O Canada, home of mounties, hockey, and restaurants where you eat in the dark. By dark I don’t just mean the lights are off, I mean the waiters take you through a winding path of doors and curtains to a closed off dining room – imagine being in a cave with no headlamp and you’ve got the picture.
The concept behind dark dining is more than just a neat experience, it is aimed at giving those with sight a feel for what it is like to be blind for a while. The idea originated in Switzerland with the restaurant Blindekuh, and has since spread around the world.
True to the original concept, O.Noir Montreal invests in raising awareness for visual impairment: all employed waiters are blind, and a portion of profits are donated to local associations for the blind of all ages. The restaurant partners with an organization devoted to preparing those who are blind for the mainstream job market; the blind population typically faces a 70% unemployment rate.
When I first approached O.Noir, it looked almost abandoned from the outside – it is located on a relatively quiet street, and the windows are blacked out with dark curtains. Combined with the dark and windy night I was sufficiently spooked, but like the brave foodie I am I ventured inside.
As soon as I pulled open the door there was a beautifully furnished, dimly lit room with a bar, lounge chairs, and lockers along the wall. I’ve never had to be told how to order at a restaurant before, but upon arriving at O.Noir I was greeted with instructions and a menu. The restaurant offers a 2 or 3 course fixed price menu. After choosing the number of courses, you choose the items (or elect for a surprise item), order drinks and lock your belongings in a locker until the end of the meal (phone included).
Not mentally prepared to eat surprise food in the dark, I opted for a beet salad and lobster pasta. After a brief wait, a waiter arrived to guide us to our table. Rather than just following behind like a normal restaurant, we had to hold onto his shoulders cha-cha style so we could navigate through the doors and curtains into the dining room.
After winding through a couple of turns, my ability to see anything quickly faded along with my ability to function – the first thing I did after sitting down was spill my water. Thankfully the splash missed the bread basket, which we found after feeling around the table.
Sitting in the dark munching on bread felt weirder than I thought it would – I couldn’t see the type of bread or how much butter I was putting on, things you typically know when eating. After only a couple of fumbles and instances of a misplaced butter knife, we got the bread eating down. Then came the actual food.
Eating real food was a whole new game. Bread you can eat with your hands, but the same doesn’t really apply to a salad unless you want dressing in your sleeves. That means you don’t know how much is left or where it is on the plate. The salad was particularly frustrating, because leaves kept falling off of my fork.
After struggling sufficiently with the salad, I finally seemed to figure out the best way to eat it (basically sliding it from the plate to my mouth) and was able to appreciate my sense of taste. Without being able to see anything, I was more aware of the taste and texture of all the different vegetables, resulting in me announcing every new ingredient I found to the whole room.
When the pasta came out, I was already a pro at eating in the dark. It is amazing how quickly humans can compensate for the loss of a sense – just 45 minutes before I was struggling to drink out of my water glass, but now I could tell how much pasta was left in the bowl just by the sound of the fork hitting the bottom.
The lobster pasta was simple but rich, made with fettuccine and fresh chunks of lobster in Alfredo sauce. The darkness made the creaminess and flavors of the pasta so much more pronounced.
The dark atmosphere of O.Noir not only enhanced the taste of the already wonderful food, but it also made talking and listening into its own source of amusement. Having gone with a friend, we spent the meal guessing facial expressions or which direction the other was facing while speaking.
In typical day to day conversation, we rely on visual cues to determine these things, but without sight the sense of hearing takes over in figuring out if someone is smiling or frowning, facing left or right – and it does a really great job, creating a kind of ‘mental picture’ of the surroundings.
Unless you live in a cave, eating in pitch darkness is not something we can do every day. O.Noir provided a unique atmosphere to make this possible, making it one of my favorite food experiences yet. While O.Noir Montreal was amazing, for those not looking to leave the country there are other dark dining restaurants located in cities around America as well. Dark dining blends experience dining and social consciousness together for one meal you’ll never forget.