Blind tasting: Dans le Noir, London’s first ‘restaurant in the dark’

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th June 2014
If you’ve ever worked front of house the chances are you’ll have some disaster story somewhere in your past, the kind of thing that still wakes you up at night in a cold sweat screaming, “No, the tapenade, not the  salsa verde!”…. Or something like that… Maybe you dropped a tray of drinks, maybe spilt some sauce on a customer’s shiny new dress. As we all know, it’s a job fraught with potential catastrophes. But is it really that bad? Imagine doing it in the pitch darkness… Dans le Noir No it’s not a bad dream but a real life experience for the staff and customers of Dans le Noir, London’s first ‘restaurant in the dark’. The Dans le Noir concept, first pioneered in France and brought to the UK in 2006, sees diners eating in complete darkness and served by blind waiters or ‘guides’. The concept, according to general manager, Dominique Raclin is for a threefold dining and social experience – firstly it is a sensory experience that, depriving the brain of sight inputs, opens up the world of taste, touch and smell to the diner; secondly it is a social experience where, devoid of visual judgements and preconceptions, guests – sat at large tables shared with other diners – lose their social inhibitions, prejudices and shyness; and thirdly it is a social experiment giving people the chance to experience the world as a blind person. One of the staff tasked with guiding guests through this challenging experience is guide, Roberto Rebecchi. Italian Roberto has been at the restaurant since it’s opening in 2006 and has become very experienced at the potential pitfalls awaiting the customers but also understands the importance of a hands-off approach. Interior - lounge bar “It’s a challenging experience for them,” he says, “but it’s also about understanding what it means to be blind so I can’t really tell them too much. I usually say, ‘try to imagine the restaurant you were at last; focus on the table you were at then; this is exactly the same.” The diners’ journey begins at the fully-lit lounge-bar area where they are met with welcoming drinks and get to choose one of four ‘surprise menus’ – blue for seafood, red for meat, green for vegetarian and white for ‘chef surprise’. Individual dishes are kept secret as this heightens the sensory experience. After their orders are taken, guests are met by their guide for the night and taken into the darkened dining area to one of the large sharing tables. This is done by forming a line something like a conga Guests are led into the dining areawith the guide at the front. All phones and other possible sources of light must be left in secure lockers outside so that the space is truly kept pitch black. The guides begin by bringing drinks. “I usually pour the first glass for them then I will tell them to have fun with it themselves,” says Roberto. “Maybe I’ll give them one tip like – put your finger inside the glass and when it’s wet, you stop pouring.” From there service proceeds pretty much as at any restaurant except with a few more challenges: “Customers often ask if they have to use a knife and fork and I say, ‘of course’ but they usually end up using their fingers. We put bread on the table so maybe they can pick the food up with a piece of bread.” Naturally things get dropped, spilled and broken but, according to Roberto, not much more so than at a fully-lit restaurant. For him the biggest challenge is taking customers to the toilet because they have to be guided all the way out and back to the dining area. Fortunately – for everyone concerned – the toilets are fully lit and guests are left to their own devices before being guided back to their table.Welcome cocktails Dans le Noir was founded in Paris in 2004 by social entrepreneur and president of Ethik Investment, Edouard de Broglie, with help from the Paul Guinot Foundation for Blind People. Restaurants in London and Barcelona soon followed and the concept took off with pop up versions in Warsaw, Bangkok and Moscow and the opening of the world’s largest ‘restaurant in the dark’ in New York. At present over a million people have visited the various franchises around the world and it has already started to spawn the sincerest form of flattery – copycat restaurants springing up in the US, Canada, Europe and China. Bar StaffBut what is the source of this growing popularity? London General Manager, Dominique Raclin thinks it is the never-ending search for something new and different. “It is a unique experience,” says French-born Dominique. “Eighty per cent of the information that goes to your brain is through your eyes. If we close the curtain, the other senses are revealed. We are living in a looking society – from the internet, mobile phones, advertising, all the media – everything is based on looking. If you don’t see, it changes your mind.” Dominique also stresses the importance of anonymity which has a liberating effect on guests – the reason, perhaps, why so many couples come on literal ‘blind dates’ and also why they have so many famous customers. Prince William and Kate have dined their twice according to Dominique, sharing a table with other guests, none of whom had the slightest idea who they were sitting next to. Kate’s sister Pippa Middleton was also there only last month, according to Dominique sharing a table of eight. “Kate and William had to share a table with others because we don’t have single tables,” says Dominique, “but they were happy, that’s why they came twice. Everybody is the same in the dark – you can be a prince; you can be poor; it doesn’t matter.”Surprise menu For guide, Roberto, the restaurant has made a massive difference. “This is the most perfect thing that could possibly have happened to me,” he says, “especially considering my past.” Roberto used to work in the hospitality industry before he lost his sight, first as a waiter then opening his own restaurant with a friend and business partner. Six months after opening his business, Roberto was arm wrestling with his chef in the kitchen when his hand slipped from the other man’s and hit him in the eye. He thought nothing of it until he woke up the next morning with no sight in his left eye. A visit to the eye hospital confirmed that he had detached his retina. A couple of years later he was sitting in a restaurant when he felt uncomfortable. Another trip to the hospital confirmed that an inherent weakness in his retinas meant that the other had detached, leaving him permanently blind. Roberto soldiered on with his own restaurant but was no longer able to take part in the front of house service which he loved and, after ten years, he pulled out finding it all “a bit too much.” He Into the darkwas on a computer course for blind people when he heard about the opening of the London Dans le Noir and jumped at the opportunity. “When they opened this place I said, ‘I’m going back home’” says Roberto. “I can’t do a job where you just sit behind a computer; it would drive me crazy. And I love helping people to understand and appreciate what they’ve got. “At Dans le Noir, at the end of the meal, when we take people back into the light, they always make a sighing noise like they are relieved to see again, so I know they appreciate what they’ve got and how lucky and privileged they are.”
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th June 2014

Blind tasting: Dans le Noir, London’s first ‘restaurant in the dark’