While dining in the dark may seem romantic, when you dine in a pitch-black room, many emotions — from anxiety to excitement — can flourish all at the same time according a guest who recently dined at the O.Noir restaurant in Toronto.
The concept of the restaurant, located on Church Street, is to allow diners to fully experience the taste, smell, and texture of their food in the dark, while being served by blind and partially sighted waiters.
“I thought I would really be able to see at least a little bit of light with a candle, but you cannot even see your food. And I guess that is the whole point, but at first I feel so many emotions, I gotta admit I got really anxious, ” said Bisht, who visited O.Noir with a friend.
“After getting more comfortable, I was so amazed how productive our senses become when other senses are down,” Bisht said.
Upon arrival at the restaurant, customers are led downstairs to the dining-room level. A host there confirms the reservation, explains the concept and room of the restaurant, and describes the menu options, which include either two to three courses or a surprise option.
No flashlights, cell phones, matches, cigarette lighters, or luminous watches are allowed in the dining room.
Customers are then directed by a server who is impacted by blindness, and who instructs guests to put one hand on each other’s shoulders to be led into the pitch-black dining room.
After being set on the table, utensils, glasses, and plates set up are explained and advice like, “Keep your drink against the wall for easy access,” is given by the server.
The server then brings the food, and lets you know the temperature of the food and if it is cut in pieces.
‘I love working here’
“Working here makes me feel that I have a purpose, I get to feel normal like a normal person would,” said Dave Smith, one of the blind servers who has been working at O.Noir for 14 years.
“This has been my first and only job, previous to this I was just studying and volunteering,” Smith said.
Smith said he’s had some memorable experiences in his years at the restaurant.
“About 12 years ago, I served Drake the rapper and that was very interesting, I spoke with him and we took pictures as well,” Smith said.
He said the restaurant attracts many people every year for different reasons: some go for the hype of the experience, others to attend a blind date and others for a chance to experience the day-to-day of a blind or partially sighted person.
“I love working here, I tell everyone it is my first day every day,” Smith said.
According to Mow Alamddine, founder of O.Noir, when eating your food in the dark, your non-sight senses are heightened to savour the smell and taste of food. “Even everyday dishes like potatoes and yogurt take on a culinary flare” said Mow Alameddine on O.Noir’s website.
But according to Diana Rosales, director of community engagement and Inclusion at Canadian National Institute for the blind (CNIB), it is a myth that when you lose your sight, your other senses get sharper.
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” she said. “Blindness doesn’t change how your senses of hearing, taste or touch biologically work. However, most people who are blind learn to use their senses differently to interpret the world around them, like telling which way cars are travelling by listening, or reading braille with their fingertips.
“And for some people who’ve been blind from an early age, the brain actually rewires itself to process sensory input differently — which can lead to things like more sensitive hearing. But it’s not always the case,” Rosales said.
Where does this idea come from?
O.Noir’s official website states that the idea for the restaurant was inspired by Jorge Spielmann, a blind pastor in Zurich, Switzerland who blindfolded his dinner guests so they could share his experience.
Spielmann later opened Blindekuh (German for Blind Cow) in 1999 to teach the sighted about the sightless world and to provide jobs for the blind.
O.Noir opened his first restaurant in Canada in Montreal in 2006 and later opened in Toronto in 2009.
Dr. J. R. Feng, an entrepreneur and award-winning scientist known for his work in polymer chemistry and engineering, acquired the O.Noir Toronto restaurant two years later in 2011.
There are other dark dining concept restaurants around the world in places like Europe, Australia, Los Angeles and New York.
Feng seeks to educate and improve people’s understanding and appreciation of others. As part of its efforts to prepare blind people for mainstream employment, the restaurant chain donates a percentage of profits to organizations that assist blind people.
What about the food?
The restaurant offers a variety of set menus, which include appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Besides offering meat-based and vegetarian options, the restaurant also accommodates allergies and dietary restrictions.
Some of the most popular options are filet mignon and pesto chicken breast followed by chocolate cake with ice cream or fruit sorbet.
“My food was a surprise, I tasted a delicious mash potato, mixed veggies and steak,” Bisht said, who chose the surprise option that was created to allow guests to utilize their sense of taste and discover something new.
“My friend had the penne pasta with tomato sauce, and had harder time getting the pasta on the fork and ended up using their hands,” she said.
In addition to the food, O.Noir also had a selection of beverages, including cocktails, beer, wine, and non-alcoholic drinks.
More than just the food, it’s an experience
During one to two hours in complete darkness, customers learn what it’s like to be blind, and the experience can cause confusion anxiety, and even panic attacks for some people.
As this is a different experience, servers suggest customers stay longer until they feel comfortable to enjoy the full experience, and know that their server is one call away.
The restaurant atmosphere features background music, but conversation in the dark tended to get loud during Bisht’s visit.
“For a moment, I feel it was so loud, but I realize it was not just me,” Bisht said. “I had to be careful with what I said, as I was talking about someone from work, and I couldn’t see who was around me.”
Rosales said people with sight loss continue to face significant barriers in every part of their lives–from work to education to the accessibility of built environments to social inclusion and more.
“Lack of awareness about the realities of life with blindness and sight loss is the underlying barrier that creates most of the issues for the people we serve across all parts of their live”Rosales said.
According to CINB, In Canada, 1.5 million people currently identify as having sight loss. An estimated 5.59 million more have an eye disease that could cause sight loss. Moreover, with Canada’s ageing population growing at such a fast rate, it is expected that in the next 25 years the number of blind and partially sighted people will double.
“Visiting this restaurant isn’t for everyone because it’s a challenging experience, but it certainly made me think about the lives of people with disabilities on a daily basis, and the challenges they face.” Bisht said.
O’Noir Toronto is located at 620 Church Street, and open from Monday to Sunday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.