Dark Table's "blind dining" restaurant turns off lights to turn on senses in Vancouver
Forget dinner by candlelight—how about dinner in a pitch-black room? For those who appreciate an out-of-the-ordinary restaurant, Dark Table is the ultimate adventure.
Although Dark Table opened in September in Kitsilano, if you drive by in the evening you might think it’s closed. That’s because it operates without any lights in the dining room, and blackout curtains cover all the windows, blocking out street light.
Dark Table is owned by Moe Alameddine, who founded O.Noir, a “blind dining” restaurant with locations in Toronto and Montreal. According to the Vancouver restaurant’s website, the concept originated with a Swiss man named Jorge Spielmann, who is blind; he would blindfold his dinner-party guests to show them what the experience of eating was like for him.
At Dark Table, all eight of the servers working at any given time are visually impaired. The cooks—led by chef and recent Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts grad Kristina Walgenbach—are not blind, and they work in a lit kitchen. But neither servers nor guests can see anything in the dining room.
In a phone interview, general manager Sami Mousattat explained that the servers, who were recruited through CNIB, trained for two months. They do everything from seating patrons to delivering plates to cleaning up the inevitable mishaps. “We usually expect on a Saturday night a couple of glasses will break,” he said, speaking from his experience in Toronto. According to Mousattat, the restaurant hopes to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people who are visually impaired, provide employment, and offer guests a fun few hours.
When I arrived for dinner with a friend, the hostess greeted us on the dimly lit patio and directed us under a heat lamp to peruse the menu. We had a choice of a two-course set menu (starter and main or main and dessert) for $33 per person or three courses for $39 per person. Both the starter and the dessert are a “surprise”. For the main course, there are five selections, including peppered garlic prawns, veal schnitzel, and fresh ravioli; or, you can choose to be served a surprise dish once again. (The restaurant won’t have its liquor licence until December.)
After the hostess took our order—three courses, one beef tenderloin, one “surprise”—our server, Lazare Hounnake, led us in from the patio, clinging to one another conga-style. As soon as the front door closed behind us, everything went black; there was no need to use the eye mask provided. I had expected some ambient light, but there wasn’t any: it was as disorienting as waking up in a hotel room in the middle of the night and having to feel your way to the bathroom.
Initially, the loss of vision felt overwhelming. It overstimulated my other senses with a swirl of background music mingled with faraway conversation and the necessity of patting down the table to orient myself to the place setting. Though she was sitting next to me, my friend’s disembodied voice seemed to come out of nowhere as I stared into the blackness in front of me. When the first course arrived, I couldn’t concentrate on her story while trying to eat: my clumsy motor skills and the unexpected flavours and textures in my mouth distracted me. The biggest challenge was avoiding knocking over my drink while feeling for the glass to pick it up.
“Oops! I’m having trouble finding my mouth,” my friend admitted, laughing. After attempting to use cutlery, we followed Hounnake’s suggestion and ate with our hands. (The kitchen cuts up your meat in advance, which was handy since I lost my knife early on.) While at first it was odd poking my fingers into food with unknown textures and temperatures, I was surprised by how quickly I got used to it—probably since I knew nobody could see me. Running my fingers around my plate let me gauge portion sizes and how much food I had already eaten, since I had no visual cues.
To preserve the mystery, I won’t reveal what I ate. Suffice it to say the meal consisted of fairly basic foods that most people will have eaten before. There was nothing from Fear Factor, and for the most part, ingredients were fairly easy to identify. While part of me would have liked a bigger palate challenge, I don’t think basic flavours are a bad thing given that there’s so much else to contend with here. In my subsequent phone conversation with Mousattat, he told me that they switch up the surprise dishes every month or so, and they’ll adjust what they serve depending on the feedback they get.
My companion found her steak—ordered medium-rare—perfectly cooked but extremely salty. My three surprise dishes were palatable but ordinary. However, I’m certain I would have enjoyed the food more if I could have taken pleasure in the presentation, which made me realize how much we eat first with our eyes.
Dark Table isn’t just about eating; it’s about being thrown out of your element. It’s definitely an experience worth having.