Voices seem amplified when sight fails you. The feel of wood under the hand too becomes exaggerated, every grain rubbing against your fingertips. The subtle scents of a glass of red hit you hard in the sinuses. When your eyes aren’t seeing, your body sends out other feelers to try to identify the things around you.
I am in Dans Le Noir?, a restaurant where customers dine in complete darkness: an experience that simulates blindness, that facilitates the enjoyment of food on a different level to what most are used to and allows the more famous of diners to eat in peace (Kate Middleton and Prince William have dined here twice without any of the other guests realising).
The restaurant employs only blind and visually-impaired service staff. The manager delightfully tells us, before we enter the dark room, ‘you become the blind in the dark. Roles are reversed!’ He then continues to say ‘It is important to show that blind people can work. It does not need to be a handicap.’ Dans Le Noir? is a restaurant that seeks to raise awareness of a number of charities for the blind; the manager speaks with extreme, bubbling passion about this, bursting with his and the restaurant’s good deeds, stories of third-world-blind-aid and his plans to open new branches of Dans Le Noir? around the world.
After choosing our menus (I choose ‘blue’, a fish-based menu, but we are all kept in the dark regarding what our selections contain), we are guided through a dark curtain, which looks confusingly like either an entrance to an upper-class cinema or a nightclub, by our brilliant and friendly waiter for the evening, Carl. We eventually get to our seats after shuffling cautiously around other diners, trying not to grope anyone accidentally. Sitting opposite me is my partner, but I cannot see him; he is but a disembodied voice speaking out from a mad, chaotic Berio-esque symphony of other voices and noise. The first course arrives as we sit, clutching our wine with one hand and trying to find each other’s faces with the other. Before going tonight, we talked about thinking, perhaps, that our eyes would adjust, but, now we are here, we discover that they quite simply do not, no matter how much we squint.
I attempt to use my knife and fork, but end up using my hands as Carl suggests. My fingers slide around the sweet dressing of my starter, looking for sugar-snap peas and chunks of tuna. My napkin, tonight, is my best friend.
By the second course, we have gotten used to (but not adjusted to) the dark; I am now enjoying the primal, child-like hand-to-mouth technique of eating that I have employed. I am reminded a bit of being six and eating spaghetti with my hands, pretending to be a bird eating worms. I chirp away to my partner, my head stooped over my plate like a vulture: not exactly an attractive sight, I’m sure, but who’s watching?
Soon, a group a few metres away starts singing ‘happy birthday’ and the entire room joins in, loudly, cheering. The darkness brings a strange sense of excitement and confidence to guests; the room is drunk on the strange freedom the restaurant setting inspires and simulates.
The experience of dining in the dark is fascinating. The thick, velvety blackness turns out to be more impenetrable than we could ever have imagined. Relying on just my olfactory glands and taste buds to identify the food also proves harder than expected. However, I cannot blame my senses alone for this…
The food is, unfortunately substandard. My main, a strangely-selected assortment of fish which usually would never be seen on the same plate together, features an indescribably slimy, luke-warm portion of something quite unrecognisable. My starter, a chewy slab of tuna in sweet dressing with sugar snap peas, is room temperature; this probably is to prevent probing fingers from getting burnt, which makes sense perhaps, but the tepidness means that all flavours of the dish disappear almost completely. The desert is ok. Nothing special; two macaroons and a slice of lemon tart.
However, this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Dans Le Noir. The novelty factor is quite entertaining, fun and intriguing. It’s not every day that you are led, blind, by a blind waiter, to a table where you feast with strangers on mystery food. And, to be honest, I really got into the trying-to-work-out-what’s-what element of not knowing what I was eating, like a childish quiz-show contestant beaming at every correct answer.
Food, however, quite clearly, is not on the top of the list of priorities at Dans Le Noir?. Concept wins here, hands down. But, if you’ve got the money to spend, I’d recommend popping along one evening anyway, just for the novelty of the experience. You never know: you might end up dining with a princess, slobbering wine down your front and shovelling food into your mouth with your hands like an great overgrown baby.
For more information see www.danslenoir.com
words Claire Hazelton