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Artists Reimagining Restaurants, from Anarchitects to Immersionists


Allison Meier | June 14, 2018
Artist-run restaurants demonstrate the radical creativity that can be found in the simple act of sharing a meal.

Before open kitchens and seasonal food were pillars of popular dining, a collective of artists made them central to a New York City restaurant called FOOD. Opened in 1971 at the corner of Prince and Wooster Streets, FOOD’s founders Gordon Matta-Clark, Carol Goodden, and Tina Girouard envisioned it as a community space for the Soho art scene.

“It was not only a place where one could get a good affordable meal, but also provided jobs for artists who needed support,” Jessamyn Fiore, curator of the exhibition Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect, told Per La Mente. “In addition, it served as a venue for food performances — artists and others were invited in to create experimental meals.” For instance, after guests finished one of Matta-Clark’s “Matta Bones,” the leftover bones from an oxtail soup were cleaned, drilled with holes, and strung into a souvenir necklace.

Gordon Matta-Clark and Cosmos Andrew Sarchiapone, "Matta Bones Dinner, 1972/2006," courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner

Anarchitectural Cooking in 1970s Manhattan

Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect debuted at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in 2017 and moved to the Jeu de Paume in Paris this summer. Among its more than 100 works by Matta-Clark, highlighting the large-scale cuts into the walls of derelict buildings for which the late artist was known, is ephemera from FOOD’s three years of operation. A film follows a day in the restaurant’s life, from a morning trip to the Fulton Fish Market to a convivial evening gathering around a big table. “For Matta-Clark, he incorporated the restaurant into his practice,” Fiore said. “He made one of his first architectural cuts at FOOD when they were renovating the space — he cut a section of wall away to reveal the counter and showed this cut section at his first solo exhibition at 112 Greene Street alongside a photograph of where the cut had been made.”

FOOD was as innovative about dining as it was about art. It was one of the first places in New York City to serve sushi (suggested by artist Robert Rauschenberg’s assistant Hisachika Takahashi) and to offer vegetarian options. Whether ceviche or borscht, all the food was made from fresh and seasonal ingredients — a contrast to the 1970s rise in processed foods — and priced inexpensively. Many artists found work as cooks or waiters there, and the patrons ranged from neighborhood locals to leading artists like Donald Judd, John Cage, and musicians who played with Philip Glass.

Gordon Matta-Clark, "Poster for Food, 1972/2006" courtesy the estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner

Diabolical Roses in 1930s Italy

While FOOD is arguably the most famous of artist-run restaurants, dining has long brought creative communities together and promoted their ideas about life. Back in 1931, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of the Futurist movement, opened La Taverna del Santopalato in Turin, Italy. As with Futurist art, the restaurant’s aim was to break with the past, and Marinetti thought the ubiquity of pasta was holding the country back.

No traditional noodles were served in La Taverna; its entire design promoted a modern way of eating. Aluminum covered the walls, art decorated the menus, and exhibitions and poetry readings enlivened the space. Kitchen tools looked like laboratory equipment with ultraviolet lamps and ozonizers; in the dining room, waiters used atomizers to spray perfume that activated novel olfactory sensations. In the 1932 Futurist Cookbook, Marinetti published extreme (and questionably edible) recipes, such as “Diabolical Roses” (deep fried roses), and “Milk in a Green Light,” involving milk, grapes, radishes, and honey, all verdantly illuminated.

"Allen Ruppersberg, Meals from Al’s Café, 1969." Image courtesy the artist; photo by Gary Krueger

Sculptural Marshmallow Sandwiches in 1970s Los Angeles

A few decades later, another artist put the function of a restaurant ahead of the act of consumption to immerse visitors in his artistic practice. In 1969, Allen Ruppersberg opened Al’s Café in a rented storefront on West Sixth Street in Los Angeles. Relics from the café are in the exhibition Allen Ruppersberg: Intellectual Property 1968–2018, on view in the summer of 2018 at the Walker Art Center (after which it will open in February 2019 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles). Order slips and photographs of the space and its sculptural meals recall the strange experience of the restaurant. Visitors to Al’s Café walked into a seemingly ordinary all-American diner, its counter lined with stools, plaid tablecloths neatly arranged on the tables, and fishing paraphernalia and calendars decorating its walls.

“The idea was it was supposed to look familiar, but also have this element of the unfamiliar when you experienced it as a business,” Siri Engberg, organizer of the exhibition and curator of visual arts at the Walker, told Per La Mente. “You would walk in, you would be seated, you’d have your order taken — all those rituals of being in a café were present. The more surreal aspect of it was getting these meals that were essentially works of art.”

Street view of Al's Cafe (1969) (courtesy the artist and Walker Art Center)

Dishes included ingredients such as sand and pine needles, mixed with found objects, like vinyl records and bubble gum. Menu items included “Fillet of Southern California Beach,” “Small Dish of Pine Cones and Cookie,” and “Simulated Burned Pine Needles à la Johnny Cash Served with a Live Fern.” The BLT was a plate with branches, leaves, and twigs; the patty melt was a Patti Page photograph covered with toasted marshmallows.

Coffee, beer, and soda were also available, helping to make the café a hangout for the Los Angeles art community. In 1971 Ruppersberg would open Al’s Grand Hotel — a working hotel in Hollywood — continuing to expand on his ideas about how art is made and witnessed. As he wrote in his 1984 “Fifty Helpful Hints on the Art of the Everyday,” “Art should make use of common methods and materials so there is little difference between the talk and the talked about.”

“[Al’s Café] is now an example that a lot of artists have looked back to, because [Ruppersberg] was one of the first artists to really conceive of functional spaces that could be this merging of art and life, and create these gathering spaces where people could be part of a work of art almost without realizing it,” Engberg said.

"Allen Ruppersberg: Intellectual Property 1968–2018." Photo by Galen Fletcher, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Out-of-This-World Salads in 1990s Brooklyn

Artists in the 1990s who worked in relational aesthetics, or art that valued human relations, took inspiration from Al’s Café and FOOD. In a series of gallery installations, beginning with pad thai in 1990 at Paula Allen Gallery in Manhattan, Rirkrit Tiravanija served food to visitors as a communal action that elevated this everyday activity. Across the East River, artists in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, were transforming old warehouses with interventions that might last for one wild party or months of performances. One group, Lalalandia, opened a space called Comfort Zone, which served $9.99 meals on Friday nights. The restaurant was “quite dark, like a theater,” read an October 1992 article in the Greenline newspaper. “The patrons sit low on either side of a long, narrow, candle-lit table. At the back of the room, raised like a stage, is the kitchen area, whereupon the artist-cooks prepare the evening’s meal.” This fare included quail eggs, octopus, duck, fried Chinese eggplant, and “out-of-this-world salads.”

The dining experience, with its rotating, eclectic art installations and meals that were affordable for artists, was similar in its spirit to Lalalandia’s parties, which were exuberantly described in a 1996 New York Times article: “One was sometimes confronted by a scuba diver waving from inside a giant tank of water; on another floor, large flanks of meat hung from hooks on the ceiling as a group of people sat around a giant table barbecuing steak. … The crowd, lighted not by lamps but by glowing television sets, often looked like technological pagans from a science-fiction film.” These dynamic events celebrated collaboration between both artists and guests, who all contributed to an ecstatic, immersive event.

Lalalandia's Comfort Zone (photo by Ted Hardin; image courtesy of Mariano Airaldi)

Challenging Forks, Soul Food Socializing, and More Art/Food Today

Although all these spaces were open for brief amounts of time, they each helped cement art scenes by offering venues for dialogue, and their dining innovations rippled out into the mainstream. And artists continue to be influenced by them: Thank You for Coming in Los Angeles is a collectively run food and art space, with recent experiments including artists Dina Dean and Tyler Calkin’s Metafork, which challenges learned utensil customs with playful absurdity, and a Napoleon-themed dinner that encouraged discussion of art under authoritarian empires. In Chicago, artist Theaster Gates has opened a hub for socializing over soul food and coffee, strategically located next door to the Arts Incubator he developed with the University of Chicago.

In these restaurants, there is no line between art and food, or community and culture. The casual, familiar nature of a restaurant has an accessibility that a gallery or museum does not. Ultimately, these artist-run restaurants argue that radical creativity and connection can be found in the simple act of sharing a meal.

image courtesy of Thank You for Coming

Watch artists playing with their food in very creative ways here.

To get to know the elaborate, messy world of edible art, go here.

For a French-trained chef doing very playful things with cookies, head here.

Get a taste of 9 of the world’s food museums here.

To discover more distinctive culture, try Heritage | Fernet-Branca .

Allison Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.


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