It hadn’t been on my bucket list, but the minute I heard about the not-so-new experience of dining in total darkness, I bumped it up to a priority position.
I emailed a friend and fellow foodie (let’s call her Deena) who I knew would relish such a multisensory experience, and we made a date to dine in the dark last Friday. That afternoon I emailed her again to confirm our meeting time and added as an afterthought, “I guess it’s moot to ask what you’re wearing.”
To be clear: “Dining in the dark” isn’t a metaphor or an approximation. This experience is exactly what it sounds like. Patrons come to a restaurant, make a general menu selection (eg., meat, fish, veg, chef’s choice — or in other countries, Thai or Western) and note any dietary restrictions. After that, everything else will be a total surprise. And in a completely lightless space, they sit in close quarters and enter an entirely different world, where in the absence of sight, the other senses, and sensations, become wildly exaggerated.
A Brief History of Dining in the Dark
The roots of this “movement” date to 1993 and a French exhibition called “Dialogue in the Dark,” whose goal, in shorthand, was to bring more awareness to the challenges of the 600 million disabled people in the world (many of them blind). This led to the creation of the first totally dark restaurant, Blinde Kuh (Blind Man's Bluff), in Zurich in 1999, which employed a blind wait staff.
Today there is a growing number of dark-dining establishments in Europe, Asia and a few U.S. cities (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Dallas). And while it’s nearly impossible not to have some “deep thoughts” during and after the experience, most Americans I’ve talked to who had done it tended to focus on the culinary and sensory aspects.
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In the Dark, Everyone Can Hear You Whisper
Disclaimer: I’m not comfortable eating with my hands when I’m in countries like India and Morocco, where it’s not only socially acceptable, but where cutlery is the oddity. Yet last Friday, in the dark, with foods I could barely identify — let alone locate — it was more of a necessity than a deliberate choice. (I’m jumping ahead, but it was a blast.)
So 15 minutes before our 8 p.m. seating (there are two per evening), Deena and I arrived at the rather nondescript restaurant Dans le Noir in a very nondescript Manhattan neighborhood. After filling out paperwork that included a “we won’t sue” waiver (think knives in the dark), we were given a short orientation session. We could order a specific glass of wine or a cocktail from the menu or request a mystery drink. Once we left the bar area, we’d be escorted into a room without light. Our server, Sam, was blind. We should keep our noise levels down. (That didn’t happen.) And afterward, when we paid our bill ($69 per person plus tax and tip), we would get a chance to discuss the food and view the menu.
At the appointed hour, some 18 of us, from the early 20s to mid-60s, were organized into two lines, facing our dinner companions, as if we were about to dance the Virginia Reel. Then we were instructed to pivot left, place our left hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us, and follow Sam in a double-file conga line into the dining room. As we passed a thick velvet curtain and turned some corners, from dimness to total darkness, though not instructed to do so, we all reflexively commented to the hand on our shoulder: “curtain,” “wall to left,” etc.
Once we were seated, Sam gave us the lay of the land — knife at 3 o'clock, fork at 9, spoon at 12, and water glass above knife — as well as instructions for, yikes, pouring our own water (which involved an index finger as a marker). Then a basket was passed, obviously some kind of bread: yeasty dough, not too salty, crunchy crust, but what was that taste? So familiar. It took far more bites than you’d believe to identify… poppy seeds! I told Deena, and she was surprised.
As we waited for our food, our neighbors grew chatty. To Deena’s right, a middle-aged woman clearly a little uncomfortable in the dark (or maybe she’s always that chatty?), blurted, “OMG, my bra’s too tight.” The younger folks at the far end of the table were so loud I could barely hear Deena, three feet away.
Then the meals arrived. I had chosen the “green,” or all-veg plan; Deena went for the full-on adventurous white, or chef’s choice, which could literally be anything. When the appetizer plates came, we slowly felt and touched and chewed, trying to make sense of the riot of flavors. But the woman to Deena’s left beat us to the punch and loudly announced what she was tasting. Maybe she was trying to be helpful, but it came off as obnoxious and annoying, like she was on Jeopardy and trying to be the first one to hit the buzzer.
Slowly I chewed — and was surprised to realize that I was closing my eyes. I’m no super-taster, but I am usually fairly decent at deconstructing flavors. Still, this was wild and more than a little frustrating. I know that taste: eggplant? zucchini? There’s definitely some kind of creamy, cheesy tomato sauce. Noodles? Some kind of green. And over here, hmm: one of those “weird” vegetables like celeriac. Oh, tomato! And, aha! that for sure is a grape.
Deena, on the other hand, was stumped. What she was sure was broccoli, Lady on the Left confidently proclaimed as “crabcakes.” Deena guessed that one meat in the dish was chicken, and maybe there was some lamb…?
The entrée wasn’t any easier. We all had one item in common, which I knew I knew but couldn’t quite (and you should pardon the expression) put my finger on. Chewy, mushroomy … then Annoying Lady informs us all: wild-mushroom risotto. Thanks for ruining the fun!
The asparagus and haricots verts (French green beans) were obvious, and over to the side, I again ate what I could swear was eggplant and/or zucchini. Funnily, we were so busy playing the guessing game (and avoiding the self-infliction of wounds) that no one actually discussed whether they liked the food.
Dessert was composed of many small bites: cold, creamy, fatty, fruity, tasty. While chewing the bready/cakey thing and trying to determine its main ingredient, you-know-who announced to the table that it was banana nut cake. Also on the plate, some kind of creamy gloppy thing, berries, and a brownie. But what’s this: pineapple?
The Big Reveal
It didn’t seem like 90 minutes had gone by, but they had, and before the annoying one had the chance to identify every single berry on our plates, we were instructed to stand and conga-line it back outside. Light hitting the retina was intense and made for a strange re-entry. We took a seat in the lounge area and opened the menus to see what we’d actually eaten.
“Did I really eat goat, deer and duck liver?!!” Deena exclaimed. “So that ‘chicken’ must have been the goat, and the ‘lamb’ was venison. Wow.”
She also learned, to her slight horror, that she’d eaten Veal Osso Buco and foie gras. Her risotto was asparagus, and the “brownie” was actually a blondie. And I learned a new recipe, Vincisgrassi (see video below), which I’m planning to surprise some dinner guests with next time I prepare an Italian-themed dinner.
Sharing our impressions, we agreed it was fascinating, and we were both glad we did it. But we wished we could have controlled the situation a bit — didn’t need to see anything, but it would’ve been nice to not have been, as Deena put it, “held hostage” by noisy, needy, chatty, competitive dining companions.
For me, the positive takeaway was being forced to slow down and really focus my attention on what I was eating. Too often we eat mindlessly, and with that habit comes not only the tendency to overeat or indulge in unhealthy foods, but — worse, I think — to disconnect from the source of our sustenance. Being connected to what we eat (and then, to everything we do) is part of becoming aware, conscious and, God help us, enlightened.
The other thing, the obvious one, is the eye-opening recognition of how blind people live 24/7, which can’t help but lead to an appreciation of the ineffably awesome gift of sight.