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Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? Should you order the jerk chicken flatbread or the Argentinian empanadas?

At Palette 22, which opens in Shirlington on Feb. 22, diners and bar-goers will have the chance to ponder these timeless questions as artists paint a few feet away on canvasses and the walls.

“The idea of art in restaurants isn’t a new idea,” says Palette art director Cara Leepson, “but bringing art to the forefront of the dining experience is, and that’s really what we’re doing here.”

There are two main “studio” spaces at the restaurant, one by the bar and the other in the main dining room, where most of the art will be displayed for sale. A large mural behind the bar is still unfinished and will be worked on as the first customers come in next week. Guests, Leepson says, are “encouraged to get up, walk around, and talk to the artists.”

Owned by Alexandria Restaurant Partners, who also operate Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza and The Majestic in Alexandria, Palette’s art concept is based off an Orlando restaurant called Tu Tu Tango that the group also runs.

Overall, the open floor plan and wide windows of the 170-seat Shirlington space work well for both a restaurant and gallery. Still, while the art will offer a vibrant decor and atmosphere, food and drink remain the main draw.

“Palette is based on the street,” says Corporate Executive Chef Graham Duncan. “The basic concept of the menu is globally inspired street food.”

Duncan says standouts include a vegan ceviche with cauliflower ($6) and Peruvian-style fried octopus ($10). “Everything is shareable,” says Duncan. “Our thought is four pieces, four bites.”

For artists, the benefits of showing work at Palette mostly come down to gallery space. “There’s no stipend, but artists do get 80 percent of all artwork sales,” says Leepson. “I think that the work is priced really reasonably. I think it’s going to sell like crazy.”

Artist residencies will last 90 days, and the larger murals on the walls about a year. The hope, Leepson says, is that the art will evolve every time guests come in—as will the menu.

“Once we get a little bit more mature, and get to know ourselves here,” Duncan says, “the food will be influenced by art, and the art will get influenced by the food.”

Palette 22, 4053 Campbell Ave., Arlington, (703) 469-9007; palette22.com

Photos by Quinn Myers