Dans Le Noir
Time Out says
It’s lights out at this global dining phenomenon, where you'll eat dinner in complete darkness
Have you ever stopped to consider how much you rely on your eyesight to do something as simple as enjoy a meal out? From finding your wine glass to loading your fork to making eye contact with your dining companion, your eyesight makes eating out simple, and indeed almost automatic. But Dans Le Noir challenges you to eat a multi-course meal in complete darkness, taking away your power of sight and forcing you to rely on your other senses.
The concept was born in Paris in 2004, and there are now similar restaurants all over the world, including in London and Barcelona. Experienced guides, who have low or no vision, escort diners into a pitch-black room and help them sit down, find their cutlery and find their wine and water. The guides are also servers, bringing diners their meals and explaining how to find things as needed. The guides won't tell you what you'll be eating, but dietary requirements are catered to.
We gather in the (well-lit) lobby of Rydges Hotel, just north of the city in Carlton, and chat nervously. Tables of up to 12 are seated at a time, and the seatings are staggered. No one really knows what to expect, but we pass the time by having a drink at the bar and getting a photo at the photobooth. The host tells us people like to get a before and after photo, just to see how much of their meal they end up wearing.
We are then introduced to our guide, Margaret. Margaret was born without sight, and she has been working at Dans Le Noir since its inception in early 2018 at the Como. The dining concept moved to Rydges in early 2019. Margaret gets us to shuffle single file into the dining room, guided by the sound of her voice and our hands on the shoulders of the person in front. She takes us to our seats and helps us sit down, helpfully explaining where we can expect to find cutlery, napkins and our water glasses, as well as a helpful hint to pouring from a carafe without being able to see it (put your finger in your water glass as you pour, so you'll know how full it is).
Margaret comes back throughout the meal to deliver and remove plates, her calm voice letting us know where she is and what she's doing. One of my companions is gluten free, and some of her courses came on square plates, differentiating them from our round ones. We have opted for five courses with matched half glasses of wine (beer is also an option), but there are also three-course options, and drinks pairing is optional.
Without sight, it's very difficult to tell what you're eating – or even to eat it in the first place. Did I get that bite on my fork, or is it now on the tablecloth? Have I eaten everything on my plate? Are those flavours meant to be together? Sweetness in particular seems to be magnified by not being able to see, and what would be a complementary jus or reduction turns into an almost jam-like sweet accompaniment to savoury food.
We aren’t told what we’re eating (we’ll be shown pictures of the plated dishes after the meal is over), and people shout out jubilantly when they identify flavours: “Ricotta, I think?” “I have something crunchy here, OK, and it’s smoky…” “This is meat for sure, maybe beef? Lamb? There’s some kind of mash too, it’s sort of sweet…”
Being seated with strangers you can't see has its own challenges, but everyone seems very friendly and keen to chat. At first the conversation is dominated by the physical space around us and the daunting task of eating without being able to see, but as the evening wears on we found ourselves talking of other things and enjoying a lively discussion. I would normally not chat so easily with strangers, but somehow removing the lights has broken down barriers as well.
Later Margaret tells me this is how it always goes – nervous strangers become emboldened friends after hours in the dark. Strangely, time goes much faster without watches and mobile phones – what I think is an hour turns out to be more like three inside. The point of the dinner is not the logistics of eating without sight – it’s that without the expectations and conventions imposed by being able to see those around us, we can use our voices and hands to really connect.
The writer dined as a guest of Dans Le Noir.
Rydges on Swanston
701 Swanston Street
|Opening hours:||Thu-Sun 6.30-10.30pm|