On hearing that a naked restaurant was to open in London, I, like most people, assumed it would be a den of sexual depravity, a swingers’ sanctuary, a pervert’s paradise. Not, as I discover, a ramshackle old boozer in a less than salubrious part of Elephant Castle near London Bridge.
Upon entering “the Panagea-like world,”my girlfriend and I are reminded of the rules: no cameras, phones, or clothes inside the restaurant. We had to take the “Path to Purity” to a cramped changing room, where we stripped down (one at a time) and donned a pair of slippers and a white gown that wouldn’t look amiss in a health spa. As odd as it is to witness men and women, old and young, who aren’t all, as they say, "beach body ready," drinking in pristine gowns against the backdrop of a pub that clearly has a grotty past, it is, bizarrely relaxing. Creator Seb Lyall’s idea was to offer diners the chance to get away from all the stuff of the modern world and go back to basics.
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“I decided to create a naked restaurant when I saw that body shaming campaign on the tube last year,” he explains, referring to a poster of a bikini-clad skinny blonde advertising weight loss products. It sounds like he’s doing his bit for body acceptance but, of course, in opening the Bunyadi — pronounced BoN/YA/Dee, which means “fundamental,”“base,”“natural” in Hindi — the 33-year-old scored a publicity coup.
The headlines have helped the 42-capacity restaurant, which is only open for three months, garner a waiting list of over 40,000 for a six course taster menu priced at £69 ($101). Lyall is no stranger to causing a buzz or controversy for that matter: his company Lollipop’s previous ventures have included an owl cafe that had animal rights activists up in arms and an overwhelmingly popular Breaking Bad-inspired cocktail bar, which he assures me, is a money-spinner.
He hopes to take this concept over to — surprise, surprise — the liberal likes of Paris. After all, the sight of waiters and waitress with only plastic fig leaves to preserve (some of) their modesty isn’t for the prudish or those prone to gawking (yes, breasts and bums are on show). You might wonder why anyone would volunteer to work at a naked restaurant. Well, as our Belgian waiter Vincent explains: “I’m doing a naked swim and I still need to accept my body for what it is.” He’s a personal trainer
The restaurant itself, concealed by just a black curtain, is Palaeolithic at best or budget garden center showpiece at worst: bamboo and wicker screens partition off private dining booths, featuring tree trunk tables and stools. It is feverishly hot, with only candlelight to cut through the darkness. The atmosphere makes it easier to get completely nakedand for those who are feeling frisky, get handsy under the tables. Just don’t get caught or you’re out.
It’s so dark that it’s difficult to see if you’re picking up your wine or water, especially after a few cocktails prior to dinner. But as we peer through the bamboo and blackness, we see a table of young women whose gowns are beginning to drop as the drink goes down. Alas, my better half, who is actually beach body ready, if I may say so, refuses to remove her gown. Her excuse: “I know some of the people here —it’s embarrassing.” As for me, rather like an embarrassing dad at a Scandinavian sauna, I disrobe, boasting of how relaxing it is to be unshackled from clothes.
As for the menu, there’s a choice of vegan or non-vegan but it’s all served cold either way — there’s no electricity and no gas or proper cooking equipment in the kitchen. The plates are clay; the cutlery is edible. The first course of five is inspired by the Garden of Eden: pickled apple, radish and salted cucumber. Most courses are mere morsels but there are a few highlights: the cured seaweed, salmon and whipped spirulina mayo; goji berry and coriander steak tartare; and courgette flowers stuffed with sun-dried tomato served on cauliflower rice. It is all very natural and all very wholesome but you won’t be sated.
At the end of dinner, we return to the bar area where a fully clothed Lyall is watching as a gaggle of half-cut diners giggle their way out of the door. “How was it?” — he asks. “It’s a liberating experience… I enjoyed it,” I slur. “You forget that you’re not wearing any clothes,” he assuredly responds. I wouldn’t go that far. I was very much aware that I could see my manhood at a glance. The waiters, now dressed, are starting to leave. It’s definitely time to dress and go.
Feeling rather hungry, we head home. I’m left wondering whether I’m a bit odd in being titillated by stripping down in a restaurant surrounded by a roomful of strangers. But the naked truth is: I’d do it all again.