The wonderful thing about being from the West is that you have the ability to not only have a comfort zone, but you get to leave it, too — willingly. Some people try cuisines they've never had before, work their bland tongues around these foreign words and foods and come back and boast to all of their friends about what they did. Lollipop is a self-proclaimed collective who offer "creative experiences" by generating ideas, having a "distributing mechanism," and implementing projects using both "offline and online mediums." (What does that mean exactly? Events like the Breaking-Bad themed cocktail making experience.)
So Seb Lyall, creator of Lollipop, decided that people would lose their damn minds if he supplied them a pop-up restaurant where you dine in the nude. When I spoke to Lyall, he said it all began with a controversial advertisement plastered around London last year. "We need to look at our bodies without sex, we need to be comfortable," he said of the concept that purports to desexualize the body — at the cost to the diner of just £69 a person. Want to guess what happened when that plan went public? Yep. People lost their damn minds.
The Bunyandi currently has a "waiting list" of 47,000 for its three-month dining-in-the-nude pop-up.
The Bunyadi currently has a waiting list of 47,000 for its three month temporary pop-up — though it's less a traditional waiting list and instead a "ticket application." Interested diners apply for a spot through the site, are then contacted with available times (if there are any), and pay beforehand. Diners are then sent rules of conduct, one of which is that the location be kept under wraps.
Walking to my "secret" venue in South London, which happens to be the new victim of gentrification spilling over from the east of the city, it felt uncomfortable: shopkeepers that sell calling cards for homesick immigrants looked on, perplexed. An obscure location is ideal if you want to pretend to be secretive, but in a city where alleyways are rife, event organizers chose a street lined with small shops and businesses. A part of me wondered if this area and this street was picked to make the attendees feel like they were far away from what they're used to, or the rent was cheap, or both.
I looked to my left and saw a mosque, with all of its twinkly lights and steep steps, and I inhaled slowly. It's the first Friday night in the month of Ramadan, and the building itself is glorious. I walked past the mosque, exhaled a quick "bismillah" and said to the doorman in front of the old pub, "I'm here for the Bunyadi." A local muttered "fucking posh people" as I walked in, and I could do nothing but silently think "yeah, I hear you man." I stepped in and the dim lighting took me aback instantly; although Blanche DuBois would've geeked out, my eyesight struggled to survey the room: I entered the bar, where some people sat in robes, some were fully clothed. On one side of the bar were the two changing rooms with lockers, and on the other were double doors that lead to the main dining area.
Prior to arriving, I was told that I would have to undress and change into a robe, and if I was comfortable enough, I could de-robe during the meal. Just as the idea is to strip you down, organizers stripped everything else, too, in their claim to take you back to a "Pangea-like world." When I heard "Pangea," I heard Man vs. Wild Lite. Instead, the food at Bunyadi was uncooked because no heat was involved, there was candlelight but no electricity or technology (or phones... so I guess there is some savagery involved), there was wine (organic, naturally), the cutlery was edible (not as exciting as you'd think; it felt like you were two years old again), no glass, the seats and table were Anthropologie-appropriate tree stumps, bamboo dividers sat between tables, and so on and so forth. The layout was tight and compact — around 10 or 12 tables partitioned and designed so that you couldn't see into other tables from your own.
You're essentially in your own private bamboo cocoon: Except I was in my white robe feeling like I got horribly lost on the way from my hotel room to a spa. My companion and I were asked if we wanted to be seated alone or with two other people, and we opted to share. As we walked to our table through a maze of bamboo, I caught glimpses into other tables and wondered why the organizers claim to normalize nudity when they made it look so... risqué. I understand that the candlelight is meant to be more forgiving to those self-conscious about their bodies, and the privacy of each table is supposed to ease those nervous about de-robing, but the place makes you feel like you're in Tinkerbell's harem.
I found it hard to bat away the male gaze from my thought process. Annoyance stuck to me like the sweat on the back of my neck.
We sat down at our table (our server was completely naked except for a fig leafy thong) and were greeted by a married couple in their sixties clothed in birthday suits. When they told me they were lifelong nudists, I was relieved. This isn't a "dining experience" to them, this is their lives. Both retired teachers, they told me about keeping their nudist lifestyle secretive to protect their careers, how they raised their son as a nudist, the strong networks of nudist communities around the world, and why they stuck with it (they feel freer). The husband occasionally writes for the national naturist magazine and was, like me, reporting on the Bunyadi, so they found themselves amidst us muggles for one night.
When we exchanged introductions and niceties, the presence of their naked bodies became instantly nonexistent, but every time our young female server came back, the nudity flooded back into my head and I realized what was happening. Desexualizing an older naked body isn't as difficult because ageism conditions us to take them out of that context, but the second I was looking back at a body of someone more like mine, I found it hard to bat away the male gaze from my thought process. Annoyance stuck to me like the sweat on the back of my neck.
If we come to the culinary angle of it all, this is a "dining experience" and so the focus was on just that — the experience. Consequently, the food felt like an afterthought. The five courses of food were raw, or as Lyall calls it, "naked food": pickled and salted vegetables (paying an odd homage to Adam and Eve, because who doesn't love a casual biblical reference), bread with pesto, smoked salmon, steak tartare, fruit with nuts, more fruit with nuts and some coconut and chia mousse. The steak tartare prepared with goji berries and coriander was the most decent dish that chef Jono Hope offered. The coconut and chia mousse came in second, and we found out that it was produced with a bicycle powered machine, which made me relieved that innovation did enter the thought process. When speaking to him prior to the meal, Hope expressed the challenges of preparing food with no heat and electricity, and I kind of had the sense that he wouldn't have wished it on his worst enemy.
Somewhere between our third and fourth course of raw food, I asked my new nudist friends whether they felt like it was funny that they are able to expose their white bodies without being fetishized or being called barbaric and uncivilized. After all, desexualized nudity is something that has existed and exists in tribes and indigenous communities around the world, and colonialism clothed some of this nudity into nonexistence. They understood this, and after collectively agreeing that Christopher Columbus can go to hell, I asked if the Bunyadi felt like an attempt to exploit their lifestyle. They disagreed. Normalizing their world — even if it gains popularity by pandering to gleeful voyeurism — was something they wanted. Their only criticism was that they didn't understand the need for the table privacy. If the experience is meant to make you feel more comfortable being naked around other naked people, then why replace clothes with bamboo partitions?
I understand the whole PR premise of this dining experience. I do. I get that you know people are obsessed with nudity, so you encourage nudity as a norm; you know there is a sudden trend for eating clean, so you serve "naked" food; you tapped into our desire to "put the phone away and have a conversation," and so you obliged. I get all of that. But despite this understanding, I left wholly unchanged. Somewhere in between the "forbidden fruit" pickles and walking past drawn curtains of a private table, I got bored of it all. A seemingly earnest marketing strategy is all you need to help justify an excuse to feel naughty, right? Almost everyone I spoke to that night was drinking the Kool-Aid, and one diner even said, "yeah it might be a fad but — who cares! This is so much fun!" I would've had more fun in a strip club — the intentions are clear, the buffet is stocked with warm lemon pepper wings, and voyeurism helps the money go into the pocket of the exhibitioner, rather than out.
This was the height of privilege — to be able to pay to have it taken away.
The Bunyadi was a dining experience that taught me that I didn't need it. Desexualizing the body is a feminist issue and has been grappled with for decades, and I don't expect a marketing ploy by a male entrepreneur to do anything to progress the conversation, nor do I expect him to understand that nudity isn't the only way to liberate yourself. I mean, we were opposite a damn mosque. There are people around the world that are liberated and desexualized through clothing. Just like how FemEn protesters protest nude at Muslim events, this kind of vapid thing left a shit-ton of people out of the conversation. Riding on the back of actual issues to garner interest is boring, but I guess I was just bemused that it was so... stark.
Most of all, it made me feel weird that for £69 a person (69? Really?), you're placed into a space with no electricity, heat, no technology, and no clothing on your back. This isn't Pangea-like. We were given a choice to be put into a space that many people in the world are forced into, but without the wine, the hysterical giggles, and the smoked salmon. As I chewed on my edible spoon, I realized this was it. This was the height of privilege — to be able to pay to have it taken away. I walked out, the Friday prayer echoing out of the walls of the mosque and melodically into the street, and I took my clothed, liberated body back home.
Pelin Keskin is a writer and editor from London who gets emotional over fried chicken, stationery, and dachshund puppies. Megan-Ruth St Clair Morgan is a freelance illustrator based in London.
Editor: Erin DeJesus