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This Cafe Serves Sandwiches with a Side of Poetry

You can order a roast dinner sandwich at Hunt & Darton Cafe, but you can also experience “The Delia Dance” or ask for a side of poetry. This probably isn’t happening in Greggs right now.
January 2, 2016, 3:00pm

Most cafes have some sort of theme or defining characteristic that helps them stand out from the culinary crowd. Maybe they're styled like an American diner; they might have paintings by local artists on the wall; or perhaps the whole place is simply possessed by supernatural forces from beyond the grave.

But what if the cafe itself was more than just a cafe—what if it was an ever-evolving conceptual artwork; a piece that you as a patron became part of? Well, that's what artists Jenny Hunt and Holly Darton have tried to create with their project, Hunt & Darton Cafe.

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Currently stationed in Manchester for cross art-form event, Sick! Festival, Hunt & Darton Cafe has been serving up sarnies with a side of performance across the UK since 2012. While some locations are tailor-made for this art-cuisine hybrid—like their stint at the Edinburgh festival—others, such as a recent sortie to Stoke are a bit different.

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Artists Jenny Hunt and Holly Darton with cafe customers.

"In Edinburgh everyone wanted more performance, constant entertainment: we were always being larger than life," says Hunt. "But in Stoke people often found us accidentally. They just came in for a cup of tea and wanted a chat."

The whole thing looks somewhat unassuming as I stroll up to the entrance. For a start, it is on one of Manchester's busiest streets just outside Piccadilly Station, sandwiched between a Greggs and a Subway. A sign advertising the festival is the only clue that something unusual is afoot.

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Step inside though and all that changes. I am seated at what appears to be an old tea trolley, decorated with china dogs and an assortment of mismatched cutlery. In fact, the whole place is kitted out with charity shop finds, giving the impression that it has been recently vacated in haste by the Mad Hatter and his cronies (a thought that seems increasingly well-founded as my meal progresses).

I am offered a glass of water. "Would you like a Polo with that?" asks my waitress, presenting a golden platter studded with mints. "Or perhaps I could just add it to your water?" I am unsure what to say and before I can utter anything intelligible, a Polo mint is staring up at me from the bottom of my glass. "Better give that a minute to dissolve," she advises.

Hunt & Darton menu.

The menu at Hunt & Darton. Roast dinner sandwich.

At first glance, the menu is rather hard to understand, until you realise there are two: one for food and one for performance. Yes, you can opt for beans on toast, but you can also experience something called The Delia Dance.

"The menu allows us to introduce performance gently—challenging people's expectations, but seeing if that is what they want," says Hunt. "We're never confrontational with it."

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The food itself is best described as "twisted traditional," and could have been dreamt up by a bonkers Yorkshire grandmother charged with organising a children's birthday party. A roast dinner sandwich sits alongside such staples as Nesquik milkshakes and Coco Pops.

"It is based on our 80s childhood," explains Hunt, although quite whose childhood involved a roast dinner sandwich remains unexplained.

I decide to try the sandwich. "It's got everything except the Yorkshires and the gravy… because that would be stupid," says Darton, who emerges from the kitchen wearing a pineapple on her head (Hunt is also adorned with this tropical trilby). The sandwich looks like it could feed a family of five for as many days.

While not something to be enjoyed at 4 PM in the afternoon (I start sweating and feeling faint about half-way through) it certainly works as a concept, with the cranberries giving it just enough bite to take the edge off the density. I imagine it would be a good hangover cure: you'd either feel better or experience a severe stomach distension that would take your mind off it.

There's also plenty to look at while you enjoy your fare. Large chalkboards document the cafe's budget, and keep track of any complaints made by customers such as "too cold" and "buffet gave bad ju-ju."

Some of the staff are actually performers themselves, adding their ideas to the cafe's antics. Today I am treated to the dancing of Krissi Musiol, who runs a project called Bad Dancer, which collects the best and worst dance moves from people in the North West.

At first glance, the menu is rather hard to understand, until you realise there are two: one for food and one for performance. Yes, you can opt for beans on toast, but you can also experience something called The Delia Dance.

"I had the roast dinner sandwich when I visited them in Edinburgh, and I just wanted to get involved," says Musiol, who demonstrates a number of her moves while standing on a chair by the door. I am pretty sure this isn't happening at either Greggs or Subway right now.

While I do battle with my sandwich, the people on the next table are treated to something from the performance menu. I have no idea what they order, but basically it involves first Hunt and then Darton laughing maniacally in a variety of styles.

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"It's made my day," says Jonathan, an unwitting customer who called in on his way home from work, "I'm definitely going to come back."

Then it is my turn; a side of poetry seems like a safe bet. Hunt and Darton are wheeled over to me on a trolley. They ask if I am ready to begin—I am. They sit at my table and take it in turns to recite their work, which is short, bleak, and very funny. Strangely, in the flurry of words, insults, and weirdness, food didn't come up as a topic. The main themes seem to be revenge and anger, but in a comic way. It's dark but enjoyable, like a pint of bitter.

"This one is called I hate you," says Hunt. She then says "I hate you," before adding "thank you." I am moved to applause, which seems a strange given what just happened. The cafe seems to have that effect on you.

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Then, for the grand finale, the pair exit the cafe and perform a dance routine in the street, much to the bemusement of commuters and smokers grabbing a last cigarette before catching their trains. Hunt and Darton climb back onto their trolley, and I am asked to wheel them back to the kitchen. "Try not to crash us into anything," they advise.

"It is a bridge project between art and the public, so it works really well for festivals," Hunt tells me after being safely wheeled back inside. "The café is a good place to start a conversation on the issues the festival is confronting. It is silly, but at the same time significant and meaningful."

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It turns out that today is Darton's birthday, so we all sing happy birthday and get to eat a special Cadbury's Creme Egg cake. This is the last thing I want following my sandwich, but in the spirit of English politeness, I accept a generous portion.

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On leaving Hunt & Darton cafe, my thoughts are not with the food, funny clothes, or performance side dishes. After five minutes of being there, I felt like I knew the staff, after 20 I was on first name terms with the next table, and by the time I exit the cafe, it's as though I'm saying goodbye to old friends.

"What you learn is that you're part of something and that when we are generous people are generous back," concludes Hunt, before heading off to ply another customer with cake and craziness.

This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April, 2015.