in the dark
On an unassuming street in the 4th arrondissement, a stone’s
throw from the Georges Pompidou Center, there’s a restaurant
no guest has ever seen. During lunch, dinner, the crowded dining
room is as dark as a coal mine. Diners can’t see their waiters,
meals, or each other. The restaurant is so dark, in fact, you may
as well eat with your eyes shut.
Welcome to Dans le Noir.
Since opening in Paris in 2004, Dans le Noir (In the Dark) has served
more than 100,000 customers in absolute darkness. Meals are prepared
by sighted cooks in a lighted kitchen. Drinks are concocted by a
sighted bartender in a lighted bar. But the waiters work in darkness.
All of them are legally blind.
At the lighted entrance to the dining room, a hostess introduced
me to Véronique, a sightless French waitress. Véronique
took Gilles, my dining buddy, by the hand. As instructed, I placed
my hand on his shoulder. We stumbled into the darkness, the blind
leading the temporarily blinded.
Having memorized the location of every chair, every table and passageway
in the 58-seat restaurant, Véronique, had become our eyes.
Dark dining is the brainchild of blind clergyman Jürg Spielmann
and visually-impaired psychologist Stephan Zappa. The culinary visionaries
met at a “Dialogue in the Dark” exhibition at the Museum
of Design in Zurich, Switzerland. Together with blind social worker
Andrea Blaser and blind singer Thomas Moser, they opened Blindekuh
(Blind Man’s Bluff) in September, 1999.
The Zurich restaurant employed the world’s first visually-impaired
wait staff and gave sighted diners a glimpse of life in a sightless
word. Blindekuh also awakened the senses.
Deprived of sight, our remaining senses are heightened. Aromas become
more potent. The sense of taste is more acute. Food textures are
scrutinized. Immersed in total darkness, even the sound of chewing
can be provocative.
The success of world’s first dark dining restaurant led to
the 2002 opening of a second Blindekuh in Basel, Switzerland. The
concept has since been copied and is spreading worldwide.
At Unsicht-Bar (Invisible Bar), a trendy German eatery with locations
in Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin, blind and visually impaired waiters
serve tasty 4-course meals. The Berlin location faces stiff competition
from cross-town rival Nocti Vagus, where in-the-dark musical performances
(Darktheater) and tofu nut steak are all the rage.
At O. Noir, a dark-dining restaurant in Montreal, a percentage of
the profits go to organizations serving the visually impaired. In
addition to Paris, Dans le Noir has restaurants in London and Moscow.
In January, 2007, Whale Inside, opened its first dark dining restaurant
in Beijing. Franchises have since popped up in Shanghai, Guangzhou,
Dalian and Hangzhou in mainland China. By late 2009, the company
plans to have opened 15 additional restaurants in Hong Kong, Tokyo,
Seoul, Singapore and other Asian cities.
Whale Inside does not employ blind waiters. Instead, diners are served
in total darkness by waiters wearing military-grade night-vision
At Dans le Noir in Paris, trance music oozed from unseen speakers
in the cave-dark dining room. I heard giggles in the distance. Someone
touched my arm. “Monsieur, Monsieur?” It was Véronique.
She led me and Gilles to a table and guided us to our seats.
To maintain absolute obscurity, cell phones, cigarette lighters,
luminous wristwatches—anything capable of emitting light—had
been confiscated by the staff and stored in lockers outside the dining
room. Guests are forbidden to move without the assistance of a waiter
(you couldn’t walk alone if you wanted to).
Pouring wine proved to be a difficult task. Following Véronique's
instructions, I found my glass and held it so that the tip of my
index finger dangled inside. Groping in the darkness, I latched onto
the carafe of wine and poured until my finger felt wet.
I’d pre-ordered the “surprise” and therefore had
no idea what to expect when Véronique placed my first course
on the table. I found my fork and probed the plate with it. Unable
to discern the contents, I used my fingers (hey, nobody could see).
I felt a cluster of spongy, cube-like morsels and plopped one in
my mouth. The warm, fleshy fare melted in my mouth. It tasted like—and
turned out to be— grilled scallops.
The main course of roasted veal medallions, stuffed ravioli and steamed
vegetables might have been forgettable had I been able to see the
food. However, eating in the dark turned an average meal into a sensual
le Noir (In the Dark): www.danslenoir.com
Paris: 51 Rue Quincampoix; 011 (33 1) 4277-9804
London: 30-31 Clerkenwell Green; 011 (44 207)
Moscow: 2/4 Oktiabrskaya St., 011 (7 495) 688-3396
Blindekuh (Blind Man’s Bluff) www.blindekuh.ch
Zurich: 148 Mühlebachstrasse; 011 (41 44)
Basel: Switzerland: 192 Dornacherstrasse; 011(41
Unsicht-Bar (Invisible Bar) www.unsicht-bar.com
Berlin: 14 Gormannstrasse; 011 (49 30) 2434-2500
Hamburg: 36 Kleiner Schäferkamp; 011 (49
Cologne: 5/7 Im Stavenhof; 011 (49 221) 200-5910
Nocti Vagus: www.noctivagus.com
Berlin: 36-38 Saarbrücker Strasse; 011 (49
O. Noir: www.onoir.com
Montreal: 1631 Ste-Catherine St. West; (514) 937-9727
Whale Inside: www.whaleinside.com (Mandarin Chinese only)
Beijing: 39 Dongsanhaun Central Road, 3rd floor;
011 (86 10) 5869-4235