On Saturday night my boyfriend and I went out for a meal in the city. It was an expensive 3 course meal, including wine and cocktails. But there was something different about this dining experience which set it apart from, and made it superior to, all others. We dined at Dans le Noir? in Farringdon, in the pitch black, and had no idea what we were eating.
It's an idea that has been around for 20 years, and Dans le Noir, founded by Edouard de Broglie, have restaurants in Paris, Barcelona and St Petersburg. Apparently they opened a restaurant in New York, three blocks from Time Square, but the idea didn't take off. I was baffled to hear that, given the fact that many things edgy and new seem to emanate from the big apple. Dans le Noir? boast a workforce that is constituted of 50% blind people, with the rest having no visual impairment. Why not 100% I asked? The reception host at the end of our meal told us that Dans le Noir? wants to set an example and show all employees and business that whilst striving towards 100% may be tricky, employing 50% of people with disabilities is entirely possible. If more employers strove to achieve those sorts of figures, this would be a hugely positive step forward.
At the outset of the evening neither of us knew what to expect from the occasion, so on arrival we promptly knocked back a healthy shot of tequila to relax us, and take the edge off things. Our waitress/assistant/godsend for the evening was called Claire. She is a lovely patient lady, who we learnt from fellow diners had lost her sight at the age of 16. She made us feel instantly at ease as she directed us through the triple curtain 'let no light in' set-up, slowly, and to our seat. She then directed us around the table, advising us as to how to find things with ease. I digested her instructions with the mix of trust and trepidation I've only experienced when a theme park attendant checked my seatbelt on a rollercoaster.
She told us how long we could expect to wait between courses, and how long it would be until she next came back. Without a phone, and unable to see my watch, the time meant nothing. Within minutes we realised we were more reliant on Claire than we could have possibly imagined. We quite literally couldn't do anything without her help. It was a humbling experience, and one which made me realise that one person's weakness is another's strength. As I reached for my water cup time and time again, mistaking it for the wine tumbler, and used my fingers to eat food that I normally would use cutlery for (thankful for the darkness!) I realised how valuable my sight is to me, and how much I take it for granted. Claire on the other hand glided around the place seamlessly, waiting over several tables, and dissappointing no-body.
The table beside us seated four cheery Spaniards who were crying with laughter when we arrived. Maria told us that she had kept on accidentally taking the napkin belonging to a fellow diner instead of her own. Nicolas took delight in telling his girlfriend that I was playing footsie with him. She then knocked a cup of water on the floor. Hilarity ensued accordingly.
The food was tasty and unusual, and weird, and wonderful. Hot met cold, sweet met salty, and mushy met crunchy. The entire menu had clearly been designed to test the senses, and the result was great.
I was surprised about how much of my food I had managed to consume without vision. This is either an indication of my greed or of my supreme skills, though I suspect the former to be the case.
During our meal we cried we laughter, we spilt things, we chatted openly with complete strangers, and had a great time. Yet we saw nothing. This was made possible only though the efforts and hard work of a hugely skilled and underestimated workforce. Here, differences stemming from biological weaknesses became incredible assets. After a dining feat that simply has to be experienced to be understood, I for one felt humbled, and amazed, and proud to be human.
Dans le Noir? is a fantastic concept which certainly has a place in any modern society striving for equality. It's also earns it's place at the table (as it were) because it's really great fun, and you'll giggle your socks off.
Behind these curtains disability went from being a strength to a weakness. Claire and her colleagues at Dans le Noir? arent dis-abled, but more-abled, in many ways. It's just about creating the environment where people who are different can thrive.