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Dine in the dark

Pitch-black experience is catching on in Paris, Beijing and other cities.

April 15, 2007|Elliott Hester | Special to The Times

Paris — AT dinner, it was the blind leading the temporarily blinded.

Veronique, a legally blind French waitress, escorted me and my friend Gilles toward our table in the cave-dark dining room at Dans le Noir. Veronique led Gilles by the hand. I shuffled behind him, one hand clutching his shoulder as instructed. With Veronique as our guide, our three-person conga line maneuvered through darkness that was so complete and utterly depthless that it was as if Gilles and I were ... well, blind.

Unlike restaurants where people go to see and be seen, diners go to Dans le Noir and other "dark" restaurants around the globe so they can't be seen. Dining in the dark means customers are deprived of sight, so their remaining senses become heightened. Smells become more pungent. The sense of taste becomes more acute.

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 separate lighted area. Drinks are concocted by a sighted bartender. But the entire wait staff is blind.

Cellphones are confiscated before guests are allowed to enter the dining room. Matches, cigarette lighters, luminous wristwatches -- anything capable of emitting light is strictly forbidden.

This unusual dining experience offers a culinary adventure. But it also provides employment opportunities for visually impaired people -- something that creates an interesting role reversal. Within the confines of Dans le Noir, the sighted become temporarily sightless. Having memorized the location of every chair, table and passageway in the 58-seat restaurant, blind waiters become our eyes.

Dark dining is the brainchild of Jorge Spielmann, a blind clergyman from Zurich, Switzerland. During dinners at his home, Spielmann began blindfolding guests so they could better understand his world -- and stumbled upon a new dining concept.

In September 1999, Spielmann opened Blindekuh (Blind Cow) in Zurich. The restaurant boasts the world's first visually impaired wait staff. The success of the first Blindekuh led to the opening of a second in Basel, Switzerland.

Eight years later, dark dining has gone global. Blind and visually impaired waiters serve three- and four-course meals at trendy Unsicht-Bar (Invisible Bar), a German restaurant with locations in Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin.

While patrons dine in the dark at Nocti Vagus, a competing Berlin restaurant, they're treated to sightless entertainment such as musical theater ("Darktheater") and horror stories read by "house ghosts."

At O. Noir, a dark-dining restaurant in Montreal, part of the profits go to organizations serving the blind and visually impaired. Dans le Noir spawned successful offshoots in London and Moscow. Most weekends, the Hyatt restaurant in West Hollywood is taken over by Opaque. Dark-dining events have become so popular that reservations are booked weeks in advance.

Half a world away, the planet's largest chain of dark-dining restaurants has installed its first few links. In January, Dark Restaurant (also known as Whale Inside) opened its doors in Beijing's Jianwai SOHO compound, near the World Trade Center. Dark Restaurants have since popped up in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Dalian and Hangzhou in mainland China. Within two years, the company plans to open 15 more restaurants in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore and other Asian cities.

Dark Restaurant does not employ blind waiters. Instead, diners are served in total darkness by waiters wearing night-vision goggles.

At Dans le Noir, Gilles and I reached our table without crashing into someone else's. Veronique instructed me to stand perfectly still while she seated my friend. When I released his shoulder, I felt unanchored. Disoriented. Standing alone in the darkness, I heard giggling from a nearby table. The clink of glasses in the distance. The low mutterings of a waiter passing by.

Trance music oozed from the overhead speakers. Someone touched my arm. "Monsieur, Monsieur?" It was Veronique. She led me to the table, placed my hand on the corner and guided me to my seat.

Pouring wine was the most difficult task. Following Veronique'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.

When Veronique placed my first course on the table, I had no idea what it was. I probed the plate with my fork. Unable to discern the contents, I used my fingers. I felt a cluster of spongy, cube-like morsels and plopped one in my mouth. I chewed slowly, purposely, letting the warm, fleshy fare melt in my mouth. It tasted like -- and turned out to be -- grilled scallops.

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