Creative initiatives in restaurants from Hong Kong to London to Montreal that elevate the dining experiences to a high art.
Restaurants around the world have made the arts part of their daily operations. Whether residencies, exhibitions, or the design of the dining space itself, these creative initiatives go well beyond just hanging art on the walls—they enrich the sensory experience and foster collaboration between chefs and artists.
Restaurant as Gallery and Workspace
Beneath London’s Tramshed, over which looms British artist Damien Hirst’s colossal “Cock ’n’ Bull” sculpture, is a dedicated art gallery called HIX ART. Each of chef Mark Hix’s restaurants involve art, and this subterranean venue is specifically designed for rotating exhibitions. These range from solo shows featuring established artists to group shows, such as one on consumption and red meat that featured a foam butcher shop installation by Mary Stephenson as well as Philip Colbert’s meat joint made from sequins. Since 2013, the HIX Award for art students and recent graduates has included a solo exhibition at HIX ART. And by arrangement, the space can be used as a private dining venue for those who would like to have their meal among these eclectic visual delights.
Pastel Rita in Montréal (photos by Félix Michaud, courtesy of Pastel Rita)
Other restaurants have incorporated spaces for artistic creation into their designs. Located in Montréal’s culturally vibrant Mile End, Pastel Rita fuses the neighborhood’s love for food and art. Owned by couple Gabriel Malenfant and Véronique Orban de Xivry, it includes a café, boutique, and artisans’ workshop. (Véronique makes leather goods.) In a recent transformation by the Montréal-based studio Appareil Architecture, these areas are differentiated through buoyant color blocking: A gold corridor separates a green café from the maker shop, which visitors can view through windows in the pink dining space.
Pastel Rita in Montréal (photos by Félix Michaud, courtesy of Pastel Rita)
“I think food, cafés, and wine have been integral parts of the lives of creatives, artists, and mover [and] shaker citizens for a while now,” said Malenfant. “I think sharing ideas and laughter go hand in hand with food and whatnot. Plus it is a win-win scenario with both projects: the café and wine bar and the workshop and boutique each bring people in to help the others be discovered.”
Dining Immersed in Art
Londoners who have afternoon tea in Sketch’sthe Gallery room, its pastel pink hues designed by architect India Mahdavi, may be baffled at first by condiment pots labeled “dirt,” “dust,” and “nothing.” (The first two contain pepper and salt, respectively; the third does indeed contain nothing.) Then, after draining a teacup, the words “it’s ok” are visible on the bottom. The ceramic tableware is just one part of British artist David Shrigley’s collaboration with Sketch, which also includes some 91 pieces of artwork on its walls. Each is intended to spark dining conversation, with Shrigley’s wry humor appearing in pieces like “NEWS: I went out for a while and then I came back,” as well as illustrations of cats, poodles, and other playful characters.
David Shrigley crockery, part of his site-specific installation in the Gallery (photo courtesy of Sketch London)
Shrigely’s installation debuted in 2014, and it succeeded a 2012 immersive transformation of Sketch’s the Gallery by British artist Martin Creed. Whereas Shrigley’s often black-and-white drawings complement the flamingo palette of Mahdavi’s design, Creed’s was an exercise in controlled chaos. He utilized 96 types of marble in a zigzag floor as well as stripes painted across the interior. Every single item of furniture and tableware was different, from mass-produced objects to antiques to handcrafted pieces. “I want the whole world to be in it,” declared Creed. Sketch’s chef Pierre Gagnaire responded to the dynamic spectacle with a menu that similarly allowed for experimentation.
Artwork by Tracey Emin in the Emin Room at 34 Mayfair in London (photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke, courtesy of 34 Mayfair)
The Gallery is one of Sketch’s four spaces in its Mayfair building, each with its own theme and art, such as the Glade, which boasts a large-scale découpage forest by artists Carolyn Quartermaine and Didier Mahieu. While the Gallery features long-term interventions, other rooms host shorter exhibitions. Through November 15, the London-based design research gallery Matter of Stuff is showcasing hand-blown glass, their third collaboration with Sketch. An illuminated sculpture by London-based studiopluz involves a soundscape inspired by black holes, and Italian glassmith Simone Crestani’s suspended chandelier is luminous with hand-blown details. A special cocktail called “Blowing Bubbles,” inspired by the art, was offered during the recent London Design Festival.
“We find it very interesting to work with the constraints related to the space,” said Matter of Stuff cofounder Simona Auteri. “The mood of the space itself is quite dark, and we found that lighting works amazingly to bring the space alive and draw attention to the pieces.” She added that they are planning a Sketch show for the next London Craft Week, as well as extending their collaboration to the Chelsea Flower Show in May. Each is a chance to push the possibilities for integrating art into the restaurant. “We amplified this collaboration this year, as we are working with a glass artist to create unique decanters with Sketch’s director of wine for their Michelin-starred restaurant,” Auteri stated.
Neon by Tracey Emin in the Emin Room at 34 Mayfair in London (photo by Paul Winch-Furness, courtesy of 34 Mayfair)
Intimate Artistic Accents
Nearby in London, 34 Mayfair incorporates intimate art encounters into its dining. In 2013, it opened the Emin Room as a private space on the first floor. British artist Tracey Emin created nude charcoal drawings that are framed on the walls, while her neon works — with slogans like “You Loved Me Like a Distant Star” and “With You I Breathe” — contrast to the oak-paneled interior. The Emin Room also offered a custom doggy bag by Emin for 34 Mayfair leftovers, decorated with a watercolor portrait of an Alsatian dog named Roxy belonging to restaurant owner Richard Caring.
Patrons of the stylish restaurant have also been invited to drink from custom-designed glassware made with artists. For example, a Rupert Sanderson Champagne Slipper was created in collaboration with British shoe designer Rupert Sanderson, the stiletto of the two-part glass acting as a detachable champagne flute. Every project has celebrated food and drink as an event for inventive indulgence.
Doggy bag designed by Tracey Emin in the Emin Room at 34 Mayfair in London (courtesy of 34 Mayfair)
A Relaxed Encounter with Art and Food
In Hong Kong’s Central district, Duddell’s was conceived from its opening in 2013 by entrepreneurs Alan Lo, Yenn Wong, and Paulo Pong as a place for both food and culture. “Duddell’s is very different from the popular gallery form of ‘white cube,’” said art manager Erin Li. “The concept is to create a rich space like an art collector’s home, where art and life are connected in fresh ways. Guests tend to feel more relaxed at Duddell’s than when in a gallery or museum and can thus appreciate art in a more intimate way.”
Duddell’s in London (courtesy of Duddell’s)
The restaurant’s art programming includes exhibitions, art talks, salon discussions, and film screenings that highlight leading local creators and international stars (one 2013–14 exhibition of Hong Kong artists was curated by famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei). Sometimes these shows feature little-known historic archives and private collections: the current exhibition explores a century of Chinese brush-and-ink painting on handscrolls from the private MK Lau Collection. Other times they involve site-specific installations responding to the restaurant itself and the neighborhood around it. The recent summer show, The Day the Gods Stop Laughing, curated by Beijing-based Yuan Fuca, featured an audio drama played through hidden speakers in the restaurant, as well as interactive menu inserts, so the whole space became a stage for theatrical moments.
“Quite a lot of artists chose to play with or reflect on the dual nature of Duddell’s as a restaurant and an art space, which we welcome,” Li explained. “We have had a number of projects that engaged with the restaurant in various ways, including a solo exhibition by prominent Chinese contemporary artist Song Dong where some artworks were made from food and consumed on the opening night, and a creative set menu inspired by a calligraphy work by ink master Zhang Daqian.”
Duddell’s in Hong Kong (courtesy of Duddell’s)
Duddell’s recently opened a London branch within a former Southwark church and is aiming to have the same engagement with the arts through a gallery and restaurant space there. Still other restaurants have taken the radical step of inviting artists in for residencies. London’s Pied à Terre ran an Artist-in-Restaurant program from 2011 to 2014, developed from owner David Moore’s interest in having contemporary art as an element of the space. Each resident artist created work inspired by the restaurant. In 2011, Macedonian-born Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva used kitchen scraps to make installations, such as a skate bone sculpture and assemblage of quail carcasses, asking diners to consider what supposedly unsavory bits had been left out of their beautifully plated meals. In 2014, British artist Heather Barnett visualized the behind-the-scenes activity of sister restaurant l’Autre Pied, using heart-rate trackers to record staff members’ biometric information, which was turned into screen prints, reflecting the rise and fall of the dining room’s rhythm. She also made abstract prints with materials like squid ink and beetroot purée, which were exhibited in the dining room and on the menu. Each piece contributed to an unconventional portrait of a place and people and their daily work.
Michael Lau’s work exhibited in Duddell’s (courtesy of Duddell's)
These small disruptions of the expected experience of a restaurant encourage an appreciation for the imagination and innovation in both art and food. These innovative initiatives use art to heighten the senses and offer unexpected bridges across visual and culinary expression.
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.