I’m in a candlelit London restaurant, sitting opposite a total stranger on a workday afternoon, and we’re both completely naked.
And weirdly, it’s OK. Well, mostly OK.
The restaurant is Bunyadi, a newly opened eatery in a quiet corner of central London that encourages customers to disrobe while enjoying a “natural” dining experience.
What it's like to eat in London's naked restaurant?
Bunyadi has made headlines in recent weeks by attracting 46,000 people to its waiting list for a three-month pop-up run over the summer.
I was there for the press launch, alongside 25 or so other journalists dispatched to report from the front line of naked dining.
So what’s it like?
From outside, the restaurant isn’t much to look at – which is probably the idea.
It’s discreetly located in a converted street-corner pub with blacked-out windows a few quiet streets away from London’s highest skyscraper, The Shard.
The front door leads into a small bar area, which looks pretty standard until folks start emerging from the changing rooms wearing hotel-style bathrobes.
When tables are ready and guests have had the requisite number of freshly mixed looseners, they’re then guided into the main dining area.
At first it’s disorientating.
It’s impossible not to surreptitiously double-take at the topless waitress leading the way through the candlelit maze of bamboo screens that almost shield diners from heavy scrutiny.
32,000 sign up for naked restaurant
Time to strip
Then, once the eyes grow accustomed to the bare flesh of the young male and female waitstaff, things get (relatively) more normal.
Until it’s time to strip off.
Before that happened, we got to chat to some of the staff about how they came to be working in a naked restaurant, and what it’s like to work there.
“I wanted to be around people who shared the same thoughts as me,” says Eloise Knight, a 20-year-old student who says she approached the restaurant for work after reading stories about it.
Knight and her fellow employees wear only skimpy briefs adorned with a few strands of fake vine leaves as they deliver food and drink to the tables.
She says that she feels safer at Bunyadi than at other restaurants since any customer acting inappropriately will be instantly ejected.
The restaurant has a strict no cameras or cellphones policy, partly to protect the privacy of those disrobing within, but also in line with its back-to-basics natural feel.
“It’s about being comfortable with nudity,” she adds. “And it’s nice to help people feel that way. It’s not a sexual thing.”
Apparently it works.
Bunyadi’s designer and manager, Ignacio Jimenez Blanco, says about 80% of diners have gotten naked during trial runs (it’s totally optional).
As the employees feel more comfortable, so do the customers, he adds. There are plans to introduce a naked bar area for those who feel comfortable mingling in their birthday suits.
“I think people want to free themselves,” he says. “I see it as a therapy, it’s very liberating. People want it and we’re just providing a location and a service.”
Blanco has created a restaurant interior that more closely resembles a spa than a restaurant. It’s a dimly lit space scented by aromatic candles and soundtracked by soft music.
So it seems appropriate that we’re all wearing gowns, for now.
I’m seated opposite another journalist, a man who I’ve never met before but who is in the same situation as me – nervously contemplating whether to disrobe.
The food – mostly raw, natural and seasonal in keeping with the restaurant’s naked theme – is delivered in earthenware bowls and eaten using edible cutlery.
It’s delicious. There’s an English garden soup paired with pickled apple and salted cucumber for starters followed by salmon and seaweed salad.
The five-course menu costs about $100 without drinks but including the gown and slippers. When the steak tartare with goji berry and cilantro arrives, my fellow diner and I gulp down the accompanying Argentinian Malbec and agree to get naked.
And it does turn out to be curiously liberating.
Mostly it’s a relief. It’s very warm inside Bunyadi and a thick toweling robe starts to become uncomfortable after a while. The darkness of the venue, the bamboo partitions and the strategically designed wooden furniture help maintain some dignity.
But what should be an awkward moment, getting unclothed with a complete stranger, proves to be anything but.
Unable to resort to looking at our phones, we chat unreservedly about work, families and whether the female magazine journalists at the next table have also stripped down.
Seb Lyall, the entrepreneur behind the Bunyadi, describes it as a “social experiment,” and that’s kind of what it feels like.
It’s certainly a new way to experience some truly excellent food.
Lyall says he hopes it’ll help tackle body objectification and perhaps inspire other venues to at least strip away such modern distractions as cell phones.
With that in mind, when the naked waitress arrives we concentrate very intently on making eye contact and talking about the food.
It’s all rather exciting for a while. This is a totally new experience for me. I’m not someone who would ever contemplate stripping off in public – I am, after all, English.
I suddenly feel like I’ve been granted entry into a secret, exhilarating new world.
Then my dining companion announces he has to leave early. Depressingly, I’m now just a naked dude eating dessert, by candlelight, on my own.
Time to get dressed.