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A Meal In Their Shoes

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“There is no darkness but ignorance.” William Shakespeare

For Christmas, one of the gifts I gave to my husband was a date night at Dark Table restaurant. Dining at Dark Table happens ENTIRELY in the dark. The darkness is absolute and more surprising than I could have ever expected.

I imagined being completely focused on the food placed before me, trying to identify it first by smell and and then by taste. I pictured an experience where the act of eating, something I often do mindlessly in front of the TV or computer, would be one that reminded me what I take for granted about food and the pleasure you gain from it when you take the time to truly appreciate the talents of a good chef.

Dark Table certainly offered that experience but it also offered a taste of something else – something completely extraordinary that I could never have anticipated – a glimpse into the world of blindness.

Before entering the restaurant, we ordered our meal outside in a heated and lit area. Two courses of the meal would be a surprise but we could chose our main. We were introduced to our server, Rose, who is blind, as are all of the servers there. Rose asked us to form a single file line behind her, placing our left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front. We first entered an enclosed foyer and only after the outside door was completely closed so no light could penetrate the darkness, we entered the restaurant relying on Rose to guide us to our table.

Arriving at our table after a shuffling of small, tentative steps and some disorienting turns, Rose placed my hand on the back of my chair and I felt the edges to figure out which way it was facing and how to sit down. She led Carlo to the rest-rooms and while I was there alone, I explored the table. It was round with a table cloth and another smaller, frilly-edged cloth. There was no glassware yet, just our plates with a napkin, a single serve butter packet and a knife and fork on either side. As I waited for Carlo I struggled to identify whether I did indeed have some limited vision or if the light shapes I was seeing were merely retinal afterimages.

I recognized Carlo’s voice in the darkness and as they returned I felt relieved to have them back with me. Rose ensured we knew where to find everything we would need and soon returned with fresh baked bread. If I could only smell one thing for the rest of my life, it might be this. I brought my bread to my face and smelled it for an inordinately long period of time – a pleasure I would have denied myself in a lit restaurant.

With butter inevitably on both our bread and our hands, Carlo and I shared our initial reactions to the restaurant. We both felt a heightened sense of alertness and laughed when we realized we were unable to sit back and relax in our chairs. We were both leaning forward over the table, in a state of constant anticipation of when the other might say something. With no visual cues, it took a bit of time to develop a comfortable pace of conversation. We had to make adjustments like enunciating more clearly and helping each other to know that what we said was heard and understood by placing a deliberate “oh” or “ok” or “wow” as appropriate when the other finished saying something.

I felt as though I had to be ready for anything because I had no way of telling what was going on around me. I didn’t know how big the restaurant was, how many people or tables there were or where the walls were. We were regularly surprised by other guests bumping into us as they were led past by their servers. All the times Rose checked on our table, I didn’t once hear her approach and her voice beside us was always a surprise. Luckily a pleasant one as Rose was a lovely person. Still, your body responds to so much unknown in ways you can’t control – you may find your first response is fear.

“Fear causes the organism to seek safety and may cause a release of adrenaline, which has the effect of increased strength and heightened senses such as hearing, smell, and sight.”
Wikipedia on self-preservation

A friend who’d been to the restaurant before me said, “It freaked me out and I had to leave half-way through the meal.” At the time, I couldn’t understand how the darkness could freak you out that much but as I sat in the restaurant, the retinal afterimages now gone, truly understanding that I couldn’t see a damn thing, adrenaline coursing through my body, floating in a sea of utter blackness, I too was a little freaked out.

There was a large group of people to my right. At least, they sounded like a large group but could have been only four people. I marveled at how relaxed and jovial they were and decided that we must come to the restaurant again because knowing what to expect, we might enjoy it even more the second time around. At times, their raucous laughter was jarring and distracting and made it difficult to hear Carlo – something I found a bit stressful as I also couldn’t see him.

I kept feeling a need to reach out to Carlo to regain a sense of how far away he was. While any light producing devices are forbidden, and in fact one guest was asked to put his phone away, Carlo would push his sleeve back and reveal the glow-in-the-dark hands on his watch and this gave us both a bit of comfort – being able to confirm that we could still actually see. At one point I even felt a bit sad but at the same time, talking through all of this with Carlo, we found ourselves on conversational journeys that were among the most stimulating and interesting we’ve ever had. While coping with this feeling of vulnerability, able to vocalize it and process it intellectually, I forged ahead as above all else, the main feeling I had was excitement.

I won’t tell you what our surprise starter was because I’d love for everyone who reads this to go there and wouldn’t want to spoil it! My main dish was ravioli in a cream sauce with some kind of cheese stuffing and an herb I couldn’t recognize. It smelled and tasted amazing but without my sight, I had trouble pinning down all of the ingredients. I was happy with my choice as the ravioli was easy to stab with my fork and perfect bite sizes so it wasn’t too messy. Carlo ordered a stuffed chicken with seasonal vegetables and potatoes. He had a little more trouble with his dish, even though the chicken was sliced. We used our hands a lot and needed more napkins from Rose – her most popular request.

Our dessert was also a surprise and if I hadn’t asked at the end of our meal, I never would have known what it was because we both guessed wrong! We were very close but we could tell we were off a bit. Combining my guess with his, the result would be closer to what it actually was but we were still missing some key flavours. Despite not knowing exactly what it was, it too was delicious.

After dinner, I called out for Rose, as was the protocol, and asked if she could lead me to the ladies room. As we walked, Rose asked how we were enjoying the experience. I told her that I was finding it absolutely amazing. There were so many things that I’d never thought of before that people without sight must experience. Rose replied, “Thank you for saying that. A lot of people don’t even know we’re blind.”

I asked if Dark Table was connected to a charity and Rose told me that they are a business but that there was a fundraiser there recently that raised a lot of money for the blind. She also said that a program called CareerConnect Canada (a program through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind) helps to find employment for blind people at places like Dark Table.

“With an unemployment rate of 70%, the blind face obvious challenges in a society that is preoccupied with visual communication, but in a dark dining environment, the tables are turned—the non-sighted servers guide the sighted.”
O’Noir website

My research at home revealed that Dark Table is owned by Moe Alameddine whose two similar restaurants in Toronto and Montreal, O’Noir, share profits “to support local associations that serve blind and visually impaired people of all ages.”

I would definitely recommend supporting the CNIB with a donation but of course, they also have volunteer opportunities and other ways to get involved.

When I thought of blindness before, I thought mainly of the barriers to mobility, of my love of visual art and how much I would miss it, and of difficulties finding work and making a living. Now, what strikes me the most is wondering if blind people ever really get over that sense of fear in public places. I can’t quite imagine ever getting so used to it that it wouldn’t bother me at all though I can see how you would have to learn to cope with it in order to live your life. I think the hardest thing for me would be feeling vulnerable.

I can’t tell you how Rose feels but I can tell you that she was young and beautiful, she had a lovely gentle voice and she was a fantastic guide. When we began the experience I admitted to her that I was a little nervous but mostly excited.  We were already in the dark at that point.  Rose said she was excited for us and I could tell she was smiling and genuine when she said it.  At the end of the night, I thanked her and again told her how much I enjoyed it.

As we walked away and said goodbye to Rose, she waved at us.  Carlo waved back and instantly realized she couldn’t see his wave.  She slipped back inside the restaurant and we walked on, eyes wide, soaking in the sights of the street and indeed the entire world, once again available to us.

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