Palate and Palette Coexist
At Alexandria Restaurant Partner’s new Arlington, Virginia, restaurant, Palette 22, the tapas plates aren’t the only works of art: The space is a combination studio-restaurant-gallery, with artists-in-residence working right among diners. The expansive floor plan features a 34-seat island bar, 48-seat lounge, 86-seat dining room, and 68-seat outdoor patio. The space is decorated courtesy of the regional artists who’ve been selected for the current residency, each lasting about 60 days. Guests can purchase the works—all of the art in the restaurant will be created there—and the restaurant’s decor will rotate as artists cycle in and out.
“It’s essentially like a living art gallery,” says Graham Duncan, ARP’s corporate executive chef. But instead of the austere white walls one usually finds in a gallery, vibrantly painted surfaces, polished concrete floors, and industrial steel elements serve as the backdrop for the works, as well as for the two dedicated studios and other open stations where the artists create them. A living mural—to which artists will continually contribute, with new canvases always being added—is prominent as well. Palette 22 is in a pre-existing building, though ARP basically demolished it to the cinder block to realize the restaurant. The group also operates a sister concept, Café Tu Tu Tango in Orlando, Florida, where artists paint in-house during a guest’s meal.
The menu at Palette 22 is as kinetic as the surroundings: As Duncan notes, it’s inevitable that the art and food influence each other, a prospect that he finds creatively liberating. “There’s a lot of learning involved. And for me, cooking, that’s where the passion and the attraction has come from, that there’s always more to learn. You’re constantly evolving and learning new things. It’s a very fluid experience for me.”
And so the kitchen is another studio of sorts: Open to the dining room on three sides, it’s a place where the chefs can work freely within the broad category of global street food, which might mean anything from Greek-style grilled octopus with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and oregano to one of Chef Duncan’s favorites, Tacos Vampiros: a serrano-onion rajas quesadilla that doubles as a taco shell to hold carne asada, hand-mashed guacamole, chipotle salsa, pico de gallo, and queso cotija. Prices range from $4 to $14. The small-plate structure allows for a more social experience, Duncan says, as well as a more nimble spirit in the kitchen. So does the chef’s table, where guests will be served the kitchen’s newest experiments. The accessible bar program offers original cocktails, regional craft beer, and international and domestic wine.
The artists working in this unique open-air studio go through a curatorial process led by art director Cara Leepson, with decisions based on the artist’s medium and work, including how the art fits into the restaurant’s contemporary atmosphere. Works stay on view for about 60 days. “The cool thing is the interior is constantly evolving,” Duncan says. “The menu rides that wave as well.”