'Aesthetic Dining': new book discovers restaurants with some of the world's finest art

The author writes of stories about how Picasso and Chagall would exchange artworks for meals

Author Christina Makris at Abou El Sid restaurant in Cairo. Photo: Christina Makris
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British sculptor Antony Gormley calls art and food the “bookends of life". He is one of more than 20 high-profile artists, including Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, interviewed for a new and unique book that explores the relationship between the two sensory mediums in "art restaurants".

Aesthetic Dining, written by Christina Makris, includes two dozen of the finest art collections in restaurants around the world and relays the fascinating stories behind them. The endeavour began after Makris, a self-confessed epicurean and patron of the arts, noticed several restaurants displaying museum-quality art.

“Then I delved a little bit more into the histories and found stories about how Picasso and Chagall and Matisse would go to the restaurants and with others from the art coterie and sometimes they would exchange artworks for meals or to run down their tabs,” the author tells The National.

With her interest piqued, Markis travelled across six continents, to more than 100 cities and sat at countless restaurant tables to explore the spaces in which “food and art synthesise”.

A series of neon works by Tracey Emin hang in The Gunton Arms in Norfolk. Photo: Christina Makris

The striking orange hardback begins, however, in the medieval period of Cairo’s culinary history. As the story Makris opens with begins: “Once upon a time, there was” a poor cook called Abou el Sid whose gastronomy skills drew the unwelcome attention of the Sultan. More significant than how the tale continues is the fact that Egyptian art collector and "celebrity restaurateur" Raouf Lotfi drew on the evocative legend in naming and stylising his own well-known eatery.

Situated in an upmarket district of Zamalek in the Egyptian capital, Abou El Sid serves authentic local food within a mixture of Oriental and occidental-decorated dining rooms that “evoke a sentimentality and longing for an elliptical past”, writes Makris.

However, it is how the artworks by Egyptian-Armenian artist Chant Avedissian adorning the walls of the restaurant further help in transporting “the diner to a different time and place” that is the subject of Aesthetic Dining’s first chapter.

A long-time friend and avid collector of the artist’s work, Lotfi features many pieces from Avedissian’s well-known book Cairo Stencilsand Icons of the Nile, a series depicting famous people from Egypt’s 1950s popular culture.

Abou El Sid restaurant in Cairo. Photo: Christina Makris

A drawing of the famed belly dancer Tahia Carioca with her head thrown back and smiling is one of the many sketches of glamorous female entertainers that light up the restaurant’s interiors, including one of singers Laila Mourad, Sabah and, naturally, of world-renowned Umm Kulthum.

In 2013, Avedissian broke a record for being the biggest-selling living Arab artist at Sotheby's auction when his masterpiece, Icons of the Nile, a large-scale installation of 120 patterned drawings, including ‘Mother of the World’ and other icons of Egyptian contemporary culture, sold for $1.5 million in Doha.

The artist's work is part of the collection at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Barjeel Art Foundation in the UAE and is also held by the American National Museum of African Art, the British Museum in London and Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts.

Before the artist’s world-renown however, it was Lotfi who was responsible for Avedissian’s exposure to the art world, says Makris. The artist originally insisted his works should be nailed to the wall unframed so that the works would “age and degrade with time” and “surrender themselves to the space … and conditions of a living restaurant”.

“It is not a pristine laboratory in which to examine [the art],” writes Makris in her her book. “They mix with the raucousness of the diners, becoming part of the experience, emphasised by their [seemingly] causal execution.”

While Lotfi eventually ignored Avedissian’s request and protected the sketches behind glass, the idea of democratising art in this manner is one of Makris’ points of discussion.

“I'm arguing sometimes that these restaurants can be an alternative to a white cube gallery space and an opportunity for people who don't go to the art world to experience it in a different context,” she says.

Many of the artists interviewed for the book were attuned to the connections she was making, Makris says. British artist Gary Hume, for example, told her that eating under his artwork in Scott’s, regarded as London’s oldest restaurant, is like “having a little space in your studio” where food is being prepared for you.

“I think there is a weird affinity between artists and chefs … [and] I actually think more artists think that chefs are like artists than chefs think of themselves as artists,” says Makris.

Meanwhile, Hirst told the author he thought that “chefs want to be seen, to be painters, but the proof of their great meals is always getting eaten … whereas artists want that kind of transience.”

The relationship between the two is, of course, most obvious when looking at how they relate to human sensibilities. To that end, Makris’s PhD in philosophy and training in phenomenology, the philosophy of embodied experiences, stood her in good stead to do just that.

“I looked a lot at the senses at the body, what we bring to experiences and so the two came together in terms of tastes or taste on the plate through the food, and taste on a canvas."

Both mediums have the capacity to induce memory, sensations and emotions, says the author; experienced together, these feelings can be enhanced.

La Colombe d’Or in France carries works by Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Sonia Delaunay, Yves Tanguy and other illustrious artists. Photo: Christina Makris

Makris laughs coyly when asked which of the two dozen restaurants included in this edition is her favourite.

“I can't say … [but] I think the most interesting ones are where they almost happened by accident because artists just started going there and giving owners their work,” she says, citing the famously inspired La Colombe d’Or restaurant in France that has the works of Joan Miro, Fernand Leger and Sonia Delaunay among its wall hangings.

Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, both of whom have paintings at La Colombe d’Or, taught the owner Paul Roux how to paint, with some of the restaurateur’s works displayed among the masters.

In New Orleans, Dooky Chase, the historic dining institution serving Creole cuisine, is another example of an organically created art restaurant but one that also “played a wider role in the cultural and social history” of the US.

A “bit of a folk hero”, Dooky Chase’s owner, Leah Chase, was an early and quietly active supporter of the civil rights movement, offering out her restaurant’s backrooms to meetings at a time when it was illegal and dangerous.

Crucially, she started displaying artwork by black artists at a time when racial segregation still operated in southern US and artists of colour would never have been able to show in a gallery.

“And those artists are now the biggest African American artists like Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers, huge names and they just befriended her after they would come to eat at hers and she just cheekily asked for an artwork and put it up there.”

Wallse restaurant in New York. Photo: Christina Makris

Across Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy and the UK to the trendy places in Australia and China, Aesthetic Dining is a ground-breaking study of spaces in which food and art combine to create a transcendent, sensory experience.

“I just want people to go to these restaurants that incorporate art and just, you know, eat slowly and look and let it sort of happen to them. I think in this kind of aesthetic dining, something different happens to your senses and we behave differently in front of art.”

Updated: November 14, 2021, 10:43 AM