Were it not for the red-leather banquettes and sparkling cutlery, you could easily confuse Kerridge’s Bar & Grill at the Corinthia Hotel with one of the contemporary art galleries on Mayfair’s Cork Street. On the walls is an eclectic mix of photography and painting, montages and mixed media, most of it from up-and-coming British artists like Chris Moon, Matt Roe and Robi Walters. Most strikingly, right in the middle of the restaurant, where a waiters’ station or some floral display might typically be found, is an impressive sculpture by the artist Beth Cullen. It’s not quite the size of her 20-foot marble piece outside Dubai’s Opera House, but it’s a statement nonetheless. Indeed, having taken said wrong turn, you’re likely to find yourself not just alongside diners, but alongside people who aren’t eating at all. They’re here for the art.
“Anything that gets people through the doors is a bonus, whether they end up eating or drinking anything or not,” says Tom Kerridge, the chef best known for getting Michelin to give two stars to pub dining, with his Hand and Flowers inn in Marlow. “But what we’ve done here is, in effect, to create a small gallery within the restaurant. And we’re more than happy for people to come in and just look at the art for its own sake.”
Art displays in restaurants is not a new idea, of course. London establishments the likes of Langham’s in the 1980s or L’Escargot in the 1990s won reputations as much for the art on the walls as the food on the plates. Before then Warhol designed bottle labels for the likes of Dom Perignon and Absolut; Dali for Chupa Chups. Food in the UK started to gain credibility much the same time as the Young British Artists turned global attention on the nation’s artistic output. Some might even argue that there’s something of a crossover between artistic and culinary pursuits - “though I’ve always thought of chef-ing as being more a trade than an art,” says the ever down-to-earth Kerridge.
In recent years, however, the use of restaurant space to showcase non-culinary arts has gone up a gear, whether that be Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy restaurants, chef Mark Hix filling the walls at his eateries, art showcases at Carousel in Marylebone or Scott’s on Mount Street, or pieces from the likes of Tracey Emin, Phyllida Barlow and Sarah Lucas at The Ned. What’s more, Kerridge argues that the idea of restaurant space doubling as gallery space is being taken considerably more seriously. Perhaps too seriously by some: one work on display at Kerridge’s, by artist Carne Griffiths, uses tea, alcohol, paprika and rock salt among its materials.
“It’s not hard now to be in a beautiful restaurant with great art on the walls, but the combination so often seems without reason and the result feels soul-less,” Kerridge argues. “Art is put on the walls without much thought, or it’s brought together by an interior designer who’s more concerned about using it to match the curtains. The art doesn’t add another layer to the experience. And for me that’s what a restaurant should be – not a temple to gastronomy but with food part of the overall whole that includes the tableware, the service, the room.
“It’s not that idea of having the most expensive art to marry with some posh menu either,” continues Kerridge, whose father was a graphic designer and infused within him a love of all things arty. “We’re moving away from that dated idea. I’ve never been one for using caviar or truffles or gold leaf with a dish for their own sake. I just aim to use the best ingredients for the job. And that’s what we’re doing with the art – I’ve seen a lot of work by superstar artists and, well, a lot of it isn’t all that good.”
So with Kerridge’s Bar & Grill, he’s teamed up with Liam West, founder of art consultancy West Contemporary – who’s worked with the likes of the Cafe Royal and the Royal Albert Hall – to carefully curate a selection of works in a space that felt like it was begging for it. The work on show – all available to buy, with prices from £150 to around £90,000, should your guard be down after a tipsy lunch – will change quarterly, with dedicated shows on occasion in between. It’s not big-hitter stuff – unlike Le Gavroche, which showcases Dalis and Miros – but deliberately less rarefied and more accessible. They’ve even printed a brochure for viewers to read and take away. It still helps, of course, that art makes any restaurant more Instagrammable – which may be why you might have heard of La Colombe D’Or in Provence, Kronenhalle in Zurich, or Osteria Francescana in Modena.
“The whole point is not just to have the art as decorative, but to show art to people who might not typically go into Mayfair galleries,” explains West, who has known Kerridge for some years and represents Kerridge’s wife, Beth Cullen (sometimes known as Beth Cullen-Kerridge). “You still get that ‘Pretty Woman’ effect in a lot of those galleries – the pressure to deliver sales is so intense there’s a tendency to judge books by their covers, and only respond warmly to people who look like they might buy. We’re aiming at art in a more open-armed setting. You enjoy great food, a nice glass of wine, and you’re comfortable. That makes it the perfect setting for looking at art. Much as Tom is known for taking away the white table cloth stuffiness of restaurants, we want to strip back the typical gallery environment so it’s possible to enjoy art.”
That, West argues, could prove something of a game changer for artists, too. As he notes, it’s not just about introducing art to people who might not previously have considered it all that much – and Kerridge’s Bar & Grill has already made a few sales – so much as reaching a wider audience. The daily footfall in a restaurant with a ‘name’ chef – around 300 diners in Kerridge’s case – dwarfs that of your typical small London art gallery. Simply by removing art from its typical, white-walled, whisper-if-you-dare setting and putting it in an atmosphere that encourages easy enjoyment, can result in properly career-boosting exposure for some artists. Not that a ‘name’ restaurant is necessary: West insists that his professional eye has been caught by art hung in branches of Nando’s.
“I think the idea of art presented with careful consideration in a restaurant is one that’s only going to provide great opportunities for both industries to grow,” argues Kerridge, who’s now working on a second ‘art restaurant’ project with West. “For the restaurant it shapes and gives added purpose to the space. From the artist’s or gallery’s point of view – and I speak here as someone married to an artist – it’s a tough market out there with lots of hidden costs, so this is a chance to perhaps show more and sell more, without having to work in all those expensive Mayfair rents. I reckon it’s an idea that will go from strength to strength.”
Kerridge’s Bar & Grill, Corinthia Hotel, Whitehall Place, SW1, corinthia.com