by Madalyn Friedrich
Imagine sitting in a pitch-dark restaurant with nothing but touch, smell, sound and taste to guide you. This may seem like an unthinkable challenge, but it’s a real trend called “dark dining”. The phenomenon first appeared in Zurich, Switzerland in 1999, and later spread around Europe. Eventually, restaurants popped up in America, such as The Blind Café.
Unique to other restaurants, The Blind Café is a traveling restaurant that adds a live concert and a Q&A session with its blind staff. It is “an award winning community awareness concert, discussion and sensory tasting” event visiting Austin this winter. Other locations on the route include San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Boulder.
The Blind Café
For only three weekends out of the year, The Blind Café graces its visiting location and I was fortunate enough to catch it in San Francisco. With an open mind and a little convincing, this adventure brought better understanding of the visually impaired and a new appreciation for taste.
Upon check in, my date and I are greeted and asked to linger in the lounge area until everyone is escorted in the dark room. I’m a little apprehensive about feeling my way through dinner, but in the meantime, I pacify my anxiety with a free glass of wine and distracted by the garlic almonds, cardamom cashews and spicy pecans.
I take this opportunity to view (and memorize) the five-course menu before I enter the dark and put my taste buds to the test. When it’s time to dine, everyone lines up and we place our hands on each other’s shoulders to be led into the dining room. I am comforted knowing we are in good hands as a blind staff member heads the line, effortlessly directing us through the dinning room’s draped doorway—a visible tactic that creates the void—towards our table. Once seated, I quickly feel around and ignore table etiquette (not required here!) in order to create a mental map for myself.
I fumble around, reaching to feel all five plates in front of me. The dark is so black I can’t even see a hand in front of my face. There’s no difference whether I keep my eyes open or closed.
Thanks to the chefs, place settings include bottled water and dishes prepared in the style of finger food—I suppose to eliminate hazardous pointy objects. The smells of curry and mushrooms taunt me to start tasting.
Notable chefs from the visiting area prepare the top-notch menus. The chef tonight is Bay Area’s Chef Jamie from Chelfer.com who delivers a vegetarian meal. With the help from my menu study session in the lounge, the dinner begins with a cucumber wedge crafted into a shot glass and filled with cucumber gazpacho. After sipping the cool soup, I rather enjoy munching on the cold, crisp shot glass. The second starter is a lettuce cup, spread with zesty pesto and lined with sweet cherry tomatoes.
The next three courses continue with a fried tofu square that sits on top of a creamy pumpkin sauce. As I feel my way to the next plate, a crusted ball of rice is placed on a sweet and tangy coconut curry sauce. The last plate presents a pot-sticker-like dumpling filled with mushrooms and a tomato-based, vegetable ragout spooned under it. I can only imagine the plates’ presentations because this is left for all dinners to wonder—in the dark.
The most memorable part of the night is the open communication between the blind staff and guests. The Q&A session begins with introductions from the wait staff who encourage us to shout out our names and table numbers in order to be called on. At first, there is hesitation on asking questions, but soon enough the receptive staff makes everyone feel comfortable to ask questions. Perhaps others realize, like myself, it’s easier to ask questions in the dark. I take a look around me and all I see is darkness. No one can see me. I’m invincible. I ask my question with ease and no fear.
When the concert begins, a singer/guitarist breaks into melody, accompanied by a violinist and cellist. The music is calming and the singer welcomes us to listen silently in the dark space, “appreciating music in its purest form”. I become aware of the vibrations of the instruments, lyrics of the songs and voice of the singer. By now, the darkness is less noticeable and my other four senses take over.
A candle is lit at the end of the performance and the warm glow illuminates the room. Now we all can see our neighbors, the room setup and our messy plates—a surprising scene that I painted differently in my mind.
Although the darkness became more familiar, I am more than happy to welcome my sight back. As I walk out to my car, I am left feeling a little more connected with my body and renewed with a different perspective.