El Internacional Tapas Bar & Restaurant was conceived as an artistic project carried out between 1984 and 1986 by artist Antoni Miralda and chef Montse Guillén in New York’s Tribeca neighbourhood. One of the first restaurants to introduce Spanish tapas in the United States, El Internacional quickly became a cultural icon and a creative hub of New York’s downtown in the 1980s. It combined the social ritual of eating with installation and performance art, blurring the boundaries between food, art, design, architecture and mass media.
The restaurant provided a unique space for the exploration of cross-cultural, and multidisciplinary practices, embracing the perspectives of contemporary art and cuisine. A symbol of progressive 1980s New York, it epitomised a period during which nightlife and dining were regarded in the same context as the visual and performing arts, a synthesis that came to be seminal to the cultural production of that time and place. Miralda, Montse and El Internacional were at the centre of this exciting moment, when artists were more absorbed in inventing platforms for social engagement and experience, than trying to differentiate between disciplines.
Throughout his career, spanning four decades, Spanish artist Antoni Miralda explored food through rituals and ceremonies. Invested in the ethnology and sociology of food as much as its taste and aesthetics, and engaged in an exploration of human behaviour, Miralda’s gastronomic gatherings conjure images of mythological feasts. Montse Guillén was born in Melilla in 1946, to a family of restaurateurs. In 1980 she opened the MG, her own restaurant in Barcelona with a creative team including Carlos Riart, Mariscal, América Sanchez and Llorenç Torrado. Shortly after, she produced an event presenting tapas at the World Trade Center in New York in 1981. It was a few years later that, together with Miralda, she created El Internacional.
The eccentric and popular Spanish establishment was described by the Tribeca Citizen as, “the first postmodern art restaurant.” It had a “carnation room” with an “atlas of kisses” from customers, as well as another dining area with video installations of eminent diners that visited Teddy’s, the restaurant that El Internacional replaced. An aquarium divided two of the spaces, a Statue of Liberty crown adorned the top of the building, and the restaurant even published its own newspaper for guests. El Internacional quickly established itself as a popular haunt for artists like Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
While El Internacional only operated for two years, it marked a key moment in the New York art scene, and the art world at large, foreshadowing the present cross-disciplinary, immersive experimentation that is so prevalent currently. Experiential, participatory, and immersive, adjectives ubiquitously used in contemporary art today, El Internacional was all of these things intrinsically, and pioneering in its approach. Its expansive cultural reach is irrefutable and the compelling project has now been recreated across the world in three different manifestations, including most recently at Faena Art Center in Buenos Aires.
Feature image: El Internacional (via Pinterest)