This April, join us as we take a deep dive into the future of food. Here's where now meets next.
A drugstore-inspired restaurant is not a novel concept. But you won't find any soda jerk caps nor egg creams at Pharmacy 2, Damien Hirst's new restaurant collaboration with chef Mark Hix (yes, we mean that Damien Hirst). Here, Hirst prefers to place his attention on the pharmacological rather than the fountain soda.
Once known for preserving animals in formaldehyde, the controversial artist is now taking a stab at a more appetizing faunal venture: Pharmacy 2, which opened this February in Vauxhall, South London, inside the Newport Street Gallery. Designed entirely by Hirst, the restaurant aims to support the artist's vision of an inclusive space where anyone can enjoy art and also enjoy a meal.
Despite the popularity of retro restaurants, Pharmacy 2 (also known as Pharmacy²) looks more akin to the contents of an overturned pill bottle than your classic drugstore lunch counters that have popped up as of late. Brooklyn Farmacy and Hamilton's Luncheonette in New York, Hillside Farmacy in Austin, Philadelphia's Franklin Fountain and the recently opened ORA in Berlin have all capitalized on the nostalgic allure of the old-timey drugstore lunch counter. But Pharmacy 2 highlights a more sterile notion of pharmaceutical as the be-all and end-all treatment, its clinical fluorescent lighting and large white patches more reminiscent of an appointment to have blood drawn than of a quaint spot for a meal.
Throughout the space, you will find umpteen iterations of pharmaceutical explored within the space via Hirst's artwork: from packaged medications resting on shelves to large pill sculptures and images to medical supplies sealed within the transparent bar to etched glass depictions of magnified DNA strands. The popular installation series Medicine Cabinets, once on view at the L&M Arts gallery in New York back in 2010, now makes up one entire wall of the restaurant. Another wall treatment around the bar is a veritable periodic table of thumbnail images of medications.
Hirst seems to love the confusion between his installations and real spaces, and has often commented that his pharmaceutical works are in part a reflection of his beliefs. And what does the 21st-century consumer believe in more than medicine? With works steeped in questioning the general public's unwavering faith in science, the inclusion of installations like Medicine Cabinets at Pharmacy 2 is heavy with purpose. "Medicine cabinets are filled with medicines . . . substances that heal. Hence, art is capable of healing," Hirst has noted about the series.
Though Hirst is primarily known for his presence as the "bad boy" of the contemporary art world, he's been involved in the restaurant scene for decades: He collaborated briefly on Quo Vadis with chef Marco Pierre White in 1996 and on the first Pharmacy restaurant in 1998. The original Pharmacy—co-owned with restaurateur Jonathan Kennedy, PR guru Matthew Freud and Liam Carson of the Groucho Club and Momo's—was a hot spot for the British glitterati, often frequented by the likes of David Bowie and Madonna, until it began a downward spiral, closing in 2003. Hirst even took his obsession with the pharmacy concept as far as to require his staff to wear surgical gowns (albeit manufactured by Prada).
Pharmacy eventually ran into trouble with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain for the restaurant's name and medical displays. It also caused confusion among gallery hoppers looking for the actual Pharmacy installation, which was on display at Tate Modern in London, and ailing patients who would often wander into the original Pharmacy restaurant looking to pick up a prescription. Hirst's response to why the installation was not included in the restaurant was simply, "Art's dead. Life is alive. Pharmacy's alive. It's like: Eat your dinner; complain about the food; wash the plates . . . it lives. Whereas, Pharmacy's dead."
Pharmacy 2 is more obviously a restaurant than its predecessor, yet still cloaked in multiple layers of implication. With its vibrant, exaggerated decor and home inside an art gallery, it's very unlikely that a customer would enter the space in search of Advil or a quick plate of truffle chips. Exploring documentation online by those who've eaten at Pharmacy 2—the images of medical items surrounding a diner munching on an earthy heritage beet salad with walnuts and chickweed—I can't help but consider the intersections between the pharmacological and the holistic. Pharmacy 2's menu is not comprised of "health food" per se, but it's clear that Hirst is interested in exploring alternative methods of healing through food.
The restaurant boasts an ever-changing menu utilizing fresh and seasonal ingredients to compose classic British and European dishes. And Hix, best known for his interpretation of British gastronomy, is the mastermind behind Pharmacy 2's menus. "Damien and I have been friends for many years, sharing a love of food and art," Hix has said about the collaboration. "Damien designed a formaldehyde Cock and Bull for my restaurant, Tramshed, so it makes sense for me to exchange my skills."
With offerings like brick a l'oeuf de canard with harissa; shaved winter squash with Treviso and Graceburn cheese; and crispy squid with green chile, garlic and almonds, there is no shortage of dishes as colorful and eye-catching as the rest of the dining room. Though you can't grab a capsule of Diazepam 5 mg off the shelf, you can take the edge off with a Dorset Donkey or Hix Fix cocktail.
While the food at Pharmacy 2 has been received with glowing encouragement on social media, and less so by some critics (The Daily Beast ran an article entitled "Damien Hirst's Food: Worse than His Art," a sentiment Hix and Hirst have noted they find amusing), Marina O'Loughlin, restaurant critic at The Guardian, says it doesn't really matter. Subjectivity of Hirst's artwork can also be very clearly applied to a meal at his restaurant: One may not like everything one orders, or may find the decor abrasive, or maybe just be creeped out, but all factors are part of the experience.
The recent popularity of themed eateries like Ralph Lauren's Polo Bar, The Way Station (referred to as "The Doctor Who Bar") and the anticipated Breaking Bad coffee shop steers me to the conclusion that perhaps the draw to such venues is simply for the act of being there, and not the food itself. Personally, I'm planning a trip to London in the fall to experience the pharmacy for myself.