James Newman surrenders his vision to paint a picture of dining in the dark…
As any good magazine editor knows – pictures make articles. So, trotting off to an experience that takes place in the pitch black did not make a great deal of sense. However, we were prepared to overthrow logic and prudence in order to find out what it was like to have dinner in the dark.
Dans Le Noir ? has restaurants around the world and the concept is simple; you eat in total darkness served by people with visual impairments. As concepts go, that is a good one and it leads to many questions. Can you see at all? (No) How do you not spill things? (Sometimes you do) Is it terrifying? (At first, yes).
London’s Clerkenwell branch hosted my new wife and me to celebrate my birthday. It was a little disconcerting after only two months of marriage that my wife chose to spend my birthday in a place she did not have to look at me, but this might be the secret to longevity.
After entering the waiting area, staff asked us to put all phones, watches and any other paraphernalia that emit light, into the provided lockers. You are given a menu, which isn’t really a menu at all, as part of the experience is that you don’t know what you are going to eat – you have to try and guess. You can choose from a two or three course serving of either the fish, meat or vegetarian menu. Don’t worry – if there are any allergies or ‘no-no’ foods, they can cater for it.
Soon after drinks arrived it was our turn to go in. We were led up a gloomy corridor where we were met by our amazing waitress, ‘Courtney’. My wife was instructed to stand behind Courtney and to place her right hand on her shoulder, then I was asked to do the same to my wife. From there we proceeded forward like an anxious conga line; through one curtain into to darkness, through a second curtain into total darkness, then through a third curtain into a room darker than Katie Hopkins’s soul.
We shuffled timorously under Courtney’s lead as she guided each of us to our seats. We carefully placed our drinks down and were instructed to pour our own water. ‘Great,’ we thought. However, by putting our finger in the glass whilst pouring, we both managed to keep the liquid where it should be.
I am used to my eyes gradually adjusting to the dark, beginning to see vague outlines. This wasn’t the case in Dans Le Noir ? There was no adjusting. I held my hand up to my face and still could not see it.
After getting used to the surroundings with lots of ham-fisted feeling around, the starter arrived. In the absence of sight, we hoped our other senses would take over. Now, I can't give the dishes away - as you might get the same and I won't ruin the surprise. However, we both smelt a sweet and sour type dish which I thought pork, my wife thought duck. We found out at the end (where they give the big reveal) that we both had the meat wrong and it was not a sweet and sour dish. We did pick out some of the elements – a bit of bacon - but not much.
Before the main arrived, two new guests were bought to our table. Knowing that nobody could see anybody else somehow broke down the social barriers. We got chatting quickly and didn’t stop until the meal was over. Much like the food, we were left to guess what they looked like. I guessed she was a larger brunette lady and that he was tall and clean-cut. On escaping, I found she was thin and blonde and he was regular height and tattooed. Oh well.
When the main came, we were pretty convinced we were eating chicken or pork (wrong again). The dessert did not disappoint. It seemed our sweet taste buds were more tuned than our savoury ones (go figure) and we correctly picked out a creamy tart with a nice fruity sorbet.
On returning to the brightness of the other side of the curtains, one could not help leaving with two impressions. Firstly, how the absence of one sense interferes with your perceptions of other senses (e.g. taste) and secondly, how being in the dark seemed to write a new social code, one where each of us had an equal standing without the pressures of how we look to others.
Without question, it was the most enlightened black-out one could hope for.
Dans Le Noir ? has branches around the world. The London branch can be found at 30-31 Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0DU. Visit their website for more information and to book.