“There is no darkness but ignorance”
The Great Bard there, pointing out stuff that we are still trying to get our heads round today. It’s from Twelfth Night, a play I haven’t read or seen. The quote did in fact not enter my orbit until I recently interviewed Dominique Raclin, the London manager of Dans Le Noir, a restaurant unlike any other, and the subject of the recent Richard Curtis film About Time. Dominique was kind enough to give me half an hour of his time to talk about Dans Le Noir?, the experience they offer and the awareness it creates. You can read my interview with Dominique for What’s Up, What’s On here.
What Dans Le Noir? does (and it is spelt with a question mark to make you consider what it is they are offering) is allow diners the unique experience of enjoying a meal without the aid of sight. You are taken into a pitch black dining area by a blind guide who will then assist you through your meal. I had to have a part of it.
I was first told about Dans Le Noir? through my friend Terri (who, if you are a regular visitor to my blog or in fact one of those poor people who has to deal with me in real life will know, is my tent buddy from our Sahara Trek in October 2013). Terri and I have grown very close through our working relationship which is why I was gutted when she told me she was going to up her business sticks in order to go travelling for a year. Of course I’m obscenely jealous and I’m going to miss her and as such I thought I would treat her to a dinner where I could get used to not seeing her.
When we got to the restaurant we were asked to put our mobile phones and anything else that may create a light in a locker. We were then given the menu. Dans Le Noir? do not allow guests to select what they want to eat but instead offer four menus to cover different tastes and are also able to cater for any dietary requirements. The choices are a meat menu, fish and seafood menu, vegetarian menu or surprise menu. Being the wild and crazy adventurers that we are, Terri and I both went for the surprise menu, deciding that we had drunk enough over the previous weekend that we could just stick with water for our meal. We were then introduced to Nadine, who would be our guide and along with two girls who were dining together we were let up the ramp towards the dining room. On the way up the slope it grew steadily darker until we were just lit by the red overhead bulb. Nadine told us that all we had to do was carefully follow her through the restaurant and that if we needed anything we could just call for her. As it is pitch black in the restaurant and Nadine is blind, there would be no point in us trying to get her attention in any other way. We chatted with the two girls we were heading in with, Corrine and Philippa, who are both teachers. Within half an hour I would have completely forgotten what they looked like.
Nadine took us through a black curtain and I was surrounded by noise. I could hear the sound of cutlery and conversation, I could smell something delicious and feel there were people nearby aside from us. I couldn’t see a thing. Ahead of me I couldn’t make out my hand which I had been told to place on Terri’s shoulder. Terri and Corinne were led round one side of the table and Philippa and I were left in the darkness. It felt very surreal. I couldn’t work out how much space was around me or how many people or the layout of the room before me. Even now I struggle to think of another situation where the same could occur. Philippa and I were led to our side of the table. Dans Le Noir? do not have individual tables for guests but instead seat people in rows along long tables. I was sat opposite Terri but there was nothing separating me from the six to eight people I gathered were along the same row.
Terri and I put our hands out, trying to gauge the distance across the table before Nadine told us where on the table we could find our cutlery and glasses. She then gave us bottles of water which we had to pour into our glasses. I expected to emerge covered in something but managed to get all of the bottle into my glass over the course of the meal.
What happened next is the most curious part of the meal. It’s something that as a group (English) we avoid. Terri and I did not silo ourselves but instead chatted with Corrine and Philippa throughout the meal, sharing the experience with them. I didn’t get used to not being able to see but it became part of the course. I found ways around it. When our starters were served I felt the components of the dish, trying to establish what I had been served and then tentatively putting a bit in my mouth with my hands. In the dark, I could eat without prejudice. I didn’t use my cutlery at all throughout the meal, which only caused me trouble when I slammed my hand into yoghurt. Yoghurt, why did it have to be yoghurt?
As we continued with our meal, the taboos of dining out were broken. We shared things we wouldn’t have with people who were strangers. When news of Terri celebrating her birthday during the week got out, the restaurant sang her happy birthday in unison before realising she wasn’t a boy. There was a sense of camaraderie and joint experience that I have never had in a restaurant. Throughout, Nadine was careful and insightful with us, her open channel of conversation and humour helping us through the experience. I can’t recommend it enough. If you’re particular about your food or your dining habits then it might not be for you, but it is an interesting experience and experiment and I would be happy to be in the 5% of diners that Dans Le Noir? see returning.