'Dans le noir?': The blind dining concept
They say the loss of one of your senses enhances the others. Take away your sight, and you become more attuned to smells, sounds, textures, and taste. But you may also gain awareness of what it’s like to live without the dominant sense.
And therein lies the heart of the ‘blind dining’ concept.
‘Dans Le Noir?’ is a restaurant chain, with a flagship location in Paris and branches in Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Nairobi – and since 2006, Clerkenwell, London.
The hook? You dine in complete and utter darkness. Deprived of all and any light (they make you surrender your glowing watches and smart phones at the door), all visual preconceptions about the food are removed along with your sight.
The twist? The waiters, who guide you through the dark room and serve your food, are blind. So, rather unusually for a restaurant, the experience also challenges preconceptions about blindness and disability.
Customers are forced into a unique position of empathy with the blind, who navigate the darkness every day. A bond of trust is demanded while you cling helplessly onto your guide as they lead you into a lightless abyss.
And this does make Dans Le Noir? truly unique. It is much more than a restaurant or niche dining experience. It’s a brief and powerful insight into the daily world of the visually impaired.
The franchise has now had over a million visitors worldwide; the London branch has hosted the likes of Will and Kate, Tim Burton and even Katie Perry and Russell Brand (pre-acrimonious divorce).
But what’s it like for the blind waiters who work here? As the tables are turned and the interaction between the blind and the sighted becomes inverted, how do the waiters view the visitors to their sightless world?
According to Ghow, one of the senior guides in Clerkenwell, it’s a “strange sensation”.
“It’s like a reverse psychology, because normally, sighted people assist us in the outside world, and we assist them here.”
But Ghow, who has worked in the restaurant for nearly a decade, adds that it’s also exciting and fun, because “what they go through during that period, we go through as our every day life anyway”.
“Being a guide makes me feel strong,” he says.
Although the blind guides lead their customers extremely confidently, the sighted move tentatively, and are shocked at the sudden deprivation of light. Ghow tells us that every few weeks, a customer has a panic attack and need to be led out. So the room is filmed with infrared cameras to ensure the welfare and safety of both diners and guides.
However, according to sales manager Tatiana Deodato: “We don’t have to watch the cameras because we have the guides inside. It’s not intuition exactly, but even if they don’t see, they know something isn’t right.”
She does recall, with a wince, an occasion where they had some difficulties with a party of 18. “They had a battle with food, but this was absolutely not funny at all for us.”
Another waiter has a different perspective.
“Customers are honestly the most challenging part of my job,” says Jack, a fifth year guide. “You get absolutely wonderful customers - and then you get the opposite, that come in and do things that they would never, ever consider doing in any other restaurant.”
He explains that he has to deal with a lot of challenging situations, like drunk customers who can become aggressive with the staff and other diners.
However, he points out that he’s only ever thrown customers out about ten times – “which in five years in the restaurant business is actually quite good.”
“Remember that inside the dark room we’re a social experience - you’ll be sitting next to anyone and everyone, whether they’re any old joes, celebrities, or members of the royal families.”
And it’s this social aspect that is a surprising and wonderful element to Dans Le Noir? Seated on long tables next to strangers, the darkness encourages frank interaction and a bond with strangers.
Jack tells us about his best customer experience, in his second year at Dans Le Noir?
Two men had been dating online for a good six months, but had never met each other – one from London, one from New Zealand.
“They finally decided to meet down in the dark room, and after about twenty minutes of talking, one gentleman proposed to the other right there and then.”
There have already been three proposals in the dark this year. According to Jack, the entire room goes quiet and everyone holds their breath. “And of course it’s an explosion of noise when you hear “Yes!”
“And the girl can’t see the ring, of course. I’d say just bring a Haribo. Why the hell not?”
And The Ethik Investment Group, which owns the Dans Le Noir? franchise, is committed to making sure that their initiatives are more than just sensory experiences, but a socially responsible effort to promote awareness and integration of the differently abled in the workplace.
And it practises what it preaches: 50% of their employees are disabled – including their Vice President, who is blind.
Tatiana says: “I think it has a strong impact, a positive image to other companies, showing that it’s possible to have a really important position at a corporate level, even if you’re disabled.
“It proves that when people are in the right place, they are sometimes even better than people with no disability – for example, there’s nobody better than our guides to work in the dark. They are the experts.”