If you're ever considering eating a three-course meal in pitch darkness, a word of caution: choose your dining companion carefully. For even a usually restrained, well-behaved individual can morph into someone quite different when shut inside a black box for dinner for several hours, and when they think no one's watching.
It's a grim, cold Saturday night, and the venue is Dans Le Noir, London's first dining-in-the-dark destination, where dishes are consumed inside a sealed dark room, and where, no matter how much you strain, you can't make out so much as the outline of your napkin. Tonight, it's a surprise menu and communal tables.
In the lighted lobby, conspicuous signs instruct that diners must remain seated to avoid collisions, and that no sources of light are allowed: no lighters, cellphones, digital watches, nor cameras. My husband already looks anxious: No cellphone for three hours? Surreptitiously, he switches his phone to silent mode, and slips it in a pocket. Who's going to know? After all, he reminds me, the waiters are blind.
Blind waiters are what makes Dans Le Noir unique among dining-in-the-dark experiences across the globe. Edouard de Broglie, their founder, explains that he first heard of the concept through an organization for the blind that had been arranging "dark dining" events in Europe since the mid-1980s, to raise awareness on blindness.
Mr. de Broglie suggested it open a restaurant and offered to invest. In 2004, Dans Le Noir was launched in Paris to rave reviews. The London branch opened in March, and Moscow's opens this month.
"It's interesting and surreal," de Broglie says of the sheer novelty that attracts customers. "People wonder, 'What's that taste? Does it taste good? Do I enjoy this?' Our goal is to fill people with questions, as well as with dinner."
The atmosphere, he adds, "removes preconceptions about your dining companions. You talk to people you usually wouldn't, or experience people you already know in a different way. It's a very convivial and open-minded experience."
Moreover, it's awakening, giving a different perspective on disability, de Broglie says. "It's magic. You reverse everything. The blind become your eyes for a few hours. You might be used to helping blind people across the road, but you're not necessarily prepared for the blind to help you."
Our waiter is Roberto Rebecchi, who began losing his sight in 1989, and was registered as blind in 1993. With a background in the restaurant business, he was sure that he'd never work "on the floor" again. But when he heard that Dans Le Noir was setting up in London, he recalls, "I couldn't believe my eyes!"
With the evening's 60 diners assembled, names are called, and we form a line with our right hands placed on the shoulders of the diners in front. Then off we sashay through a heavy black curtain, along an increasingly dimly lit corridor, and into pure, unadulterated darkness. It's disorienting to be suddenly 100 percent sightless, and Mr. Rebecchi asks us to stand still. Each diner is deftly escorted to a seat. I giggle nervously as the shoulder to which I've been clinging dematerializes and I'm left stranded in limbo.
Rebecchi explains the geography of the table: "To your left you'll find the water glass. In the middle, one for wine. And to your right, an amuse bouche: chilled gazpacho soup in a glass."
I gingerly reach forward to locate the glasses. And, immediately, my dining companion commits Faux Pas No. 1: There's a soft clunk and the unpleasant sensation of something cold spreading across my leg. "Oops!" comes a familiar voice from the darkness. I mop gazpacho from my lap.
Thus, dinner is off to a flying start.
Without the reserve that seems to come with sight, my neighbor and I get right down to the essentials: Within five minutes, I find out that he is Tim, 30, a finance lawyer, and doesn't like opera or cats. He gingerly pours the water and passes the bread. Across the table, his wife, Rosie emerges, a voice from the dark – she was born in Oxford, is also a finance lawyer, is dining as a birthday surprise, and thinks gardening is a strange hobby. It just so happens that my husband is a lawyer, too, and soon all three are engrossed in patent agreements. Suddenly, I realize one extra benefit of the dark: I yawn, roll my eyes, and prop myself on one elbow. The legal department is none the wiser.
Rebecchi arrives with the first course, but this time he's not letting on what it is. Carefully, I feel for the edges of the plate, then move my fingers inward and feel something hot, squishy, and glutinous. I find a fork and dig in. A strong, sharp taste of pepper greets my tongue, along with something creamy. Risotto, I guess, and it's delicious.
Across the table comes Faux Pas No. 2. A crash. A squeak of chair legs. The sound of fumbling on the floor. "Roberto?" calls that same, familiar voice. "Roberto, I've lost my cutlery. Roberto?"
Dinner progresses. We move on to some sort of spicy grilled thing, with – a wild guess – broccoli tempura. In the dark, your sense of taste is heightened – everything tastes fantastic – but is less successful at liaising with your memory. The identities of certain meal components are, quite literally, on the tip of your tongue.
Conversation, too, takes on a different spin. Barriers are broken, but every small pause in dialogue becomes a gaping hole and supremely awkward. And, apparently, my companion has found that it's easy to get bored in the dark. Faux Pas No. 3: Singing to yourself. People may think you're slightly unhinged. Especially if it's a selection of Broadway show tunes.
Then, the greatest crime of all, Faux Pas No. 4: In that strange, unnatural darkness, blacker than any starless night, a bright white light, as stark and abrasive as a ship's distress flare, suddenly illuminates our corner of the room. Diners gasp. I cringe. My husband is checking his cellphone for text messages.
Within seconds, as if from nowhere, a new voice appears near my shoulder: "You're not just spoiling it for yourself, sir. You're spoiling it for everyone else."
But, as I ponder whether people blush in the dark (along the lines of whether trees falling alone in the forest make a noise), my husband takes it lightly. "I'm fed up," he confides, and I'm sure – though I can't tell – he shrugs nonchalantly. "I'm off to explore."
Faux Pas No. 5: With a rustle of shirt-sleeves, my usually tame, rule-abiding lawyer is gone. At least I think he is, from the bumps, shuffles, and exclamations that seem to follow his progress. I'm left alone with Tim and Rosie to savor what's probably a delicious apple strudel.
It's then, with the heightened sense of hearing that seems to develop in the dark, that I start to hear the same thing happening all across the room: minor rebellions, small infractions. British people, despite their reserve and love of protocol, are breaking the rules. Instead of succumbing to the feeling of helplessness brought on by a plunge into darkness, they're rebelling, asserting their independence.
And showing their own independence, the ultraprofessional waiters of Dans Le Noir are boldly, competently handling the crowd, along with swiftly serving up a piping hot three-course meal. For them, blindness is all in a day's work.
After dinner, we sip coffee in a dim room as our sight readjusts. Thankfully, my husband is back to his usual, well-behaved self, though he confides that during dinner he tasted the wine – to distinguish white from red – straight from the bottle.
Soon, the waiters join us in the lounge. "It's really interesting" to bring people out from the dark after dinner," says Rebecchi. "There's always a sigh of relief; they're glad to be able to see again. It makes them realize just how lucky they are." He grins, "And then they really see the light."