At O.Noir, ‘vision-impaired waiters are in their comfort zone’

But diners pushed outside comfort zone in dark restaurant

At O.Noir, guests are escorted into a dark dining room where they’re served by visually impaired waiters.

It’s a unique experience that “enforces trust in the waiters”, said Jianrong Feng, owner of the restaurant at 620 Church St.

“Most people that come to O.Noir are surprised, not by the darkness or the atmosphere, but by the fact that now their experience is in the hands of the waiters,” Feng said. “It is a reverse model because now the vision-impaired waiters are in their comfort zone and guests have to be able to trust them when they step outside of their comfort level.”

But what does eating in the dark do for diners with high expectations? The lack of sight actually enhances the taste of the food, Feng said.

Not being able to see their meal means a diner’s other senses are pressed into action, said Irina D. Mihalache, assistant professor of Museum Studies at the University of Toronto.

“I believe that it challenges the traditional balance between the senses, where the sense of sight is much more utilized than all the other senses,” she said. “So when eating in the dark, for example, one recognizes an ingredient and the cooking techniques — deep fried versus sauteed — based on the smell and the texture of the food.

“The visual contact with food is very important for any dining experience so when dining in the dark, the pleasure which we take away from looking at food disappears.”

Though the experience of dining in the dark may challenge the senses, some consider the idea to be a gimmick.

“Sensory dining” is a way restaurants like O.Noir can stand out from the competition, blogTO founder and publisher Tim Shore said.

“[It’s a] fad and may or may not be around after 15 years, even though [it’s] getting a lot of press and media coverage at the moment,” Shore said.

Fad or not, sensory dining allows people to push beyond what they’re used to and even perhaps overcome their fears, Feng said.

“Most people like the concept of darkness, despite what their assumptions or associations are with it,” Feng said. “Restaurants such as O.Noir brighten and shine on peoples’ lives because they provide them with an interesting experience and open their senses to something new.”

Mihalache agreed.

“Diners need to be somehow vulnerable and allow the sense of taste, smell and even touch to take control.”