foot Picasso tapestry called Le Tricorne which was originally the curtain from a 1919 French ballet. The building’s owner Aby Rosen, a property tycoon and serious art collector, replaced it with two Alexander Calder mobiles 3 Segments, 1973, and Untitled, 1952. Over the years, artworks by luminaries including Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Rauchenberg and Joán Miró have also graced the walls.