When I was a kid, I used to watch this movie called Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. It’s about a rebellious girl who does a horse-riding high-dive act in Atlantic City. She has an accident and goes blind, but eventually overcomes her demons and wows audiences once again.
And before you go judging the movie’s ‘implausible premise,’ it’s based on a true story. So there.
Anyway, I used to wonder what it would be like to be blind like Sonora Webster. After watching it, I walked around the house like a zombie, stiff-armed, with my eyes squeezed shut. Fortunately, I didn’t own a horse. Or a high-dive.
This simulated blindness in no way prepared me for what it was like to eat at Dans Le Noir, a London restaurant that is completely lights-off. I’d heard a lot about this restaurant while living in London in 2007. All of the waiters are blind, and you have to leave anything that gives off light – a phone, watch, camera, etc – in a locker in the lobby. The whole thing sounded gimmicky and weird, so it was right up my alley.
The concept of Dans Le Noir started in Paris – a dining room that was completely ‘In The Dark,’ as the name suggests. It grew in popularity and is now an international franchise. It’s not cheap, but it’s also not one of those things you can do by yourself at home. You know, when you look at a ridiculous painting and go, “I could do that.” You could turn off all the lights in the house and attempt to serve a meal, but I think you would lose some of the effect.
The hostess directed us to stow our belongings in a locker, then presented us with the four menu options.
White: Chef’s Surprise
Blue: Fish & Seafood
I chose Green and Jared chose White. A two-course meal is £41 and a three-course meal is £49. There are also a number of special menus. We each went with a three-course menu that included a pre-dinner cocktail and two glasses of wine. It was about £65 each.
The hostess introduced us to our waiter, Brian. He was tall, solidly built, and wore dark sunglasses and a tight black t-shirt. He looked more like a bodyguard than a waiter.
“Put your right hand on my shoulder,” he instructed.
We formed an orderly line of three and followed Brian from the dimly-lit lobby to a heavy velvet curtain. Brian narrated every step of the way.
“I’m going to push through the curtain,” he said. “It will be dark. Then we’ll pass through another curtain, and you’ll be in the dining room. Ready?”
I thought I was ready, but I so wasn’t ready. It literally looked like this:
For the first time, I understood the meaning of pitch black. It was terrifying. The darkness was so thick, my eyes never adjusted to anything. I imagine the dining room was full of dilated pupils.
The noise was surprisingly loud – cutlery clinking and people laughing, almost shouting, as if it would somehow compensate for their lack of sight. Like turning down the radio when you’re looking for an address.
Brian expertly navigated the room and found our table.
“Stand right here,” he said. “I’m going to seat Jared, then I’m going to come around and seat you.”
I stood in the darkness for what seemed like minutes, lost in a void of noise and confusion. It seemed like the darkness was a vast, infinite space. There wasn’t a single source of light anywhere.
“Reach out in front of you. Do you feel the chair?”
I groped the air until my hands hit something solid. “I feel it,” I said excitedly. “I found the chair.”
“Good,” Brian encouraged. He guided me into a seat.
Our table was flush against the wall. Brian explained where all of our glasses were – wine & water – and how to pour refills.
“Put your finger over the rim. That way you can feel when it’s getting full.”
When he left, Jared and I quickly grabbed hands across the table. I needed to know something familiar was there, even if I couldn’t see proof of it.
Brian started bringing out the food. After a handful of failed attempts to get the food on my fork and then repeatedly jabbing myself in the face, I changed tactics.
“I guess no one can see me,” I said. “So I’m going to eat with my hands.”
“Already doing it,” Jared said between bites.
I started grabbing handfuls of pasta and stuffing it into my mouth. We tried to guess what was on our plates, but eventually gave up and just ate.
Eventually, another couple was seated next to us, and another couple next to them.
“Hello?” I said. “I’m talking to you, the person next to me.”
We did a round of introductions, comparing our food and, like Brian, narrating everything we were doing.
“I’m looking for my fork. Oh, that’s a knife.”
“I’m scratching an itch.”
“I’m totally chewing with my mouth open.”
“I’m waving my hand in front of your face right now. Can you feel it?”
It’s amazing how quickly you can become comfortable with strangers when you’re thrust into an unfamiliar situation together.
After licking my bowl to make sure I’d gotten all of the dessert out, we were done.
“Uh, Brian?” I shouted. Brian had instructed us to simply call his name if we needed him.
“Yes?” It seemed he had been right behind my shoulder.
“Oh. We’re ready to go.”
Brian cleared the table and pulled out my chair.
“We’re going for a drink at the pub next door,” Jared called out.”I’m wearing a red and gray striped jumper and I have brown hair. Lauren’s wearing – what color are you wearing?”
“A maroon jumper. And I have curly hair. What are you guys wearing?”
Once we arranged our blind date, Brian led us out of the dining room and back into the lobby. Initially, even the very dim light was difficult to get used to. We were given detailed menus of what we’d eaten, and exclaimed over how wrong our guesses had been.
At the Green, we waited nervously until our ‘dates’ showed up. We all recognized each other at once. It may have been our spot-on descriptions, but I think it was more likely the way we were all scanning the crowd, looking for someone.
It was a great night, at least until one of the girls got really drunk and propositioned me in the bathroom.
That was our cue to leave.
Now if I can just find a place where I can eat while riding a horse off a diving board, I’ll really know what it’s like to be Sonora.