“I can’t figure out what this is.”
“It’s … slimy.”
“I can’t cut anything.”
“Cut? I’ve just been using my hands.”
“Speaking of hands, Geraldine, keep yours to yourself.”
“GOD DAMN IT, JON. Lisa, I swear, I’m not touching him.”
I have heard that if you take one sense away, the others rush in to cover for it, like dutiful coworkers. When Molly Birnbaum lost her sense of smell after an accident, she talked about how she focused on the texture of food (as the subtleties of taste were now lost to her – she could only detect sweet, salty, bitter, and sour). When my own grandmother was near the end of her life, and nearly blind, I found she focused a great deal on touch, and she’d express alarm when she reached for me on the couch and felt a sockless foot or a too-chilled hand (“Sei scalza? Fa freddo!” You’re barefoot? It’s cold!).
And I’ve heard that eating in pure darkness makes you enjoy a meal more. You appreciate flavors and smells and texture in a way you couldn’t otherwise.
This is, in part, true. You also spill on yourself and accidentally end up eating zebra.
Before our South Africa trip, Rand and I spent a week in London, and had dinner with our friends Jon and Lisa (stalwart readers may remember them from our trip to Ireland a few years back). Lisa had made us a reservation at Dans Le Noir – a restaurant with a pitch-black dining room.
And when I say pitch-black, I mean it was dark. Like, coal mine dark. Like, you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face and no, your eyes won’t adjust to the darkness, even after you’ve been in there for hours dark.
The restaurant was, somewhat surprisingly, on street level, and the facade had plenty of windows. The lobby and the bar were dimly lit with dark orange lights, and we squinted at one another as we caught up over drinks. This gave everyone the appearance of being a critical thinker.
The hostess came around and showed us to some lockers where we could store our valuables (and anything that might produce light, like cell phones or watches), and took our order. The menus were fixed, and so we simply picked a protein – meat, fish, vegetarian, or surprise. She asked us about our dietary restrictions, and it sounded like the menus were all fairly adaptable.
Jon and Lisa went with meat. Rand and I chose surprise. While I am an adventurous eater, this is not something I would do again. Being in a pitch-black restaurant, I decided, was enough of a new experience. No need to push it further.
When our table was ready, the hostess led us down a dark hallway. On one side of the hall was a door that led to the dining room.
All the servers, our hostess had explained earlier, were blind. Ours was a middle-aged gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair named Roberto. He spoke with a thick Italian accent and wore dark glasses and a black t-shirt. (Someone later told us that the restaurant had been featured in the movie About Time, and Roberto made a small appearance. So he’s a bit of a celebrity.)
He greeted all of us, turned his back to me and put my hand firmly on his shoulder, so that I could easily follow him into the restaurant (for obvious reasons, patrons can’t enter on their own). He instructed the rest of the group to do the same, and we formed a sort of clumsy conga line as we stepped through the door.
There was another set of curtains, and once we passed through those, we were plunged into darkness. I held on to Roberto’s shoulder for dear life. The air inside felt still, and I could hear all the sounds of a restaurant that I usually take for granted: the clink of silverware against plates, conversation and laughing.
It was suitably disorienting, and when Roberto led me to my seat I plopped down into it. I heard Jon sit down next me, and some shuffling as Lisa and Rand sat down.
Roberto quickly told us where we could find water on our table, and explained that you figure out how full a glass is by curving your finger around the lip. You stop pouring when you can feel the water.
“If you need me,” he said, “Just call my name.”
And then he was gone, the sound of his footsteps carrying him off.
We all starting talking, trying to gauge where we were in relation to one another. I listened to the noise around us – the restaurant sounded like it was filled with people. I heard a half dozen conversations around us, the occasional shout of a servers name by a needy diner.
I couldn’t even make out shapes. There wasn’t a hint of light. Just a sea of darkness.
Based on sound alone, I was able to determine that were were seated at a communal table, possibly one of several. Here’s a helpful diagram:
Despite all the noise, I felt oddly alone and strangely claustrophobic (I found this detail to be particularly fascinating, as I willfully place a cover over my eyes whenever I get MRIs, in order to feel less claustrophobic). My fingers inched across the table until I hit Rand’s hand.
“Baby? Is that you?” he asked tentatively.
I nodded. Which is an idiotic thing to do in a dark restaurant.
“I’m nodding, but you can’t you see it,” I said, realizing what I’d done. I felt his hand in mine, and squeezed it.
The whole night, we remained like that. Either holding hands, or my feet entwined in his. This is not a normal occurrence. In large groups, Rand and I don’t even sit near each other, much less hold hands (“Divide and conquer!” we’ll say to one another, with a fist bump, before parting ways). But on this night, unable to see him, or anything else, it was something I needed.
I did not, however, GROPE JON’S KNEE even though he kept claiming I did (a joke, which, admittedly, became funny after the fourth or fifth time).
Out of the darkness, Roberto announced that our food had arrived and I could feel the brush of his arm as he placed my starter in front of me. No heat came off the plate, no steam rose from it – this was a cold dish.
I felt around for my fork, and aimlessly poked around until I hit something both firm and squishy.
I tried to cut whatever I had managed to stab with but ended up just feebly swiping at the plate and then heard a splat when I accidentally flung the morsel onto the table. I jabbed around with my fork until I found it again.
Fortunately, it sounded like everyone else was having at least as much trouble.
“How do you cut this?”
“I don’t know, mate, I gave up on cutting.”
“Oh, wow, this is delicious.”
When I finally retrieved my food from the table, I excitedly jammed the entire piece into my mouth with all the grace of a toddler. It was a massive bite of … sashimi?
While it was very, very good, there is something oddly unsettling about the feeling of raw, cold fish in your mouth. I’d never realized it until that moment.
I kept jabbing around the plate, and managed to deliver more bites to my mouth, until I could feel nothing else. I poked around with my finger. All gone.
The rest of the dishes came in the same way – Roberto announcing them, and then a quick brush of his arm. During the second course I felt the heat of the plate and the steam rising from it.
I fell into a rhythm: I’d feel around the plate with my utensils (and sometimes my fingertip) until I hit a piece of food. I’d stab it with my fork (I’d given up on cutting it into smaller pieces) and slowly raise it to my mouth.
Usually, I missed. (Try eating something when you are unaware of how big a bite you’ve speared, and when you can’t see your own fork. I implore you. It is harder than it sounds.)
I was inexplicably excited any time I recognized a flavor – I detected pancetta and couscous and … meat? Which, I realized for the first time, has a very peculiar texture. I mean, it’s kinda chewy, but also sort of stringy and fibrous.
The point is: even delicious, gourmet food is somewhat terrifying in the dark.
But what I noticed, perhaps more than the food, was the conversation and my interactions with my friends. I’m usually very outgoing. I can walk into a room where I don’t know anyone, and feel entirely comfortable introducing myself to strangers.
Obviously, there are things I’m self-conscious about, but I’ve never consider myself hindered by my appearance. I’m unconventionally cute, and my husband thinks I’m beautiful. Everything works the way it’s supposed to. That’s more than I could ever ask for.
Even so, in the darkness, I felt more confident than ever. Words flowed freely. There was no hesitation in my voice, no holding back my thoughts or my laughter. I was frustrated by my inability to see anything, but I’d never felt more comfortable in my own skin.
And, rather counter-intuitively, I found myself talking with my hands more than ever before. It was a miracle I didn’t smack anyone, because they were positively fluttering over the table. (After some thought, I realized that this was true when I was a kid, too. It wasn’t until elementary school that I stopped, after a table of ruthless and popular girls ridiculed me for my hand gestures. Apparently I’d been holding this part of myself back for more than 20 years. I never knew.)
I wasn’t the only one who changed in the darkness. Lisa, normally confident and effervescent, was quieter than I’d ever known her to be.
“You guys,” she finally said, in a voice far softer than usual, “I guess I must be really visual or something … because I can barely talk.”
Jon, Lisa’s partner, had the opposite reaction. Normally he almost verges on taciturn, but on that night he was a riot. Chatting a blue streak, while periodically accusing me of grabbing him inappropriately.
“Geraldine, keep your hands to yourself!”
“I HAVEN’T TOUCHED HIM, I SWEAR!” I shrieked, my hands waving frantically in the air.
My husband, usually impervious to everything, noted that he felt no difference in his demeanor (nor did I notice one). He was simply annoyed that he couldn’t see his food.
By the time dessert arrived, I felt like I’d gotten the hang of it, before accidentally sticking my finger in what felt like custard.
When we were finished with our meal, we called for Roberto, and he led us out into the darkened hallway, which felt bright by comparison. We all shook his hand and thanked him before heading out to the lobby. There, we grew accustomed to the light and accustomed to ourselves once more.
One of the managers asked us what we thought we’d eaten.
“The first course was raw fish,” I said confidently. “Sashimi of some sort.”
He nodded, delighted. I was spot on about dessert too – profiteroles with chocolate sauce, and the custard that I’d dipped my finger into had been just that – a type of creme caramel.
It was the main course that I missed entirely.
“It had pancetta and couscous,” I said, my confidence waning, “and … some kind of meat? Lamb or beef maybe?”
He laughed and shook his head, before turning the menu so we could see it. There were three different elements to the second course: a wild boar stew with root vegetables (really?), venison with pancetta (YES!) and a third dish which had couscous (I knew it!) resting under a filet of …
“Zebra?! We ate zebra?” I was dumbfounded.
The manager nodded.
I had no qualms with venison, which you often find on menus here in the Pacific northwest, or boar, which is prevalent in Italian cuisine. But zebra? I’d just been in Southeast Asia, and I knew how awful the exotic food trade could be. Was that even okay to eat?
Turns out that yes, it was (or about as okay as it is to eat any kind of meat). There’s only one kind of zebra that can be farmed for food, and the UK has fairly stringent laws about the meat it sources from other countries. What bothered me, I realized, is that this is not something I would have normally ordered.
It occurred to me how vulnerable an experience dinner can be when you don’t know what you are eating. But I realized that even if we’d been able to see our meal, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. A filet of zebra probably doesn’t look all that different from beef or deer or lamb. The issue that got me was not knowing.
I think we all ended up having fun – perhaps some of us more than others. I’m glad we tried it – it was a unique experience shared with good friends. I’ll probably be telling the story for months to come. I just hope that when I do, I’ll remember how I felt sitting at that table in the dark, confident and self-assured.
Maybe as I’m recounting it, I’ll gesture with my hands a bit too much, and I won’t think twice about it. Maybe I won’t be afraid to be who I am. Because in the darkness of that dining room, realizing how much I hold back … well, that was a real eye-opener.