* Spoiler Alert: If you’ve considered dining in the dark but don’t want the details – stop reading! *
Last fall we had the opportunity to eat at the restaurant ONoir while in Toronto. The premise is that diners will enjoy an entire meal in absolute darkness, served by a wait staff that is legally blind. I admit that is a foodie my primary motivation was to see if I could truly taste better, or differently, if I wasn’t able to see my food. I am a big believer in presentation so this is particularly intriguing for me. The experience ended up being much more than simply turning off one of my senses to embolden another. I won’t give away too many details in case you decide to see (?) for yourself, but here are my general impressions.
The setup is such that you begin your dining experience in an anteroom of the restaurant with a hostess that is not blind. You review the menu, and make your choices. You are able to choose a surprise for any of your dishes or you can choose something that you recognize. We decided to choose a surprise appetizer, and both decided on filet for the entree. I think we figured that the experience alone would be a surprise, and since we are constantly experimenting with food, we also wanted something familiar so we could see if it’s really taste a difference when we couldn’t see it.
Once the order was complete, we were taken down the hall where the hostess knocked on a heavy door. One of the blind wait staff came out and introduced himself. What followed was series of instructions to get us into the room and seated at our table. When they say that you will eat a meal in complete darkness, they’re not kidding.
With my hand on the shoulder of the waiter in front of us, we walked into a completely dark room. I could hear other diners around us, nervous chatter filling the air at the 6:30 p.m. seating, one of two for the evening. The hostess told us that the restaurant could seat up to 120 people in four separate rooms. While walking into the dark room to find our seats, this is one of the first things I tried to reconcile. Where is everyone? How close is the next table to me? John and I spend some time waving our arms about trying to figure out the makeup of our immediate area. I was particularly glad there was a wall to our left, I continually used it when placing my wine glass back on the table after taking a sip: down, left to touch the wall, place it on the table.
Throughout the meal we received cues from our waiter on how to receive the food that was brought to us. A raised hand here, a reach to a bread basket there, or both hands out to receive an entree dish. Our waiter did not stay with us the whole time, but filtered around the room serving other guests.
I noticed that when I was concentrating particularly hard on doing something like buttering my bread, I would shut my eyes. Odd reflex in a pitch black room, to be sure. When the surprise appetizer came, the first thing I did was put my face close to the dish to smell what was on the plate. Not something you would normally do in a restaurant, put your face directly in your food. The next thing we both did was reach for the plate with their hands to feel what was there. It mad me feel a bit like a kid, when’s the last time that you played with your food?
What our nose and our hands told us was that we had a salad in front of us with a spicy piece of breaded chicken. It was delicious. We alternated between using our fork which was particularly hysterical when trying to spear arugula and get it to your mouth successfully. Let’s be honest, that’s difficult when you’re in broad daylight. When the steak arrived, one of the first things we asked ourselves is whether or not it has already been cut for us. It had, thankfully. I tried to navigate my plate and eat in the way I normally do, a bite of this, a bite of that. I kept taking bites of steak and wanted something else. John described his own plate like a clock, “my steak is at 3 o’clock. My potatoes are at 6 o’clock. Have you found yours yet?” I did eventually locate all of my food and shamelessly used my hand to confirm that I had eaten every last bite from the plate.
When it was time to go, our waiter had told us that all we had to do was say his name. This is another part of the experience that we found interesting. Normally when you’re looking for the check you put your hand up, or you catch your waiters attention. I had been listening to his footsteps around the room, and thought I knew where he was in relation to our table. I said his name at regular volume and he heard me right away coming over to our table to help us back out of the room.
So is this experience really about dining in the dark? It certainly included two hours of thinking about what it would be like to live a life without sight. In the room, everyone was in the dark. So if you spilled your wine or got sauce on your shirt or used your hands to find your food, no one could judge you because they couldn’t see you. Something to think about.
ONoir – 620 Church Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada