The 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.
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