Hungry diners are told to meet at an army headquarters on City Road for 7pm. For weeks the venue has been kept a closely-guarded secret. Arriving, they find soldiers practicing military exercises outside before being ushered forward for a passport check. This might sound like a scene from a war film, but it is all part of the experience at an innovative pop-up restaurant that combines art with food and theatrical set-design.
The aptly named “Art of Dining”, which launched in August last year, provides a unique evening out. The concept is simple: all events are based around a theme, ranging from wartime rationing to a beach party, and you turn up at a location that has been decorated accordingly – complete with art on show that reflects the setting or period.
After enjoying the venue and artwork, restaurant-goers are given a complementary drink and invited to sit down to a feast of five courses. When the meal is over they then have the opportunity to purchase a painting from the work exhibited.
Each dinner is priced at £45 a head with a maximum of 45 guests in attendance.
Art of Dining is the brainchild of three friends who met at university: Alice Hodge, a 30-year-old set designer who works out of the Netil House artist studios in Hackney; Emma North, 29, who owns the Horsebox Gallery on the other side of town in Belgravia, and chef Ellen Parr, 25, who describes herself as “a bit of a Heston-Blumenthal”.
Alice says: “The idea originated from us all getting drunk in the pub together and realising that we are all looking for an exciting project to take on. Each pop-up dinner party sells art in a relaxed and informal way; you sit opposite a painting for the whole meal and talk about the artwork with other diners.”
The cuisine for the dinners is creatively put together too. Alice adds: “We had a chicken and an egg theme for one of our nights where guests were transported to the countryside in an east London chapel. There was foliage, milk bottles, hay and even birds.”
“Each course was based loosely around the chicken and egg idea. The pudding was made to look like a fried egg with a thin layer of meringue and raspberry coolie in a ketchup bottle.”
Ellen, who was trained in the award-winning Moro restaurant in neighbouring Islington, says: “It takes a long time to plan the menu because I do a lot of research. I try to be as creative as possible and surprise people a little bit with my menus.”
Art of Dining’s next event – its fourth so far and the third to be hosted in Hackney – will be a Vanitas-themed night, based around popular symbolic art from the sixteenth century that focuses on the “transience of life”. It will be held at the National Trust’s Sutton House in Homerton from 27 to 31 March.
The dinner will showcase the work of young artists from Hackney such as Laurence Owen, who has been involved in international shows including an exhibition of Damien Hirst’s private collection.
Tickets for the event are already selling fast and the three friends have also been contacted by a wide range of people who want them to cater for private events, including journalists and brides-to-be who want themed dinners for their weddings.
Alice puts the venture’s success down to a combination of good food and amazing venues.
“It is a very mixed crowd; we aren’t trying to target anyone in particular. At our last event four couples were sat together and none of them knew each other, but by the end of night they were all doing group cheers and swapping numbers.”
She added: “I can honestly say, hand on my heart, that I haven’t had one complaint. So far, touch wood, everyone has been really into it.”
Hackney artists exhibiting at the Vanitas dinner in March:
Sophia Schorr-Kon, 30, lives in Amhurst Road, Dalston
Sophia was in her early twenties when she first picked up a camera on a solo trip around the world and since then has worked with organisations such as the Science Museum and The New Statesman. She recently published her first book looking into the world of European Hardcore musicians.
Laurence Owen, 27, lives in Hackney Downs
The Horsebox Gallery’s website describes Laurence’s paintings as “unsettling”: “He sets up a familiar landscape and renders them strange by adding disturbing details.” The artist has been involved in several international group shows including an exhibition of Damien Hirst’s private collection. He also makes film and video.
Ilua Hauck de Silva, 35, lives in Bethnal Green
Ilua graduated from Goldsmiths College in 2002 and has exhibited internationally in Brazil. The artist has an upcoming show at Shoreditch Town Hall in September.
To buy tickets to the next Art of Dining event, visit: www.theartofdining.co.uk