Recently I had the chance to participate in a meal unlike any other in my life: dinner in Dans le Noir, where mystery food is delivered by blind people and eaten in pitch black darkness.
It was absolutely phenomenal, and I can’t stop thinking about the experience.
It starts off simply enough: you enter the lounge, chat with the bartender and host, and are handed a menu. It gets increasingly unusual (for a sighted person, anyway) from there.
The “menu” really only has four options: white, blue, red, and green. The colors represent general categories of food, but you’re not told what the specific food is until after the meal is over.
The “blue” plate is fish and seafood. The “red” plate is meat. The “green” plate is vegetarian. And the “white” plate is a complete surprise, the chef’s choice. Whatever your selection, you will have an appetizer and entree of the appropriate category.
Before lining up for dinner, you are given the opportunity to put your belongings in a locker. You’re not allowed any light in the dining room — if you’re caught with a flashlight, cellphone, or even digital watch illuminating the room, you’ll be asked to leave. (Yes, there is an employee watching the room via infrared camera for “safety”, which probably mostly consists of laughing at diners dropping things in the dark.)
To enter the dining room, you’re lined up in two rows and your blind server is introduced. The host gives him the name of people in each designated place in the two lines (“Joe is Alpha One, Mary is Alpha Two” etc.) and the server leads you in.
The entry involves a bit of shuffling through a dark hallway around a corner, and almost immediately you stumble into complete darkness. And I do mean complete darkness — it was so immediate and disconcerting that several people in line ahead of me started giggling (shrieking, really) nervously and freaking out a bit.
The server guides you one by one to your designated chair, one hand on your shoulder and the other loudly patting your seat to help you find your place. One everyone is seated, the instructions begin.
Your fork is in front of you at ten o’clock. Your knife is in front of you at two o’clock. Your appetizer will be dropped in at midnight shortly. You’re given directions for how to eat in the dark, using your index finger to find food and to assist with using your utensils. You’re also told how to use your water glass, and indeed, how to pour your own water in total darkness. It takes a little bravery and some practice, that’s for sure.
I was surprised at how difficult it was to identify my food. I’d decided to go for the full experience and do the “white” chef’s choice plate, and thus didn’t have much of a clue about what I was eating. It was tasty, though the texture really made it hard to figure out. (I’m happy to tell you privately what it was, if you’re curious.)
Even more surprising was how immediately we all started to learn each others’ voices. Within a few sentences, we were pros at identifying who was speaking, and even mentally visualizing (if that’s the right word in this instance) where everyone was around the table. It started to feel almost natural.
Our server was terrific — he was funny, blunt, cheerful, and had some great stories. He was impressively indulgent towards one guest at our table who kept asking ridiculously invasive and rude questions about his blindness, and making ignorant statements to the table at large. (She actually said, as if imparting great wisdom unto us, “Just because they lose their sight doesn’t mean they lose their personality…” I resisted to ask her how she lost hers.)
Ultimately, the food was good, the service was engaging, and the experience was amazing. I won’t be so crass as to think (much less write) that I now know what it’s like to eat and drink as someone who is visually impaired, but I can confidently say that it made me rethink my privilege and challenge my comfort zone, if only for a short while.
I can’t recommend Dans le Noir enough. It’s pricey — dinner and a glass one wine will cost about $100 including tax and tip — but it’s absolutely worth it for an unforgettable experience.