Features

Dining Guerilla-Style

June 21, 2009

Giovanna Dunmall explores the pop-up restaurant craze in London and discovers a transitory world where food meets design.

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Are you in the mood for yam leaves with peanut paste and salted fish or roast grey Scottish partridge? Would you rather have some Congolese goat stew and fried plantains or steamed pollock with braised chard and clams? There is a fabulous and hugely successful eatery in London where you don’t have to make that decision. You can have both. But get there quick; it’s closing soon.

Part installation and part venue, The Double Club in London takes the concept of dichotomies to a whole new level. Designed and conceived by German artist Carsten Höller, and bankrolled by the cutting edge Fondazione Prada, The Double Club is a bar, a restaurant and a dance area all housed in an unmarked Victorian warehouse near Angel Tube in Islington. As if that weren’t interesting enough, it has two more unique selling points. One is that every section is divided into Western and Congolese areas replete with culturally themed design, interiors, food and music. The other is that it is only open for six months. In other words it is a guerrilla venue, here today, gone tomorrow, and is closing 21 May 2009.

A similar venture, Flash, was part of a contemporary art event at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and was open for 80 days between November 2008 and January 2009. It was billed as an installation within a restaurant, or a room within a room, and was the work of restaurateurs Pablo Flack and David Waddington (the two men behind London’s buzzing cabaret restaurant Bistrotheque and another pop-up venture – Reindeer – a sparkly and kitschy winter wonderland for adults, that shone brilliantly and playfully in a former brewery in London’s East End for three short weeks in 2006.

The ingenious idea at Flash was to build a restaurant out of materials that had both a past and a future. Cue 191 plywood art storage boxes stacked 4.6 metres high like building blocks to create walls, doors and even the reception desk. On one wall, the boxes were flipped and displayed works by cutting edge contemporary artists such as Simon Popper and Alexis Teplin. Continuing in this very unique vein, a closing sale was held at Flash on 19 January during which members of the public bought the venue’s tableware, fixtures and fittings, from the limited edition Wedgwood crockery designed by British illustrator du jour Will Broome (decorated with tantalising panda-esque creatures) to the iconic black Swarovski chandelier by Giles Deacon.

The fact that this all sounds more exciting than it looked, is both disappointing but also part of the pop-up conceit I believe; the concept looms large. A pity too, that the inventive food and cocktails menu erred on the wrong side of pricey. Most Flash diners seemed unfazed by this though, and were there for the experience first and foremost.

The Double Club is the really pleasant surprise, however. Atmospheric and full of character, it is one of the friendliest nightspots I have ever visited. Never have staff gone to such lengths to greet me and make sure I am doing fine. The food was very tasty too. As Höller has said, The Double Club is not about fusion cuisine (which is often a disappointment), but rather authentic flavours and produce. One half of the central courtyard is made up of a polished copper bar, swanky bar stools and a blue tile mural featuring a futuristic flying city designed by 1920s Russian architect Georgi Krutikov; the other half houses a basic corrugated iron and wood structure surrounded by plastic garden tables and chairs and parasols and has a large advert for Primus beer and a self-portrait by Kinshasa-based artist Chéri Samba on the walls. (Sadly, Congolese beer, such as Turbo King or Primus is not always available.)

In the restaurant, there are paintings by Andy Warhol and Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti and Congolese artists Monsengwo Kejwamfi (aka Moke the Painter) and Chéri Samba. The dance floor is a disc that slowly revolves in the shade of giant glitter balls and a red LED palm tree and pulsates to the Congolese rumba or Western dance played by some of the hippest DJs of the moment. Live music is also performed once a week.

In an era where attention spans are extremely short and the current recession is settling in for a while, pop-up venues offer the closest you can get to a recipe for success in tough times. They can take risks, constantly reinvent themselves and also be a bit rough and ready (in fact their ‘temporary’ quality is a great part of their charm), requiring less investment than a permanent venue. Another nice touch, which also defuses any possible tensions regarding the ongoing brutality and poverty in Congo, is that a large percentage of The Double Club’s profits go to a charity that helps abused children and women in the region.

To the question of whether a venue like The Double Club is actually art, Höller has said that it is up to the public to decide. To another journalist he has stated that his club is half art, half not. I suspect the ‘not’ part is the most interesting since ultimately it is the dialogue of cultures, food, people and art that makes this place magnetic. It is colourful, sunny and vibrant, worlds away from the grey and damp mist awaiting me in the anonymous alley outside.

Photography courtesy of Fondazione Prada, Milan and Courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, temporary restaurant Flash

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