/ Lisa Katayama / 9 am Mon, Nov 30 2009
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  • An evening meal in total darkness at Opaque

    An evening meal in total darkness at Opaque

    Entrance1.JPG.jpegThe room is pitch black. There is absolutely no light in here, not even an emergency exit or the glow of a cell phone. I can't see anything. A slight panic flickers through my mind. For the next three hours, I will have to rely on my other senses to figure everything out. I'm at Opaque, a fancy restaurant in San Francisco in which patrons dine in perfect darkness. Actually, I don't really know if it's fancy — the staff members are polite and the tablecloth feels expensive, but for all I know the room is a basement dungeon and my steak is green. In addition to offering a tasty five-course prix fixe menu, Opaque forces us to live without our vision for a few hours — most of us rely on the sense of sight heavily during our daily lives, and we don't really know what it's like to not be able to see at thing.
    Mocha, our waitress, is legally blind. She has leber congenital amaurosis, a genetic retinal disease that causes her to see giant blotches of blind spots all across her field of vision — she can see basic shapes, but she can't read or drive. Having lived with this all her life, she's a pro at maneuvering through the darkness — once my date for the night, Julio, and I pick our food choices from a menu in a dimly lit lounge, she slips through a curtain and marches through the pitch darkness with my arm on her shoulder, forewarning me of a right turn ahead, then a slight left, until we reach the table. There are very few places in the world where one can experience pure, complete blackness, and this is one of them. My eyes desperately scan the space for something they can see. I can feel my pupils dilating and my mind going wild with desperation. After a few minutes, my brain finally registers the futility of this hunt, and I close my eyes. I hear two people talking softly in the distance. My nose takes in the faint mustiness of the room. My fingers scan the table in front of me with my fingers. I realize that my other senses are stepping up to compensate for the absence of vision. Mocha explains a few simple rules. Right now, there are two forks, a knife, and a napkin on the table, and nothing else. I am to meet her hands at the angled corner to exchange plates of food. The Pellegrino is straight in front of me; she recommends sticking my finger in my glass while pouring to prevent overflow. Eating in the dark can be a bit messy — I think I got more butter on my pinkie than I did on the bread. For dinner, I have a salmon amuse-bouche, ahi tuna tartare with crispy wontons, a crudite plate with three kinds of veggies and dips, beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes, and chocolate cake. The whole meal costs $79, not including drinks. Midway through the meal, I decide to take a bathroom break to wash my butter-covered hands. Mocha puts my hand on her shoulder and leads me back out through the curtains into the light. The bathroom is in the building next door. It's nighttime, but the streetlights look offensively bright. I realize in a new way how messy the visual world is — trash all over the street, people flailing their arms wildly as they talk, wine bottles stacked one over another on a huge wall rack, paper towels tossed messily into the bathroom trash can. I can't wait to get back into the peace and darkness. Mocha tells me that some people come here to party but most come to make out. For me, what's hitting this whole experience out of the ballpark is the way I am really just tasting the food I'm shoving in my mouth for what seems like the first time in my life. It's like every single ingredient is self-separating inside of my mouth for a very detailed taste check. By the time dessert comes, I'm feeling relaxed, peaceful, and at ease. I'm wearing a dress, but I sit back in the booth with my legs wide open, aware that nobody can see me so it doesn't even matter. I make funny faces at Julio just for kicks, because I know he can't see. I manage to get through the entire meal without spilling anything... well, almost. Feeling confident and a little bit sleepy, I order coffee after dessert — I thought I would be able to hear the cream pouring, but apparently I didn't because I got it all over my fingers when I picked up the cup, and my coffee tasted like milk. It's nearly 11PM when Julio and I emerge from the darkness. As we run across the dirty street avoiding the glaring headlights of cars passing by, we realize both how grateful we are for our vision and how nice it was not to have to see anything for the past three hours.

    / / COMMENTS


    1. A couple of comments related to this but not to each other.

      The coven I used to run had our Dark Moon ritual in total darkness. It’s amazing how it shifts your consciousness, and how painfully bright a single candle is afterwards.

      There was a CSI episode based on this. The waiter did it.

    2. I hope they take cellphones at the door. I would get doubly upset if some jerk pulls out a cellphone and shares their conversation with the restaurant **and** lights the restaurant with their screen. Might lead to a potential CSI episode.

    3. When I was 10 I had a really severe Asthma attack and ended up damaging some cappilaries near my eye. To hasten healing, my doctor had my eyes bandaged and I was left blinded for nearly a month. It was terrifying at first, I felt utterly vulnerable, reliant on others just to navigate my own house. But after just a week I felt my home in this whole new way. First using walls to guide me, then sounds and smells. There’s this feeling you get, a sense of a room’s presence, its volume, that comes from knowing it in total darkness. Each day my world expanded and by the time the bandages came off I was almost back to my usual confidence getting by inside and out.

      To this day, I’m nearly 30, I sometime just like to douse the lights and get my place as dark as I can and listen to music or just relax. I don’t feel comfortable in a new apartment or home until I know it in the dark.

      This story, and this restaurant made me think of all that for the first time in ages. Thank you Lisa, I’m adding this to my list of SF places to visit!

    4. Bah! Just Bah to eating in the dark! If you can’t dissect a meal in the light eating in the dark won’t help you. Sure it might make an awkward conversation easier but nothing else. ooooh what was that, a finger nail? Is this steak over cooked? You have such lovely er um eyes? Pretentious frippery at best. Not my fault you can’t cook and have to cover it up with darkness. Grumble grumble grrr…

      Next up Vomitoriums; eat until you puke and then start all over again!

        1. +1 to Gloria for knowing Roman architectural terms. Here’s another fun one, actually somewhat related to this article: cenaculum. It means both dining room and upstairs room, since the dining room was upstairs in homes.

          1. The only dining room I was taught was “triclinium”, although perhaps that’s due to an issue of formality or class.

            My favourite “Roman architectural term” story (I know) is the etymology of the word “fornication.” It came from the Latin “fornix”, meaning “arch” — for it was under those where prostitutes often met their clients. Good one for dinner parties.

            @demidan: Sorry; wasn’t aware it was a gag, only its part in a long history of genuine misuse. Thought I’d check.

        1. Not really, My vacations revolve around food and eating. SanFran for me is wine country diners and noodle shops. Next up is Commanders Palace in N.O.!

          1. Please please please don’t come to New Orleans to eat at Commanders. At one time it was “the place,” but no longer. It’s good, but there are way better places to go. Suggestions for “fine dining,” Bacco, Ralph’s on the Park, Jacques-imoes, Dooky Chase, la Petite Grocery.

            1. Uh… Scuse Me!

              Brigtsens! And I’d sugg K-Paul’s if for no other reason that after Katrins K-Paul set up a table outside his French Quarter restaurant and fed whoever. AND, if you are in the French Quarter early enough, you can see the butter delivery truck pull up outside K-Pauls and unload barrels of butter to the kitchen. Barrels. Big barrels.

              Oh! On topic! You could always eat there with a blindfold. ‘S New Orleans darlin’, ‘s all good.

    5. I had a similar experience in Milan: the local institute for the blind has a whole warehouse especially fitted to simulate various situations of daily life as lived by a blind person: settings go from a public park to the beach to a household. At the end of the semi-guided tour hosts get to’ relax at a bar (this too in complete darkness) and sip a selection of drinks and aperitifs. It definitely makes you look at things differently (literally).

      1. I’ve eaten there! The food was lovely (tasting) and I only knocked my soda over 1 time. lol I’d definitely eat there again, if I happen to be in Zurich. : )

      1. You’re not being wry, are you? :P

        I’ll take you at face value: A vomitorium is an exit in an amphitheatre that allows crowds to leave or enter in large numbers — “vomiting” them.

        I actually like this even better than the made-up version, honestly. It’s got a bit of imaginative oomph to it; I mean, who looked at these people and thought it seemed like the passageways were blowing chunks? Classy.

        Anyway, yeah — hijacking of thread, over.

    6. Not being wry at all, I had no idea. I honestly thought, until today, that a vomitorium was a room with long feathers and big brass bowls, for truly excessive feasting.

      Now I have to remember who I told that to, and tell them I was wrong…argh.

      And I agree with you that the true version is even better. The ancient Romans were marvellous in many ways, but in others they were disgusting.

    7. Sounds like an interesting experience, albeit stupidly expensive considering it’s pretty much just a gimick.

    8. Every time I read something like this, I think of Asimov’s Nightfall. Sorry Cory, still the best sci-fi story of all time!

    9. There used to be a similar restaurant in Melbourne, Australia. I think it was called “Pitch Black”. Every now and then, I’m bitterly disappointed I never to go experience it. And now, given that I recently visited San Francisco, I’m again disappointed I didn’t visit *there*.

    10. I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency where a character at a candle-lit banquet speculates about the relationship between light levels and food quality, leading to the conclusion that the kitchen staff might come up with culinary marvels if confined to total darkness in the basement.

    11. …that would be at “Blindekuh”, the blind cow restaurant, in Zurich. The mango mousse was so light and delicious. It was more than a dark dinner. It was fine dining.

    12. We’ve had a restaurant like that in London too for a couple of years now, called Dans le Noir.

      Yes, night vision cameras for security/safety, so if you’re “making out” then be aware that you *could* be being watched (or even “recorded for training purposes”!)

      An early review of the London restaurant commented that hte food wasn’t up to the quality of the hype, but I hope they’ve rectified that since. And obviously the menu is selected so as to make it relatively easy to eat the food in the dark (if possibly a little messy!)

      And they did a “total darkness Thanksgiving” last week, so you could imagine you were back in the US with family rather than surrounded by strangers in a restaurant in London!

    13. I guess I don’t get the whole “meal in darkness” thing. It’s one thing to host some kind of “Experience Blindness” event where you can see what it’s like to live in someone else’s situation, but why pay ridiculous amounts of money to eat food in a unique environment? I could get the same effect using a microwavable pizza and some blackout curtains.

      1. Well, you could probably say the same about the whole restaurant experience itself. Why pay to sit in a restaurant when I could microwave a pizza (surely a decent Italian restaurant does a pizza lightyears better than microwave?) at home?

    14. They’ve been doing this for years in Montreal, Quebec. At “Chateau Noir” (Black House)
      Never been personally, but its on my list. :D

      1. Can you post a URL or address? I’m going there for christmas and would love to give it a try, but I couldn’t google it out…

    15. Sounds wonderfully fascinating, but really? Not one Grue joke? That’s their natural habitat! I’d be too scared to eat there. Because of Zork. And the darkness, you see. Or not, that is. Heh. *ahem* ::crickets::

    16. i know it’s an interesting idea, but i am way too paranoid: i’d totally suspect everyone of messing with my food somehow. it would be fun to do it at home somehow…someone with night vision goggles to help out?

    17. A friend told me about a meal at a restaurant just like this, except it’s in Berlin, I think. Blind waiters, menus offered to diners outside at a sidewalk cafe table, then into a pitch black dining room. She said one of the people dining with her lost a diamond earring during the dinner. She got it back the next day when the day crew came in.

      I presume the chef’s at such restaurants are not blind…

    18. My knee-jerk reaction was that this was just a gimmick, but the more I think about it, the cooler it sounds.

    19. Just a correction of #34. The restaurant in Montreal is O. Noir. It’s also not a cheap meal ($40) and the food wasn’t particularly good, but it was well worth it for the experience. I think $80 would be out of line unless the place has a Michelin star.

    20. As a designer, how in the world did these restaurateurs get the local building inspector to go along with them? What about emergency exit signs? What about clear paths of egress?

    21. I used to live on Treasure Island, Florida, and sometimes I would walk down the edge of water with my eyes closed for several minutes at a time. There was no one out there at night and you could tell where you were going by your feet; too deep, angle shoreward, too dry, angle waterward.

    22. @#44…wrong preface to your statement! Should have read “As an architect…”; everyone knows designers are not worried with egress and emergency exits! Haha light-hearted humor, I am definitely curious about the code variances as well.

    23. I don’t remember what food prices in the US were like (I remember them being a little cheaper than Australia but not shockingly so) but $79 for a good quality meal for 2 in a nice restaurant gimmick or no gimmick does not seem unreasonable to me.

      Sure it’s not the sort of money I’d spend on dinner every night but for an interesting date with my partner that’s perfectly reasonable.

      I do love a good dining experience.

      1. Doesn’t seem greatly expensive to me either. American’s spend the least percentage of their income on food than any other country. You can spend way more than that incredibly easily here in NZ.

    24. I don’t remember what food prices in the US were like (I remember them being a little cheaper than Australia but not shockingly so) but $79 for a good quality meal for 2 in a nice restaurant gimmick or no gimmick does not seem unreasonable to me.

      Sure it’s not the sort of money I’d spend on dinner every night but for an interesting date with my partner that’s perfectly reasonable.

      I do love going to nice restaurants and have no problem with paying appropriately for the experience.

    25. I actually did this at Unsichtbar in Berlin. Fantastic evening. Food was a little over-spiced but the overall experience was worth it.

    26. @ all those who were talking about the vomitorium, in modern theaters, the vomitorium(usually shortened to ‘vom’)is also the place where an actor might enter or exit that is placed in front of the stage(in the audience). not all theaters have them, it depends on the design of the stage.

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