I’ve never eaten with my eyes more widely open, or my tongue bizarrely protruding from my mouth for that matter. My birthday gift from my sister was dinner out at a restaurant of my choice. I gave her five suggestions, then happened to be watching a rerun of some crime show where the victim was killed in a blind dining restaurant. Metaphorical light bulb! One of those restaurants opened in Vancouver this past fall. Dark Table. Which led, a week later, to my sister’s boyfriend saying, “No, Mary, that’s my neck!”.
You start on the lighted, unheated porch that, in rainy Vancouver when your sister and her boyfriend have gotten stuck in traffic, is a bit chilly. But the porch is sheltered by trees and bushes closing it off from the sidewalk on 4th at Trafalgar, and there are lovely pine benches to sit on. The hostess gives you a menu and drinks list to look over. Once the whole party has arrived, you place your order. You have a choice of wine: a pinot grigio or some red — by the glass or bottle. You can also order a cocktail, juice, tea or coffee. The menu offers 2-course or 3-course prix fixe options. The $39 3-course comes with a surprise appetizer and dessert and your choice of 6 entrées, including a surprise option. We all chose the beef tenderloin with peppercorn sauce, medium rare, passing up the garlic prawns, rosemary and jalapeño ravioli, goat-cheese stuffed chicken or veal schnitzel. Once your order is placed, you wait for your server to come out to the porch to get you. The servers are all blind or visually impaired, which is part of the owner’s motivation for opening this restaurant, as well as the O.Noir restaurants he owns in Montreal and Toronto.
Our server, Violet, is a lovely 20-something-year-old. She speaks calmly and explains everything to us, about how there are no obstacles in the restaurant to navigate, like stairs, planters, narrow turns and how no one will jump out and try to scare us. I wonder to myself if her spiel changes based on the fears of previous diners. Like the instructions with electrical appliances that warn you not to sleep with a curling iron in your hair. Anyway, people jumping out to scare me hadn’t previously been on my mind, but of course now it is. Through the course of the meal I pump her for information and find out she is the only server on tonight and is covering approximately 15 people. She has to remember everyone’s names and where they are placed at each table in order for it all to work. She says she usually manages up to 20 people at a time. She didn’t once make a slip and was a very attentive, if silent on her approach, server. But back to the beginning.
Violet asks us to tell her when we’ve all entered the vestibule from outside. With the door shut behind us, it is pitch black. Completely. My eyes go all bushbaby:
We are taught to move around the restaurant in a chain, with our left hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us. I try to walk small as I can hear people talking at tables around us. When a guy says “Try to keep your legs tucked in” to his date I’m now concerned with tripping over people’s legs. We are brought to a standstill after walking 20 or so steps and told one by one to feel a chair in front of us. It is amazingly disorienting to have no sense of where you are in your physical space. My sister, Lisa, is beside me so I feel around till I touch her shoulder. She is close so we are at a small table. Her boyfriend, Peter, is across from me.
Violet describes the layout of the table and the simple rules. If we need anything at all, we are to yell “Violet!” loudly. We never do. Everything is so well organized, and, I have to admit, set up so that it is very easy for us. The breadbasket is held in front of us in turn and I take my slice of homemade, fresh, crusty French bread, as well as Peter’s. I hope he plans to pass on his wine too, but no luck. The basket is taken away, purportedly as they have a basket shortage but most certainly to avoid a train wreck by having extra items on the table. Drinks are handed to each of us in the air in front of us and once I locate Violet’s hand, I make sure I get a good grip on the glass before she lets go. It is amazing how much better I am at communicating when I’m afraid of a lapful of wine. We test ourselves by toasting and clinking our glasses across the table, and buttering the warm bread. I don’t have enough butter because half of it ends up on my knuckles.
Then comes the meal that I turn into a competition of who can guess the ingredients. Violet puts each plate down on the table in front of us while making a cute beeping sound like a truck backing up to give us a sense of when the plate has landed. I hold my water and wine away from the table during this procedure as instructed. This is the first time I’ve eaten an entire salad in a long time. If you can’t see it, all of a sudden the food is just gone. Maybe that’s the trick to eating healthy. Peter complains that his fork is getting to his mouth empty most of the time. I confess I don’t have that problem as I’m using a mix of my fork and the fingers of my right hand. So much easier to eat blueberries that way. Lisa smartly comments that if I were blind in a room full of sighted people, then using my fingers would probably not be acceptable. Good point. I try to behave with some dignity for the main course but find myself stabbing my vegetables and potatoes with my fork and taking bites off of the fork rather than cutting the food on my plate. I chase the food around looking for the tenderloin. It is supposedly cut into “bite-sized” pieces. Here, the technique is to bring the fork as close to your mouth as you can without rubbing peppercorn sauce into your face, then sticking out your tongue and waving it around until you hit the meat. (That’s what she said.) Pretty sure using my fingers would be more acceptable. In the course of my hunt for the steak, I capture an asparagus spear that is making a run for the plate’s border and has almost made it to freedom. The surprise dessert has chocolate in it which is all that really matters. It is another one that is there one minute and gone the next. After clicking my fork around the plate in a grid search pattern, my fingers roam every inch to ensure I’ve eaten it all. Also the best way to get all the mousse topping. The napkins are unfortunately small.
We decide we have to visit the washroom just to see how that works. Our table is at the farthest end of the restaurant so again we chain up with Violet leading the way. This time we have to weave our way a bit. It feels like we walk for ages but that could be due to the shuffling and me constantly stepping on Peter’s ankles. Once we get into a closed off vestibule, the bathrooms themselves are semi-lit. I’m perversely disappointed by how easy it is. Lisa reminds me that continuing the fully dark theme might present health code issues.
Back to the table and the dinner is over. I crawl under the table to find where I’ve kicked my purse. I stand up and at the ready to join the train to the door. I’m supposed to fall in behind Violet then Peter. Not being clear on how I’ll know they’ve walked by me, I stick out my hand and manage to catch Violet in the eye, the damage somewhat deflected by her glasses. She passes by and I poke Peter in the neck. He reminds me I’m supposed to be aiming for his shoulder. Lisa pays in the semi-lit vestibule and takes a few times to get the PIN right in the dimness. Then outside where the hostess tells us what we’ve eaten.
The whole experience is fun, interesting and enlightening (at least I didn’t go for eye-opening). The flavours come out clearly as do the textures. The conversation was also engaging as I found myself using names more often and judging response from the tone of the voice. I also found myself trying to exert some element of control: I kept a death grip on my water and wine glass and was especially careful to always put my cutlery in the same position. I also compulsively felt for the edges of my placemat and the table. The dining in the dark concept is meant as a learning experience and was originally started by a blind man in Switzerland who would blind-fold his guests so they could experience food with all their senses. I bet they used their fingers too.