Two friends prepare themselves for an unusual dining experience at Boston’s UpStairs on the Square. Photo courtesy of 40-Something Life.
Walking down a cobblestone street in the ancient city of Jaffa just outside of Tel Aviv, Israel, I approached a large building that, from the outside, looked like a gymnasium. I had been hearing about this restaurant for months and expected something a little more elegant looking. We walked inside and the gymnasium vibe still took hold on my surroundings. The floor was covered with studded paths with workers walking along with motionless eyes. In the center of this large area was a completely enclosed room within the room I was already standing in. During all of this time, I was mentally preparing myself for a dining experience unlike any I had ever had before, one that I wouldn’t soon forget. The restaurant was called Blackout and it is part of a growing international trend in the culinary world.
It started in Zurich, Switzerland when a blind minister wanted to raise awareness about the world of the visually impaired. He started by blindfolding his guests at dinner parties and this idea grew into a restaurant of this nature. The result was Blindekuh (The Blind Cow). It was the first establishment that served food in complete darkness ran by a staff comprised of blind or visually impaired servers.
The popularity of The Blind Cow spread and guests would sometimes have to wait up to three months to get a dinner reservation. In a few short years copycat restaurants sprout up throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North America. People came in droves to see what it was like to give the eyes a rest during a meal and experience a meal with only four of the five senses in tune.
As we approached the front desk, we were greeted by a friendly staff member who instructed us to take any cell phones, watches, or other electronics and secure them in lockers just outside of the enclosed room. It is at this point that our server, Liam, introduced himself. His eyes were such a vibrant shade of baby blue that it was hard not to stare directly into them. Liam went over the menu with us, which included the typical dishes a high-end restaurant provides. At the bottom there was an option of choosing a “wild card” meal that included an appetizer, entree, and dessert per the chef’s choosing.
How could I not choose the wild card?
We then entered a small area inside the enclosed room that had just enough light that I could only see the silhouettes of my fellow guests. Liam told us that this is a “decompression chamber” of sorts to allow our eyes to adjust to the total blackness that is about to come. He warned us that the darkness may become overwhelming and to let him know if we need to be taken out. Liam then instructed us to put our hands on each other’s shoulders and guided us to our tables.
As my group and I lose the use of our eyes while our awkward conga line makes our way to the table, we get the feeling of moving downhill. Even though we were on level ground, this is our body’s natural reaction to losing our vision as our other senses start to take over.
Once I sat down, I test to see just how dark my surroundings were. Yes, I couldn’t see anything around me, but what if I opened my eyes really wide and put my hand a couple inches away from my face? This failed attempt to see something – anything – made me wonder if those that lose their vision later in life try the same thing.
Conversations about the experience were floating around from different directions along with the sounds of bells, which is how the servers know where to find each other (some dark dining restaurants use the sound of flicking finders). The bells of Liam approached us and he started serving us our food.
I felt the plate in front of me but soon realized that using a fork would be a difficult task. How was I supposed to know where to grab the food with the tool I had been using my entire life? My first technique was to guide the food with my open hand onto the fork. This worked for a while but soon became a waste of time since I was essentially eating with my hands, so I ditched the fork and ate like the Romans.
As I worked my way through the courses, I marveled at the different sensations each dish had in my mouth. I was aware of every bite and the texture of ingredients that I was chewing. While most people are distracted by visual stimuli in their constant surroundings, the small things like the smoothness of tapioca as it is pushed against the palate of the mouth, is often overlooked (no pun intended).
I’m still not entirely sure that it actually was tapioca, but it tasted great.
When the meal ended and I was grabbing my belongings out of the locker while my eyes were getting used to getting some attention again, I tried to fathom living my life without the use of vision. For all of us who dined at Blackout, it was a temporary look into a world that most of us have never been part of, but for those who worked there, that was how they lived their lives. We said our goodbyes to Liam and as we left, I realized that I had a profound respect for him.
Seriously though, how does he use a fork?