Inside the festival’s quirkiest venue, the Hunt & Darton Cafe
Welcome to the dining experience with a difference, where the food and the service are a bit of a performance. Hamish Gibson samples the menu at the Hunt & Darton Cafe
‘WE ADORE deadpan and the absurd.” This much is abundantly clear when you first enter the Hunt & Darton Café, a pop-up diner and art installation on St Mary’s Street, off the Royal Mile. Not much else is as clear though, as you’re welcomed in by the costumed guest waiters of the day, arranged artfully into your seats, and have your order taken by one of two chief waitresses wearing broccoli on their heads.
These broccoli-headed women are Jenny Hunt and Holly Darton. Their café – which becomes a more conventional venue at night – encourages audiences to interact with the dining experience in different ways every day. If it represents something a bit different to your average art installation, it’s also very different to your average lunch.
Stepping into the café is like falling down a rabbit hole. Waitresses are dancing on tables to nothing in particular, customers are having their heads massaged, the company accounts are detailed in full view on the wall, and the complaints section of the giant blackboard is scribbled with the likes of “our table was too flat” and “there wasn’t enough morning for our breakfast”.
Hunt and Darton have known each other since they studied fine art together at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London just over ten years ago. Despite having no formal training in theatre, the two full-time artists floated naturally towards working in performance. This, however, wasn’t enough for them.
“We realised that our social dialogue was something that we wanted to show more of, but we found that hard to do with the stage show,” says Darton. “So we thought, how can we get even more on a level with our audience? How can we completely close the gap?”
It was this thinking which led to the creation of the café – one previous installation the two worked on together was a fully-functioning golf driving range in an old warehouse. Now in its second successive Fringe, the café, which has also had spells in Cambridge and Hackney, incorporates not just their accidental catering experience (a rite of passage for many artists) but their fascination with the artistic space that a café can unintentionally create. “If there were no cafés there’d be no Jean-Paul Sartre,” says Hunt – a quote apparently heard elsewhere but research fails to find the source of it. The diner also brought about their desire to create a new kind of interactive art installation. “The café idea does that. We’re working, serving you, then we’re performing and getting the audience to perform.”
Notably, the two never diverge to talk about themselves as individuals – they very much come as a duo: “Another angle was that we were obviously trying to forge careers as artists,” says Hunt. “We thought a lot about sustainable art practice, and that’s where the idea of exposing the whole business and the idea of business as art came about.”
The entire café project is non-profit. Money made is funnelled straight back into the project, directly helping support fresh events for their programme and bringing in new guest waiters. One such group of guest waitresses are Figs In Wigs, my waitresses for the day, who are supported by Escalator East to Edinburgh, the same body which supports Hunt and Darton. During our conversation, we frequently have to pause to join in while Figs In Wigs applaud customers taking their seats. The guest waiters aren’t a novelty, they pretty much define the café when they are there. This is the artist-led structure that Hunt and Darton are so fond of.
So how does such an intense involvement with the customers affect their satisfaction? The duo revel in this question, explaining how adapting to the variety of customers is what appeals to them so much.
“It’s a very nice project as it’s so layered, it can really cater for a lot of people. For some, it’s enough to have a menu which tells you how you can play with your food [yes, they have this], and they get enough humour and energy from that, and some people want much more.
“We find ourselves managing completely different levels of expectations. Some people come in expecting a performance and we challenge them to think of the café as a performance. With those just wanting a cup of tea, they arrive quite terrified and by the end they’ve gotten involved and they’re loving it.”
The unpredictability of the waitressing ties neatly into the duo’s Fringe show, which is in the venue section of the café during the evenings. Boredom explores the different ways we approach and treat boredom.
“The café’s this high energetic project, we thought we couldn’t get bored. Last year at the Fringe we were open 12 til 12, it was bonkers. We’ve always worked like that, so we tried to get bored, and we got excited. Boredom tells that story, but in a non-narrative way.”
The duo claim it’s “the most exciting show about boredom ever”, and see it as an experiment in attempting to manage the audience’s various levels of stimuli.
This being their second August in Edinburgh, the travel north was a lot kinder than last year. Regular customers from 2012 have returned, loyalty cards still in hand, and being able to use the same venue has saved them from the red tape of last year, when they had to redevelop the building to meet health and safety standards. Legal requirements are as far as it goes, however, when it comes to these two toeing the line. A notable difference this year is the switch from pineapple costumes to broccoli. When asked why the choice of this particular green, they answer: “Broccoli is the king of vegetables. It also looks like it should be a hat.
Hunt & Darton Café is open until 25 August, 10am to 5pm, except Mondays. Boredom, 10:30pm, 17, 20, 22 and 24 August.
Originally published in The Scotsman