Restaurant serves up a ‘dark’ experience

Chewing with your mouth open won’t get you dirty looks at this establishment, especially when no one can see you.

Toronto’s first completely dark restaurant, O.Noir on Church and Charles streets, wants to teach the sighted about the sightless. Owner Moe Alameddine puts his guest’s senses to the test while they dine in total darkness.

“We always eat with our eyes,” said Alameddine. “We never take the time to smell or touch. Maybe people will appreciate their sight more.”

The pitch-black dining room serves as a shock to patrons, but it is nothing new to the blind servers who work at O.Noir. Among the 32 employees, Alameddine said 11 are legally blind.

According to a report released last year by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Canadian Ophthalmology Society, the visually impaired have an exceptionally high unemployment rate in Canada. Thirty-two per cent of those who are able to work with vision loss have jobs, a number that Alameddine hopes to see change.

“A normal restaurant can have a blind person, but they never give them the chance to do their job,” Alameddine said. “I wanted to create jobs for (the blind) and to let people like me and you understand exactly what blindness is like.”

Blind servers train for two to three months. They are the eyes so to speak for the guests eating in the dark. It is called the transfer of trust, as patrons are led from the lighted lounge where they choose what they are going to eat, to the lightless dining room.

For 36-year-old Gavin Boylan, a server at O.Noir who lost his eyesight three years ago, touching his surroundings helps him guide guests in the right direction. But he says he can live without it.

“My sight, I would trade anything for my sight, my sense of hearing, my sense of touch,” Boylan said. “It’s like losing the most intimate person in your life.”

But he doesn’t let it get to him. Working at O.Noir since it opened last June gives him hope that perspectives on visually-impaired people can be changed.

“Their biggest sense is taken away from them almost immediately, and I find that people are very different, nicer, in the dark,” Boylan said. “If I have a group of people, they don’t talk over each other. Six people, one person will talk and five will listen, then the next person goes.”

Dinner guest Curtis Hector says his sense of smell, touch, and hearing were all enhanced during dinner.

“I never had an experience like that, it was very interesting,” Hector said. “You get a chance to see how other people have to live on a day-to-day basis.”

The concept of eating in the dark originated in Zurich, Switzerland where blind pastor Jorge Spielmann blindfolded his guests for dinner.

Alameddine, having worked in the fast food industry before, enjoyed his experience with no-light dining in Zurich, and opened an O.Noir in Montreal in 2006, and three years later in Toronto, and it won’t stop there. Alameddine is considering a move to the west coast.

“We were hoping to move to Vancouver,” Alameddine said. “But with the recession I’m just taking it easy for now, otherwise you will be seeing me in Vancouver.”

As waiter Boylan says, if you have an open mind you will discover that playing with your food can be a good thing.