Here’s a picture from a recent dinner out in London:
All right, it’s actually just a screenshot of a black rectangle, but that’s what our dinner looked like. We went to Dans le Noir, in Clerkenwell (yet another part of London I had never been to before), where the concept is this: You dine in total darkness, and are served by blind waiters.
It’s a unique (maybe somewhat shticky) culinary experience that supposedly opens up your sense of taste, as well as gives you a glimpse (or quite the opposite, rather), of what it’s like to be blind. M and I went with our friends Evan and Boyd, who are Americans we met over here.
We first sat in the reception room of the restaurant, in dim lighting, and were shown the menu options: meat, pescatarian, vegetarian, or vegan. From among those, we then chose how many courses we wanted, and if we wanted wine paired with our choices. After that, it’s all a surprise. M and Boyd went with the fish option, Evan with the meat, and I went vegetarian.
After stowing all our personal items in lockers—no phones or watches were allowed, as they could emit light—we were led down a dim corridor and introduced to our blind server, who guided us through a couple sets of thick velvet curtains. We were instructed to put our right hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us, and follow him in a line.
Then we were plunged into darkness. And I mean complete darkness, not the tiniest pinpoint of light anywhere. We are talking pitch-black blindness.
It made me realize how you are never really in complete darkness, there’s always some light coming from something—an emergency exit sign, a tiny red dot from a smoke detector, two flashing green dots from the underside of someone’s heart rate monitor smart watch—which lit up like a beacon on M’s wrist and he had to immediately remove it and put it in his pocket.
It was obviously disconcerting to suddenly not be able to see. I actually felt a bit like a panic attack might be coming on when we first entered (which probably does happen there sometimes). I felt completely turned around, especially after the waiter broke our group in half. Our waiter first led M and Boyd to one side of a communal table, and then came back for Evan and me, and led us to the other side, to be seated across from our husbands. I was super relieved when, after a few minutes of adjusting, I discovered that on my right side was a wall, not a stranger to be bumping into all night. Or spill my drink on.
It turned out we all had different concerns about the evening. I was mostly worried about being seated at a communal table with strangers I couldn’t see and trying to carry on a conversation than I was about biting into mystery food. When I told E about what I was going to do that night when I left her with a babysitter, she was immediately concerned I would accidentally use the sink instead of the toilet when I had to go to the bathroom, and when I went to flush that I would turn on the tap and get all wet. M was afraid he’d fall asleep. Or worse, inadvertently leave some food on his plate.
On the bright side, no one would see us if we ate too much and unbuttoned our pants. Or if M wanted to lick his dessert plate (he always wants to, but refrains in public, thank goodness).
Our waiter explained to us what was on the table in front of us: a plate, a fork and knife, a napkin, a glass, and a bottle of water. He said that pouring our own water is part of the experience. So once he left us, our challenge was to attempt that.
“Anyone else putting their finger in their glass to be able to tell when the water is getting near the rim?” someone asked. I hadn’t thought of that, but I also had not washed my hands after taking the Tube there, so here’s my tip to anyone who attempts this dine in the dark adventure: wash your hands first. Especially since, while I was trying to remain a lady and use my fork and knife, the Neanderthals I was dining with admitted partway through our meal to eating with their hands.
We settled in and enjoyed the conversation like at any dinner with friends, making jokes about dining in the nude, and the wall perhaps being a one-way mirror, and the concept restaurant on the other side is people wearing night-vision goggles who want to watch non-blind people attempt to eat in blindness.
Once our starters and wine arrived, we began playing the guessing game of what we were eating. I had some sort of pea-and-mint puree with beans in it; Evan had what he thought might be brisket, and M and Boyd had a scallops and prawns dish. I had no idea what kind of wine I was drinking except that it was white.
Our mains arrived, and I was pleased to discover mine was cauliflower with pomegranate and crispy parsnip chips, not mushrooms with more mushrooms.
Honestly, the food didn’t taste any better without sight; I don’t feel like losing one sense heightened the others in any way, at least not in that short amount of time. It was hard to not be able to see what you’re eating because you don’t know what parts of the plate you should be mixing together into each bite, and so on.
We also had a dessert course; all three of the guys had some kind of cheesecake, and mine was a warm chocolate thing with sorbet. As soon as my plate was handed to me, I could feel the warm and the cold on one plate.
The whole meal went pretty quickly, as we weren’t hankering to linger at the table over a coffee or anything at the end. I think we were all fairly eager to get our sense of sight back. I felt a bit relieved when our waiter came to lead us back out of the dark dining room.
Afterwards, we were led upstairs to the bar, and shown the detailed menus of what we ate, which also included photos of the plated dishes. So there was a lot of exclaiming, “I thought that’s what that was!” and “Wow, really?” and so forth. (Evan’s brisket turned out to be pork belly; the mystery beans in my starter were edamame.)
The bar upstairs is a silent bar, where you can put on headphones and listen to music and not talk to each other while you have your drink, like a silent disco minus the dancing. We decided we’d rather talk, so we went to a nearby pub for a drink instead.
It was an interesting dining experience, but I think it’s a one-time-only type of place. I don’t think any of us will be going back next month and choosing a different menu this time. But it does open your eyes (sorry for the bad pun) to what it’s like to be blind, however briefly. And we’re lucky. We could go back to seeing after an hour and a half. Plus, everyone else there couldn’t see either, so it’s not like everyone around us is watching us try to pour water and miss and spill on ourselves, or get food all over ourselves, or eat with our hands (again, such classy people I dine with).
And fortunately, I was able to report to E the next morning, there were lights in the loo.