My friend Jess has a little list of “things to do” that she keeps in her wallet, the kind of things some people call a bucket list. (I never understood the origin of that term). For about three years, she’s been asking if I wanted to go to the restaurant where you eat in the dark and the servers are blind. I was always kind of ambivalent — I was convinced that the food would be appalling and the experience gimmicky. But Jess is both charming and persuasive, and before I went to England, I promised I’d go with her and her boyfriend after I got home. I like her guy very much, and decided to treat it as an adventure. But was still certain the food would be awful, and checking it out online just confirmed my gut.
The place is called O Noir, and is in a dark basement lair that seems to be part of some sketchy hotel. The entry steps weren’t remotely reassuring, looking more like the set up for a cheap haunted house than a place that serves food. The well-weathered caution tape was a nice touch.
The way it works is that you enter and go to the bar, which is lighted, and order. The bar looks like it had several previous incarnations as the kind of sad pub where people hang out all day, silently drinking pitchers of cheap beer, avoiding their families. The shelves of books along one wall part of the layers of lives, are weirdly counterpointed by a big display of the braille alphabet on the other wall.
The menu is pretty much someone’s 1970s idea of festivity, with veal al limone and black forest cake. I went with my usual strategy of Safest Thing on the Menu, and ordered the pasta with tomato sauce and veggies. J and B are both fish-eating veggies, and B went all out and ordered the Surprise Dish, asking if it could be meatless.
After ordering, they take you to one of several little rooms off the cavernous, dim corridor, and explain how you’ll be led to your table. Lots of rules about cellphones, watches with lights, etc. There is a two door system to prevent any leakage of light, and the server, who is indeed sightless, comes to lead you to the table. There is a lot of “put your left hand on my shoulder, door on my right, right hand up, feel your chair, don’t pull it out too far, etc.”
It was indeed pitch, echoing dark, without a hint of light. It was disorienting, not being able to really sense how far away J and B were, and to not really know who else was in the room. I had asked and been told “about 30 people,” but it didn’t sound like quite that many. The server explained what was on the table — bread plate, knife on left, butter pat, fork on right.
We found ourselves talking quietly, leaning forward, really self-conscious about making noise. Then our server led in another party, who had the opposite response, and who were irritatingly loud and raucous. It made me anxious. I was grateful when my wine arrived and the server explained to me how to find it at my shoulder.
When we got our salads, we got a bit more relaxed, though figuring out where the food was wasn’t easy. I tried the strategy of poke poke poking with my fork until it felt like something was on it, while B ended up using his hands, after apparently “almost poking himself in the eye with a piece of calamari.”
The food was … fine. My salad was competent — maybe kale and some roasted veggies, and I managed a (giant bite) of B’s calamari, which was okay. The mains were less so. My pasta was overly cheesy, and B’s “vegetarian surprise” prompted this:
B: “I think this is meat. Try this.”
J: (after groping around) “It tastes like meat. Cate?”
C: (more groping). “It’s kind of meaty, but too tender. Maybe it’s seitan? I think it’s meat.”
The server took it away, and came back and said “this is veggie now.” “What was that before,” we asked. “I don’t know,” she said.
Turned out, once we left to pay, it had been chicken. As a restaurant, it was a pretty big fail — the surprise in veggie surprise shouldn’t be chicken, and “edible” is not really much of a culinary endorsement. They did comp B’s dish, which was . But it was a good little lesson in what it’s like to navigate the world without resources. The way our server handled it really struck me — not to explain, or even really apologize, but to just try to correct. As though her world had also been full of confusing, wrong things that she just had to take in stride.