Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dining in the Dark

Close your eyes. Open them - no difference - it’s claustrophobically black all around you.

Take the glass of wine from your server’s hand, carefully. Sniff, swirl tentatively, sip, savor, swallow. A familiar flavor: white wine, probably Pinot Grigio. Carefully place the glass on the table. Now find knife, fork, plate, food. Get the food onto your fork and into your mouth without messing. Smell, taste, feel it in your mouth. Chew slowly to identify each ingredient of the appetiser in this three-course surprise menu. A salad of lettuce, melon, rare cold roast beef?

Listen for the tinkling of your blind server’s bell. Aah - there’s Jeroen, your newfound lifeline in this alien world, come to clear your plates and glasses, pausing proprietorially to make sure that you’re as comfortable as you can be out of your comfort zone. He seems jovial, even amused – you’re in his world now. Try to separate the cacophony of sound, the voices speaking Dutch around you. Turn to your companion, touch his arm, his hand, his face. Realise that you really like sitting next to him. It’s comforting to feel his presence in this isolation.

This is ctaste, a “dining in the dark” restaurant in a prime location on Amsteldijk in Amsterdam. It’s especially popular with young, adventurous Amsterdammers. They flock here in groups to celebrate special occasions in a unique way, or they come two by two to get to know each other on a different level. Although the concierge at our hotel (and our cab driver) had never heard of the dining in the dark restaurant, ctaste has been around since 2007.

The concept is not new. This trend has grown from its origins in Zurich, where a blind clergyman, Jürg Spielmann, opened the world’s first dark restaurant. Blindekuh (German for the game blind man’s buff) was opened by Spielmann in 1999, together with Andrea Blaser, Thomas Moser, and Stefan Zappa - the blind or partially blind founders of the Blind-Leicht Foundation, a charitable organization that works on projects to improve the quality of life for visually impaired people. The stated purpose of the foundation is:

”To promote the culture of blindness and mutual understanding between sighted and blind in our society. In fulfilling this aim, the Foundation develops and supports projects which create jobs for partially sighted and blind people.”

That intention is echoed at ctaste, as well as the slew of restaurants in the same mold in other locations; such as the Opaque trio of dark restaurants in California, the Unsicht-Bar in Cologne and other European capitals and the Dans le Noir in Paris and London, where blind and partially sighted people are employed.

It’s a humbling experience to enter into this dark world. From shuffling into the pitch black dining room conga-line style behind your server, to spending over 2 hours dining in a lively, bustling atmosphere without the benefit of sight, you come to realise just how much you rely on that particular sense to inform every aspect of your life. Yet it is possible to relax and surrender to the dark in public when you feel safe, as you do at ctaste. And it's strangely liberating to know that nobody can see you.

When I try to describe the experience, I find myself casting around for a word that does not relate to seeing - searching for substitutes for words like "revealing”, “enlightening”, “eye-opening.”

I realize how much I enjoy looking at my food. The sight of a well-presented dish is at least half the pleasure for me. Contrary to what I expected, even though the food was good, the fact that I could not see it definitely detracted from my pleasure in eating the meal. And I discover, to my chagrin, that my sense of taste is not what I thought it was. I don’t smoke and I consider myself blessed with a discerning palate. The same is true of my dining companion, my husband. So it was surprising to learn afterwards that the “rare roast beef” of our appetiser was in fact kangaroo. Even more startling was the discovery that the “white pinot grigio-type” wine at the start of our meal had in fact been a red merlot, albeit a light Spanish varietal. After all, we drink wine often enough.

It seems that I’m more visually-oriented than I thought – I even rely on my sight to tell me what my wine should taste like!


  1. Wow, what an interesting review. I have never heard of these "dark" restaurants - they are an intriguing concept. It was fascinating to read about your observation of how much your sense of sight contributes to your enjoyment of a meal.

    I also really enjoyed the way you opened the piece, great style.

    So have you had kangaroo before, when dining in the light?

  2. Thanks for your comments, WOS.

    Kangaroo - I must admit I was a little taken aback by that, but I'm not vegetarian and I did choose the surprise menu. The restaurant has a regular menu that you can order from beforehand.

    I have eaten ostrich and other game meat like springbok and kudu in South Africa, so I probably shouldn't be squeamish!

  3. What a fascinating post! I also was unaware of these restaurants. I was particularly taken with your observation, "I realize how much I enjoy looking at my food," not to mention reminding all of us who are sighted how much we rely on our sight to inform what we are tasting. As you did in listening to Lachenmann, I must now try closing my eyes when eating to see what it is I actually taste.

  4. Hi Carol-Ann, thank you for a great review.
    Hope to c you soon again.

    Greetings from the ctaste team

  5. Fascinating post! I've heard of one of these in Berlin but the only person I know who's been to Berlin is already blind and wasn't too impressed with the idea... he prefers a greasy spoon anyway! (although how would you know in this place... no, not going down that train of thought). I love the idea - it makes me think of so many interesting angles. Thanks!


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