The innovative restaurant is home to art, and has a surprising connection to women’s rights. By Christina Makris
Central London’s cityscape is in constant evolution, with buildings being renovated, conserved, innovated. Pedestrians may notice the works when they must swerve or detour to avoid scaffolding, or indeed when the covers come off to proudly reveal the latest finished article. The townhouses, thoroughfares and even some lanes are steeped with layers of history, and continuously redrawn.
Restaurants take their place in this drawing too, like Sketch, which celebrates its 20-year history this year, in a building with overlapping architectural and cultural history. The restaurant is located at 9 Conduit Street, designed in 1779 by the neo-Gothic architect James Wyatt, and is realised in a neo-classical style, with a gracious central staircase, high ceilings, and an elegant façade, incorporating Doric columns and window friezes.
It was the headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1859 to 1939, and their crest of the Mycenaean Lion Gate is still in the entrance. It was also affiliated with the Suffragettes, when a trembling, 22-year-old Millicent Fawcett gave her first speech from the first-floor window to her followers gathered below in 1869, as the story goes. After the Second World War, it became the Atelier for Christian Dior until the 1980s, and in a quirk of feminist continuity, there are archival photos of leggy young women from The British Society for the Preservation of the Miniskirt protesting Maison Dior’s refusal to feature the mini in their collections in 1966.
By the time the respected restaurateur Mourad Mazouz came along in 2003, the building had fallen into an abandoned state. Mazouz, no stranger to exciting restaurant ventures, having established Momo in Mayfair and 404 in Paris, envisioned a restaurant that would combine art, music, design and gastronomy, to enable people to experience ‘magic’ and ‘escape’ for a few hours. He enlisted his friend, Michelin-starred and globally revered chef Pierre Gagnaire, to devise an exquisite menu to mirror his aspirations for the interior experience.
Central to his project has been a collection of creatives who have been given free rein to decorate the restaurant. Mazouz, a collector and friend of artists (he has been portrayed by many, including Hassan Hajjaj) invited renowned creators and designers to decorate every corner in the townhouse (note to reader: look at the chair legs in the Parlour Room on your next visit), effectively making Sketch an art and design gallery with a restaurant attached. The designer India Mahdavi worked with Mazouz on spaces to feature artworks, including Martin Creed’s 2012 Work No.1343, a dining room comprising thoroughly mismatched tables, chairs and tableware, complete with a zig-zagging mixed marble-fragment floor – the brief was simply for ‘no two objects to be identical’ – a total nightmare for today’s matchy-matchy tablescapers. The restaurant also features light works by Chris Levine, a mythical and mystical Glade space designed by Carolyn Quartermaine. Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance designed bathroom egg pods, which have remained the stuff of Instagram tagging legend. In 2014 David Shrigley covered all the walls with his poetic and playful graphic drawings, featuring poignant statements and ideas as the backdrop to many a date night and birthday celebration (‘CRUISE SHIP VULGARITY’, ‘STINK’, ‘IN A HOLE IT’S OK’).
And because a good restaurant with art is more than decorative, it can function as a gallery to present thought-provoking works and art history. In 2022 the Gallery was redesigned by Madhavi, and the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare RA made 15 new site-specific works featuring motifs and homages to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, to commemorate and comment on the influence African art had on Modernist European art. If this painting is believed by some to have changed the course of Modern Art, then the full source of influences on Picasso are also part of that revolution. A serious message to have alongside your starter.
Mazouz aims to refresh his Gallery artist every seven years or so. Just like a “sketch”, the restaurant’s continual renewal of its design and atmosphere is part of what has kept this destination so exciting over the years. Sketch is an example of the kind of innovation and resilience in restaurants that has made London arguably one of the best cities in the world for dining.
This is why it’s included in the Celebrate London Restaurant campaign, a project that is documenting, archiving and telling the stories of the capital’s food culture. It encourages customers to revisit such establishments, connected through history and dining ethos, and to become part of its exciting evolution.
Christina Makris is an independent scholar, wine writer, luxury hospitality consultant and the author of Aesthetic Dining: The Art Restaurant Around the World.