We are eating at Dans Le Noir? restaurant. It is pitch dark. You have probably never experienced a dark so complete. It is so dark that you cannot see your hand inches from your face. It is so dark that sounds and voices impinge at you as in a dream. You try to imagine what the sounds look like. You try to imagine what the person you are speaking to looks like. But, you cannot. You strain and cock your head to pinpoint each sound. Soft spoken people are even harder to hear and you lean forward to focus on each sound, unable to rely on visual cues like eyebrows and lips to fill in missed words.
There are no cues to indicate the size of the dining room. I did not realize until over an hour into our meal that there was a wall behind me. Perhaps I sat very carefully, perched on my chair, anchored by its safe solidity. We were soothed with soft jazz and classical music.
A short time into our meal a new group arrived. They were speaking too loudly – as we sometimes do when speaking to a foreigner or to a blind person. Being in the dark, though, our table felt less inhibited about shushing the loud table. They immediately corrected themselves, suddenly aware that the room was full of people.
This is not a chef’s paradise – at least not for a chef trained in the importance of presentation to enhance the culinary experience. Here the chef must rely on other senses: texture, flavor, and aroma to provide a good culinary experience. It is a challenge. The meal is punctuated by the soft scraping sounds of cutlery as guests try to find and then scoop their food, and by the discussions and laughter of patrons that is magnified by the dark.
At Dans le Noir? patrons are seated at communal tables. You immediately form social impressions. Lisa , at 1 o’clock from me, facetiously declares herself tall, blond and thin. Jen, at 2 o’clock, her voice coming from somewhere closer to the table, laughs softly. Debra, to my right, heartily declares that she has placed her wine glass where it will not spill – but the wine is getting warmer. Lisa tells us how she loves to touch, declaring how soft my wife’s hair is and how dainty her hand. I later learned that Lisa was indeed stroking my wife’s hair and hand. Feeling safe, perhaps even bold, is part of the allure of this place.
We discuss the food and agree that while the food is appetizing that it is not the main event. We try to guess what we are eating (other than selecting Chef’s Special, Vegetarian, Fish, or Meat, the details of each meal are a mystery). I picked the Chef’s Special which that night was a Korean theme. Being familiar with Asian foods’ textures I correctly identified a few items. Other items are still a mystery! The other guests at our table felt very certain of some of the things they had eaten, interpreting flavors and textures from their experiences, sometimes disliking them at the table only to be pleasantly surprised when they learned later what they had actually eaten. You are given a food debriefing at the end of your stay.
The meal stretched on for two hours. By this time I was no longer missing my sight. I was staring out at invisible sounds. The reaction is to the thoughts and emotions of the surrounding people, not to photons. The conversation is lively. Even my normally quiet wife piped in with some amusing commentary. When our blind guide asked us if we were finished, it was almost disappointing. Despite the challenges, it was a warm social experience.
Members of our table said they would definitely return. I think I’d like to return too but only if I could sit at a table with returning patrons. I would like to re-experience Dans le Noir? not as a first-timer, which is a little like going to Paris for the first time, but like someone returning to take in the depth of the experience.
Everyone at our table thought this would be a great way to have a meet and greet – a true communal blind date event. Perhaps Dans le Noir? can establish a table for “singles.” To be stripped of sight is a little like being nude at a nudist colony. There is less to judge by – and yet the senses are heightened.
After dessert Marion, our guide, lead us as we came in, by forming a human chain with a left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front of you. My feet scraped against chairs and we passed through two sets of curtains before we emerged to the light. We were delighted to see, for the first time, our table-patrons. We hug in recognition of our shared experience and profusely thanked Marion to whom we had bonded as our protector during this potentially unnerving experience. We all knew each others’ names now – after all, in the dark you cannot rely on visual cues to compensate for not remembering names. I did have some trouble placing names with faces, though, since I had come to rely on voice cues and spatial relations to recognize my new friends.
We were back in our lit up world now, but Marion and other blind people still live in the dark.
There are five Dans le Noir? restaurants in the world. This one in New York City is the first that is outside of Europe. They are located at 246 West 38th Street. Their Web address is http://newyork.danslenoir.com/. Dans le Noir? is owned by Ethik Investment Group, founded in 2003 by Edouard de Broglie, with the goal of developing socially responsible innovative projects.