How do you behave in a place like this? I arrive an hour before my guests and get a seat at a table in the center of the restaurant. It’s a fancy place, where employees open doors to the toilets. The staff act so polite that I’m afraid to ask for service. The arrival of my guests is a relief, since they educate me on how to call for waiters in a polite but effective manner. This evening is my threat. Most of the party already know my plan, and the rest catch the drift soon. My walled is safe at home and I only have a hand-written letter containing a proposal with me. I don’t intend to pay for what we have. We start with cranberry drinks.
Rumors circulating mouth to mouth talk of others, who invited friend for dinner. After a long, moist night, the host noticed he’d “forgotten my wallet home”, and hence could not pay for the bill. This person was an artist, and after some negotiation with the owners, he whipped up a sketch pad, and drew a portrait to cover the expenses with a unique artwork. Such stories make artist proud of being artist. They prove that it’s possible to use creative power to bend the reality of economics. Depending on who tells the story the hero can be a poet, journalist, designer or a composer. As the story goes, these works form the basis of art collections you see on the walls of respectable restaurants. Historians I consulted where unanimous that such trade has taken place in the past, and locally in Helsinki the last time such stories spread was in the 70’s.
Some such stories are mentioned in artist autobiographies, and there is apparently an art dealer, who owns a work by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, which was originally used as payment for restaurant depts. I bet it’s hung on the dining room wall. When asked, establishments rumored to have been engaged in art-to-food trades in the past started by reassuring that they have receipts for all the transactions. Proved true the rumor would reveal that the collection of fine art are based on shady contracts with drunken painters. Respected restaurant remain silent to protect the privacy of those clients and themselves. I couldn’t get any restaurants to confirm any trade of this kind. All speculations would be best tested trough a re-enactment.
Ordering a meal you cannot affair to pay for is like base jumping. After talking the first bite you have to go all in, and the closer you are to the end of the journey, the more delightful everything tastes. The more precise the fantasies of how I would be dragged to the counter, the more sensitive our taste buds. All the excitement made me eat like a horse. When looking at the wine lists we covered up the prices and tried to choose wines based on their names. Judging the wines’ quality is hard without knowing the price. Menus seem to be categories by prices, with the expensive ones at the bottom of the list. With such hints and deduction skills we found something suitable to drink. During dessert I felt humbles every bite is a gift I did not deserve. The dinner was a perfect tragedy – everyone in our company knew how it would end.
I send my friends away to a bar on the next block. I called for the head waiter, and explained the idea of offering art in exchange for the dinner. I briefly recapped the local history of such arrangements. The head waiter smiled until he realized I was for real. He clenched to my letter and read it over and over. My interpretation was that he sympathized with the idea and that we were equally afraid of how the corporate owners would threat the proposal. He explained that its against company policy to invoice, especially as it’s illegal to sell alcohol on credit. He send me on my way and I tipped the guy who opens doors for good karma.
Three weeks later I reviewed an invoice for the sum of 503,40€ printed on fine paper. I framed it.