Ever tried to cut up a magret de canard in complete, can’t-see-your hands-in-front-of-your-face darkness? Get our tips on how to do it in this review of a French restaurant where the sense of taste really is the most important of the five.
I have to be honest: I have no idea how to cut a magret de canardin in complete, can’t-see-your hands-in-front-of-your-face darkness. I ended up eating mine with my hands when I visited a certain Paris restaurant recently. Plus, I thought all the time I was eating beef, not duck.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed myself thoroughly and I think you should try this place, Dans Le Noir, if you don’t mind putting down some EUR 38 for a mediocre meal (including wine).
Why would I recommend such an establishment? Well, it’s the kind of place you visit not for the food, but for the experience and, in this sense, I certainly got my money’s worth.
Dans Le Noir, around the corner from the Centre Pompidou, has gotten a lot of recent press as the only restaurant of its kind in France; the wait staff is blind and you eat your meal in total darkness. Even cell phones and watches with lighted faces must all be left in lockers outside the dining room so you can experience as closely as possible what it would be like to be blind.
The restaurant opened in Paris in 2004, founded by Edouard de Broglie and Etienne Boisrond. It was not the first of its kind in Europe; a foundation for blind people has been running a comparable restaurant in Zurich since 2000.
But Dans Le Noir is the first for-profit European company to try the experiment, starting in Paris, and the press materials refer proudly to France’s heritage in research on behalf of the visually impaired such as, of course, the Braille written language invented by Frenchman Louis Braille.
The company is now actively recruiting franchisees to take the operation international. The biggest Dans Le Noir restaurant is already open in London and a Moscow branch reportedly launched just this past month; the company is also running a temporary version in Lille through January 26, 2007 including a special New Year’s celebration party—in the dark, of course. The company is also active in event marketing, including, for example, helping Futuroscope design its Les Yeux Grands Fermés exhibition.
The appeal of the whole enterprise is an experience that is educational and vaguely altruistic, but in a leisure setting; and it’s true that darkness does stimulate all your other senses, including your sense of compassion. Here were some of the questions my visit prompted:
- How do you serve wine in the dark without either spilling or sticking your finger in the glass?
- Why does being in total darkness make you dizzy or, in my case, your eyes get red and watery?
- How do you really know what you’re eating if you can’t see it and no one identifies it for you? My friend swore the dessert had passion-fruit in it; I tasted pineapple. We were both wrong.
- And, of course, how do you cut magret de canard without looking? Not only couldn’t I cut it but often when I did think I’d succeeded in stabbing something with my fork, it would arrive empty in my mouth. And sometimes upside down and I’d end up poking my soft palate with the tines.
I still don’t know the answers, but I’m glad I learned to ask these questions, even though, on the cuisine side, our mushroom side dish was so over-salted it was inedible. (The Muslim chef —and, yes, the cooks are sighted — was observing Ramadan and so couldn’t taste his own creations, so explained the hostess when we pointed it out.) If truth be told, I ended up eating a lot of bread that night, not because the rest of the meal was bad but because that was the non-challenging choice and I got there hungry.
But, truth be told, this is the kind of place where, after you’ve gone the first time, you don’t need to go again until you have out-of-town visitors. But then you probably will want to share it: it is, forgive the pun, an eye-opening evening.
How it works
You actually order your food before entering the dining room; you can order à la carte from a menu of simple, traditional French cuisine or order le menu ‘surprise’. (You identify any allergies or preferences to the hostess; both the friends I went with are vegetarians, for example.)
Once you’ve ordered, you are introduced to your server and he or she guides you in the dark, linked together hand to shoulder, to your table; if you have to get up again, you call your server who guides you out. Each service takes about 90 minutes; yes, this means — barring a panic attack which the restaurant claims is a very rare incident — 90 minutes in total darkness.
You pay the bill back in the lobby, which is lighted, as are the bathrooms.
For the security conscious: you leave your things in a locker and the dining room is filmed with an infrared camera. The film is reviewed only in case of incident and — they swear — not just to laugh at people eating their food with their hands.
The experience is not recommended for children under seven.
One of the most fun aspects of this place, by the way, is the opportunity for unabashed eavesdropping. A good game is guessing what the people at the table next to you look like and then waiting in the bar outside to see how right you were.
A quiet café in Paris
There is another eating establishment in Paris is this same category of restaurant solidaire: Le Café Signes, opened in 2003 in the 14th.
Here the wait staff is deaf (and mute) and you order from a menu that shows you how to sign your choices. I have not visited myself, but it did merit a listing in ‘Paris Pas Cher’ and apparently has a loyal local clientele who have all learned how to say salade et frites s’il te plaît in sign language.
Again, the restaurant is run for a profit and, in fact, is profitable.
But, as with Dans Le Noir, part of the pleasure is eating out knowing that your check helps pay the salaries of at least a few people who might otherwise have difficulty finding work.
Plus, you are served a generous portion of empathy with each meal for those who must live with and overcome these challenges every day and forever.