I was bathed in complete darkness, running a quivering forefinger across the spongey, crinkled
surface of whatever had been placed before me. What could it be? My mind’s eye was churning out all the imaginable possibilities, different concoctions that I could recall from television. After all it was the only ‘eye’ useful to me in this scenario. I should have expected no less, after agreeing to relinquish my eyesight for an hour.
The Dans Le Noir restaurant can be found at 31 Clerkenwell Green, London. The darkened windows and entrance make it an oddity amongst the other restaurants, all wreathed in various colours and welcome signs. I stood outside and gazed at the poster splayed across the window of the restaurant next door of a burger being sliced in half. It was hemmed between two toasted buns and a fringe of melted cheese oozed into the meaty crater the blade was making. The comfort of seeing what I was about to put in my mouth was a feeling that would soon fade. I was about to perplex my pallet with the unknown, for Dans Le Noir is a sensory experience where guests eat their meals in the dark under the care of blind waiting staff.
Falling over in school plays was my speciality, never having to do much acting thanks to my clunky
size eleven feet. Needless to say I was anxious as I anchored myself to the fibres of Amann’s jumper (my waitress) and edged into the restaurant area, after choosing the surprise fish course and
dessert. Of course the big surprise could have been Amann leaving me there in the darkness waiting for my food until her shift ended; I’d have been an excellent victim for a prank at this moment. I grasped the reassuring skin of leather around my chair and sat down, clinging to each instruction Amann gave.
Though I may have been apprehensive, I was soon comforted by the strangers sitting next to me. A
young couple, Hannah and Tom, recently married after meeting at, of all places, the University of Portsmouth. It obviously gave us something to talk about. None of us were brave enough to reach out and pour the water Amann instructed us to try. We chuckled at how the situation in complete darkness had rendered us useless, wondering how we had any hope of abiding by any table manners at all. It was at that point I realised with euphoria that table manners were far from concern at Dans Le Noir.
Hannah or Tom could have been pulling faces or making rude hand gestures at me, I’d have smiled
back obliviously into the darkness. I made the most of this with a sumptuous lick of my plate after I’d finished eating. Groping for the curve of the fork and using it to spear whatever waited for you on your plate wasn’t a very graceful procedure. Twice I heard somebody accuse another of starting a food fight. As a student, it was a blessing to taste whatever seared fish crackled against my teeth and feel the fork pierce the dome of ice cream and pimples of syrup crowning my dessert. I later found out it was a cut of seared sea bream followed by Brulee tart.
“Without our sight, we were like children being taught to walk. The blind waiting staff that had mastered the senses that the rest of us often neglect. Those without sight are not always the vulnerable ones. Without the shoulder of Amann to guide me, I was like a helpless toddler staggering on its pudgy little legs.”
It may just be my student taste buds appreciating something that wasn’t a Pot Noodle, but the
dishes seemed to drench my mouth with more pleasant flavours than usual. The sense of taste had
taken over as my interpreter, making me pay attention to every detail it relayed back. It was also a pleasure to hear the blend of voices and accents from all walks of life around me, trying to give each voice a face.
As I bode my new friends goodbye, Amann leading me back to the entrance, I understood the lesson of Dans Le Noir. Without our sight, we were like children being taught to walk. The blind waiting staff that had mastered the senses that the rest of us often neglect. Those without sight are not always the vulnerable ones. Without the shoulder of Amann to guide me, I was like a helpless toddler staggering on its pudgy little legs. The sickly lights of London were a shock to my pupils after an hour of darkness as I felt more respect than ever for those that had never seen the
glimmer of the London eye or flecks of moonlight across the Thames. These people are connoisseurs of every sense, while we devour most of life through our sight.
I have a fondness for restaurants that offer more than the clinical procedure of ‘order, gobble and
go’. Kindred spirits to Dans Le Noir include the Safe House restaurant in Milwaukee, where guests
are required to give a secret password to proceed to their table. Amidst the CIA décor, they must
complete a series of challenges before they can be entrusted with their food, an unorthodox but
effective way of kindling an appetite. Another is the Thirsty Meeples café in Oxford, brimming with
five hundred different board games and offering a new game for diners to play with each course. As
long as diners don’t suffer with the same affliction as my family, where every game of monopoly
concludes with tantrums and boasting, it’s a refreshing way to enjoy a meal.
If I were to ask you how many meals you’d eaten in your life, you’d be hard pressed to remember
every dish consumed this week alone. However, the meals that stand out will be the ones that were
enjoyed during a memorable experience. A first dinner date in the darkness or a birthday tea with
CIA missions would be the experiences to cement lifelong memories in. We will eat a copious amount of food in our lifetimes. Let’s enjoy every morsel and throw ourselves headlong into the quirky gimmicks restaurants around the world offer us.
“Oh yes, but it’s all part of the experience.” Was the response my waitress Amann gave after asking
her whether she’d had anyone fall over before. Her casual tone when she told me this was the
cherry on top of a truly wonderful and unique experience. At least, I think it was a cherry. I couldn’t
see at the time.