Personal essay: Food in the nude

WeekenderIllustration

You’re sitting in a room. It’s dark, and the only source of light is coming from the candle whose wax you’re absentmindedly dipping your finger into. The air is warm and you’re surrounded by bamboo. In front of you is a large wooden bowl with various incarnations of what can only be assumed to be food.  You are about to take a bite when you look down and realize: You are completely naked. You look up and see your friend sitting across from you, also completely naked. Then you look around and see more and more tables of people sitting, exactly like you, completely naked.

No, this is not a bad dream. Nor is it just your imagination, like when someone tells you to “picture the audience in their underwear” — as though that’s not a more unsettling image. No, this is really happening. And not by chance or drugged abduction by a nudist cult. You chose, or rather made a reservation, to dine at the Bunyadi.

The Bunyadi, London’s first and only naked restaurant, opened for two months this summer in London. It was  a project produced by Lollipop, a company specializing in experiential pop-up restaurants and bars. Founder Sebastian Lyall’s vision was to create a “Pangea-like world,” one devoid of modern inventions such as electricity, phones and even clothing. The Bunyadi gained international attention for its unconventional dress code and subsequent 46,000-person waitlist when it was first announced in April. Upon realizing we would be in London during the brief period it would be open, my friend and I signed up to the seemingly infinite waiting list and, quite amused with ourselves, did not think of it again. That is, until I received an email offering the opportunity to “experience pure liberation” by dining at the already infamous restaurant. With a capacity to seat 42 at a time, Bunyadi promised to be a revealing experience, both literally and personally for someone who rarely finds herself nude even among close friends. When I made the  reservation, I made it for an imagined future self who would be more comfortable with the idea of stripping down in front of strangers, perhaps emboldened by being on a new continent.

One month later, I arrived in London, fresh from the arduous nine-hour flight that I had made, but my bags had not. Luckily for me, I would not need clothing that evening. After dropping off our belongings at our residence hall in central London, my friend and I began venturing by foot to our dinner reservations. While walking from the city and into a more suburban-esque landscape, we couldn’t help but wonder if this “naked restaurant” was just a hoax, a full-frontal front for something much more nefarious. We began to think about the situation more objectively: We, two young American girls, had signed up and paid money to go to a mysterious location in a foreign country to strip naked in a room full of strangers, which covers at least three of the top 10 things your parents warn you against while traveling. Had we just made a reservation to get abducted?

Fortunately, our speculations were silenced as we approached an ominous-looking building on the corner of an otherwise ordinary street. It was brick, painted black, with no signs or markings, giving off the impression that we would need a secret code to gain entrance. There was a well-dressed man standing outside, who called out to us when he saw us approaching and asked if we were looking for the Bunyadi. He asked for my name, and upon reviewing his hand-written list, opened the heavy door for us to enter.

When I made the  reservation, I made it for an imagined future self who would be more comfortable with the idea of stripping down in front of strangers, perhaps emboldened by being on a new continent.

We stepped into a dark, warm room and, as our eyes adjusted from the comparatively brighter light outside, we were greeted by a tall, modelesque woman who again asked our name, if we would be having the vegan or non-vegan menu and then handed us a paper with the cocktail menu on one side and the rules on the other. These guidelines were pretty much what you would expect for a naked restaurant aspiring to create a “Pangea-like world,” whatever that means: no phones, no cameras, no watches, sit on your robe. Be respectful. It became quickly apparent throughout the experience that while the nudity aspect of the restaurant was probably the most profitable and received the most attention, it was not just a spectacle for the sake of a spectacle. Rather, the naked aspect of dress was meant to be only a continuation of the way the meal was prepared and the space was experienced. Everything about the restaurant was supposed to be naked, natural, pure — be it food, utensils or the customers themselves.

Imagine the mix between a trendy bar and a luxury spa with couches and candles everywhere. Some people were wearing clothes, some people were wearing robes and some people were completely naked. Looking around, I saw guests both in their 20s and 30s, and a group of people that had to be in their 60s. I saw couples on dates and friends in groups. There seemed to be no consistent demographic other than simply a will to dine naked and a friend or two.

Sitting at the bar observing our strange new surroundings, it was a bit surreal at first. Everyone around us was talking, laughing and completely at ease, as though they were amnesic about their various states of undress. It was how I imagine looking around a bar with X-ray vision would look. After an initial adjustment period, other people’s nudity was normalized for us, and the bartender came to take our order,  an attractive 30-something man with dark hair and a vest who introduced himself as “Seb.” When I asked him how he liked working at Bunyadi, he responded by saying it was his first day working the bar. Only  later did he tell us that this was because he usually only worked as the owner. Soon after, a hostess came over to us, and our journey into nudity began.

If you’ve ever wondered the logistics of how a naked restaurant works, allow me to reveal the basic rundown: After you’ve gotten a signature cocktail at the bar where the bartender reveals himself to be the owner of the establishment, you are taken back into a tiny dressing room. Here you’re given a white fluffy robe and slippers a la hippie Ritz Carlton. You experience brief inner turmoil as you wrestle over whether to sneak your phone in so your friends believe you but decide there would really be nowhere to hide it or at least nowhere pleasant.

Now, robed and ready, you are led into a room that looks like a bamboo grove to be seated on “stools” that are really just glorified tree stumps, at a “table” that looks like a cross-section of a tree. On the table, there is nothing but a candle placed not just for decoration, but as the sole means of light.

It is here that you make the paramount decision of whether or not to disrobe, but, come on, you didn’t make reservations at a naked restaurant to eat in your robe like a coward. Taking off the robe is like jumping into an unheated pool: You have a little count down and then pretty soon you’ve adjusted, only every now and then remembering that not even a napkin lies between you and your food.

Your waiter soon comes to pour your water, and he too is naked, except for some conveniently placed leaves, making raw meat both on the menu and within eyesight. Then you eat “goji-berry, coriander steak tartare with basil and wild nettle oil” and “blackberries, coconut and chia mousse with raw crumble” out of giant wooden bowls with an edible spoon that, to your frustration, keeps breaking. And while, by this point, you have fully acclimated to nudity, you will still have the best posture and make the best eye contact of your life at this meal because there is nothing your eyes feel comfortable resting on except the “cured salmon with seaweed salad and spirulina mayo” in front of you and perhaps the pupils of whomever you are sitting across from.

If at any point during this meal you decide to go to the lavatory and you’re like me, you may almost set the entire bamboo building on fire by accidentally knocking toilet paper over onto, you guessed it, more candles. After this almost-arson, you go back out into the first room, this time naked or robed, looking onto the fully clothed new attendees with the knowing condescension of a senior to a naive freshman. You finish your meal and then back into the dressing room you go to retrieve your street clothes and your sense of propriety before being spit back out into the oppressed, dressed and bizarrely suburban streets of London.

If you had told me three months ago that I would have dinner at a restaurant in London completely naked, I would have said, “Who are you? How do you know the future?” and then I would probably have believed you because why would you use your clairvoyance to lie about something that ridiculous?

 

Sara Suhl is a writer for the the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]