Once restaurant design was simple: a bunch of nice-looking tables and chairs – usually by Thonet and his imitators – a few gingham tablecloths, and a handful of wilting carnations in Perrier bottles.
Equipping the mega-restaurants of the Nineties is a more demanding task – and proprietors are increasingly bringing in the work of artists to provide visual diversion while punters toy with pan-seared tunas.
The key name to drop is Quo Vadis, the revamp of the old Soho restaurant which recently opened with food by Marco-Pierre White and decor by Damien Hirst; already the major art-restaurant of the times. So grand is it that it can afford to take a distinctly back seat approach to publicity and doesn’t allow photographs of its Hirst-designed bar. Bank, meanwhile, is another recently opened mega-restaurant with murals that invite the phrase “Edward Hopper-esque”.
For some time, restaurants such as the Groucho Club (from where a painting was recently thrown out of the window by novelist and restaurant critic Will Self for offending his sensibilities) have staged lesser art exhibitions, often offering the work for sale. It’s a benign way of filling the walls that gains the eaterie, inter alia, a bit of the kudos of the patron. But now restaurants are leading with art; their collections part of their marketing armoury.
Quo Vadis is not the first time Hirst has been involved in the ancillary aspects of restaurant design. Oliver Peyton’s Atlantic Bar and Grill in Piccadilly Circus has wine labels design by Hirst. Indeed, the restaurant has blazed the art trail with work by Peter Doig, Mat Collishaw, current Turner Prize holder Douglas Gordon and even Jake and Dinos Chapman, best known for their penis-sprouting mannequins.
Hirst also has exhibited work in Green Street, the restaurant-cum-dining club in Mayfair, where the old owner Orlando Campbell did contra deals of food and wine in exchange for art – a recklessly Bohemian attitude that recalls the original art restaurant, the Colomb d’Or hotel in the south of France, which features works by masters such as Matisse and Picasso. It’s said that the artists offered paintings in lieu of payment; if it was as expensive as the current prices they might well have got the better deal.
People visit the Colomb d’Or just for the art, and the same may start happening here, with restaurants becoming galleries where you can eat and gaze upon art – some preferring a particular style. Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street Restaurant, for example, is known for having Pop Art by the likes of Stephen Buckley and Joe Tilson, while The Ivy, the smart restaurant in Covent Garden, has works by elder Brit artists Howard Hodgkin and Allen Jones. Perhaps we should rejoice at this growing seam of patronage, for it seems that art and food are two main pillars in regenerated, late-Nineties London. And maybe artists should be taking their slides to restaurateurs rather than galleries.