Dark Dining Turns the Tables on Eating Without Sight

NEW YORK—The concept of dining in the dark has become a tool for restaurants to give their guests an experience that keeps them coming back for more, but in fact, it started as a way to show sighted people what it’s like to eat while blind. Dark dining was popularized by Reverend Jorge Spielmann in Zurich, Switzerland. The idea for his first restaurant—which opened in September of 1999—began in his home, where he would sometimes “blindfold his dinner guests to immerse them in the world of the blind,” he told The Telegraph in 2000.

From there he was able to raise £200,000 to open The Blind Cow, a restaurant dedicated to helping the sighted realize what it’s like to be blind. The Blind Cow was staffed by the blind and operated in total darkness, The Telegraph reported. The concept grew to be so popular that by December of 2000—a little over a year after its opening—reservations for The Blind Cow were booked through June 2001.

Six years later, Moe Alemmedine—founder of O.Noir—opened Dark Table in Montreal, after visiting The Blind Cow. “He was visiting Europe and went to the original location in Zurich,” stated Sami Mousattat, Alemeddine’s business partner and general manager of Dark Table’s Vancouver location. “He liked the concept so much that he decided to bring it to Canada.” Alemmedine would go on to open two additional Dark Table locations—one in Vancouver in 2012 and the other in Calgary in 2017.

Dark Table is a reservations only restaurant that aims to, “take you on a culinary journey through uncharted territory.” Like The Blind Cow, Dark Table employs blind or visually impaired servers—turning the tables on how sighted people interact with the blind. “The whole idea is to empower the blind,” Mousattat explained. “Generally, we help the blind cross the streets outside the restaurant. It’s the exact opposite inside.”

While Dark Table is like a typical restaurant, there are some technical differences. Guests who visit the restaurant, for example, place their orders and express any dietary concerns while in the waiting area outside. They are then led into a lobby area where they’re introduced to their respective servers, who in turn give instructions on dining room logistics—how to get to the bathrooms, how to ask for anything etc. In a single file, with the left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front of them, guests are then led into the dining area where they are served all meal courses in pitch-black darkness. No light producing technologies are allowed in the dining room, including flashlights, cellphones or luminous watches.

Hiring blind servers was an integral element of Dark Table. Instead of hiring servers who can see and then altering the restaurant into a dark space, Alemmedine decided he wanted to pull from the blind community after learning about the high unemployment rate. “There was talk that the unemployment rate within the blind community is somewhere over 70 percent,” Mousattat explained. “So why not keep the concept original—not involve technology, buying gear and getting in-the-dark equipment—and hire people who are actually looking for jobs and give a lot of meaning to their experience.”

When it comes to hiring employees, Dark Table has worked with CNIB—a volunteer agency and charitable organization dedicated to assisting Canadians who are blind or living with vision loss—and the Open Door Group—a non-profit organization that helps individuals living with disabilities get meaningful work. “CNIB has the biggest data on people who are blind, and so we worked with them a lot when we opened our other locations,” said Mousattat. “When we came into Vancouver, they were reorganizing their HR department and most of that data was transferred to the Open Door Group.”

In an effort to reciprocate, Dark Table has held various fundraisers for CNIB. “If we ever needed staff, they know a lot of people who are looking for work, so we’ve done a lot fundraising for them.”

In 2009, a similar restaurant, Opaque Dining in the Dark, opened in San Francisco, Calif. “A gentleman named Ben Askew brought the idea for the restaurant here after seeing a similar concept gaining popularity in Berlin,” stated Dylan Underhill, Opaque’s managing partner. “The difference was that the servers at the Berlin restaurant were not visually impaired. When he got to San Francisco, he established relationships with different fighting blindness organizations and charities and was able to work with them to obtain and curate the experience with our visually impaired servers.”

Similar to Dark Table, the team at Opaque Dining in the Dark wanted to hire visually impaired servers. “It’s important to us that our servers get to bring others into their world, even if it’s only for one meal,” said Underhill. “The inspiration our guests get from them is amazing. Hearing their stories, letting them guide through course—it’s a humbling experience.”

Underhill describes the experience at Opaque—which is now located in Santa Monica—as, “a deep dive into sensory exploration.” When guests arrive they are seated in the lit lounge area where hosts offer guests drinks from the full bar and start the process of explaining exactly what they are about to experience. This is where the host will go through with the guests, individually and inquire about any dietary restrictions, allergies, preferences, etc.

From there the chef builds the patron’s five courses within the parameters they have set. After an opportunity to use the restroom or step out if need be, servers arrive in the lounge area and escort guests to their tables and start their dining in the dark experience.

While Opaque has had the same staff over the course of the years, they have worked with organizations such as The Braille Institute and the Foundation Fighting Blindness when they needed to add to their staff. When it comes to training new employees, Underhill says that the process is not as hard as one may assume. “Unfortunately, the room is no different than the world they live in constantly. The servers acclimate to the dining room the same way they do with any other space. They learn the layout. They learn the little things that maybe you or I don’t even see.”

Like Dark Table, Opaque Dining in the Dark has also made it a point to fundraise for organizations serving the blind or visually impaired. “We work with almost every charity and fundraiser in the country that deals with fighting blindness, helping put on events to raise money for all things related,” Underhill told VMail Weekend. “We have worked with companies such as Google and Waka Waka—just to name a couple—on large-scale events aimed at raising money and awareness.”

When it comes to guests’ reactions, Underhill says that most diners have an emotional response to the experience. “We always encourage our guests to get to know their server—ask questions about their lives and about how they lost their sight. These stories are both heartbreaking and inspiring and always seem to resonate with our guests,” he explained. “So many times I see diners come out of the dining room emotional and hugging their server.”

For New York’s Camaje Bistro, the dark dining experience is more about getting people to connect with each other and less about stepping into a blind person’s shoes, according to head chef, Abigal Hitchcock. “It’s more of an artsy sensory experience,” Hitchcock told VMail Weekend. “We don’t frame the events as what it’s like to not have your sight, as much as it what’s it like to notice that your other senses are more heightened when you don’t have your sight.”

The Dinners in the Dark have been taking place at Camaje Bistro for about 13 years. Camaje decided to incorporate the Dinners in the Dark after Hitchcok’s former partner had been to Europe at a chain called Dans Le Noir and had a dark dining experience. “She had a good experience and approached me to see if I could potentially host these events at Camaje.”

Camaje’s Dinners in the Dark are ticketed and take place Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. When guests arrive they are told to wait outside and are given a quick orientation which gives a minor break down of what to expect once inside and how to communicate with the waiters and give any dietary concerns or restrictions. Windows of the restaurant are curtained up so they guests can’t see the space and once seated, dinner commences as it normally would.

The menu is a surprise until the end of the evening, but is not severely altered for the events. “We don’t try to make the food any simpler or challenging. It’s not like we’re all of a sudden going to make pureed food and you have to drink it out of a straw,” Hitchcock explained. “We try to have interesting textures and interesting smells because we don’t have the typical, luxury of sight.”

During the Dinners in the Dark, Hitchcock noticed that most people wind up talking about their meals and connecting better with their friends. “We are so attached to our phones and even if you’re a polite diner, you’re naturally distracted by people walking by, walking in, what their wearing etc.,” said Hitchcock. “When you’re blindfolded, you listen and talk differently. You’re just a lot more aware of your surroundings than you would be normally.”

From the chef’s perspective, Hitchcock also notices that people tend to focus a lot more on what they’re eating during these events. “I am very interested in the notion of mindful eating—where people are actually paying attention to what they’re eating. When you go out with friends, you’re not really paying attention to what you’re eating, but by nature of the event, all of a sudden you have to talk about the food.”

As dark dining continues to be a growing trend, institutions within the optical industry are also seeing it as a way to fundraise. Organizations such as the Foundation Fighting Blindness and institutions such as Killarney Vision Services and The University of Waterloo and the University of Montreal have held various dark dining events in an effort to fundraise and raise awareness.

Prevent Blindness’ Texas affiliate is currently in the early stages of planning a dark dining event for the southwest region of the state in September and another one for the north Texas region for October. “We have a member on our leadership council who is partially blind who had heard about this concept and thought it would be an interesting concept to bring forward,” stated Heather Patrick, president and CEO, Prevent Blindness Texas. Funds raised during the event will be donated to various Prevent Blindness efforts. “We will be fundraising for Prevent Blindness Texas, which provides services such as vision screenings, resources for comprehensive eye exams and glasses, as well as education and advocacy.”