It was my sister’s 27th birthday this week, and with the way that plans panned out, she ended up with an entire week of celebrations. My family always celebrate birthdays with a family dinner that everyone attends, but my father was off scuba diving in Hawaii this week. So we went as a family a week early to a restaurant in Vancouver called Dark Table.
This was no ordinary restaurant – this was a concept called dark or blind dining. Have you heard of this before? It was a fascinating and unique experience. You’ll notice the graphics on the wall behind us have Braille lettering. You eat in pitch blackness and it simulates blindness for the course of your meal. You read the menu and order your meal before even entering the restaurant, because once you’re inside there is no reading taking place. You can’t see ANYTHING.
Our “guide-server” Rose was blind (as are all the servers), and she told us that working in this environment was the first time since losing her sight that she felt in control of her surroundings. When we entered the restaurant, we were taken into a vestibule. The door to the outside and the door from the vestibule into the restaurant were never opened at the same time, thus keeping out all light in the dining area. Once the door to the outside shut, we were instructed to form a “conga line” by placing our left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front of us. The first person in line placed their hand on Rose’s shoulder, and then Rose led us into the darkness and to our table.
I’ve never been anywhere so dark in my life. I had my eyes open the whole time and all I could see was utter blackness. No electronic devices were allowed inside, so there was not even any illumination from cell phone screens. My dad even had a watch face that glowed in the darkness and he had to take it off! The purpose of all this, of course, is to eliminate vision and learn to use your other senses in a safe environment. Of course, it’s something truly special to do this for an experience as sensory as eating.
When our drinks arrived, we were instructed to place our glass in the right corner just above our plate at our place setting. Afterwards it was always easy to find our glasses by touch alone. When the bread basket arrived, we could smell it coming from two long table lengths away, and it was divine. And then came our first real challenge: we had to butter our bread without seeing what we were doing. It was… messy. But we managed!
When our appetizers and entrees arrived, we were ready for a really interesting experience. My brother (later) tweeted a pic of his meal:
ISN’T HE HILARIOUS? Ha. The appetizer was a spinach salad with goat cheese, strawberries and other goodies. It was interesting to take bites of salad and try to identify what components you were tasting and feeling in your mouth. I figured out strawberries by texture before I identified the flavour! The entrees were all simple dishes, designed to make it possible to identify the flavours without seeing your food. The chefs did a great job of anticipating diner’s needs; for example, they had de-tailed my garlic prawns so I didn’t need to fiddle with them in the dark. They had sliced the chicken orders into smaller pieces so that diners wouldn’t be spearing an entire chicken breast into their mouths with their fork!
Despite these measures, it was pretty funny… we all had some success and learned to use our cutlery passably without seeing what we were doing, but all of us ended up hunching over close to our plates and scooping the food into our mouths to minimize dropping food in our laps! Most of us also found that we accidentally knocked some bits of our food onto our place mats, and my sister even used her fingers to pick food up off the plate after awhile. (Why not? Nobody could see her terrible manners!)
The experience was eye-opening (pardon the pun!) We had the most delicious meal of our lives… not necessarily because it was the most delicious that had ever been cooked (although the food was very tasty!) but because we’d never paid so much attention to the smell and taste. We had fun playing a Would You Rather game of choosing between losing one of two senses. It gave me new respect for what those who don’t have the benefit of vision go through every day of their lives. We felt utterly at the mercy of Rose, and it’s lucky she was so lovely and trustworthy! I also was a little shocked to discover how heavily I rely on watching people’s lips move to understand what they’re saying when they’re speaking to me. (I am not deaf! I definitely don’t have the best hearing in the world, but I didn’t realize I did so much lip-reading to filter out distracting background noise)
If you have a dark dining restaurant in your area, I strongly encourage everyone to try this experience. It’s a very unique, memorable and fun way to enjoy a meal.