Dining in the dark



Serving food in complete darkness is a fairly recent public dining concept that has a few adherents and a few restaurants dotted around the globe. Friends went to Dans le Noir in London and reported that the experience was interesting, at times funny, at times embarrassing, and not necessarily to be repeated. Official reviews reflect similarly mixed opinions.

Personally I was distinctly dubious about the concept. From a chef’s point of view, producing a visually stimulating meal is just as crucial as the taste of it, and as a guest you expect to dine out on the whole experience, which includes whetting your appetite perusing the menu and then salivating over the presentation of each dish as it arrives. I don’t see the point of paying for a carefully crafted meal and then, lights out, giving up much of that pleasure. Concept summarily dismissed, then, as another bonkers food marketing flash-in-the-pan.

Or at least I dismissed it until I was approached by Andy Shipley, a partially sighted life coach who invited me to Supper Sense. This was to be dining in the dark with an actual purpose, he explained, an evening of sensory and social exploration that would actually enrich the pleasure of taste. I was still dubious, but since Andy works with government, public bodies and charities and his credentials include ensuring the 2012 London Olympics was an equally good experience for both sighted and partially sighted participants, I felt I should show more backbone and embrace whatever that experience turned out to be.

The location was to be the Pink and Lily pub in Lacey Green. It’s close to me, recently refurbished and was already on my mental note of places to try out, so no excuses on those counts. However, almost immediately I foresaw a problem; how could I take notes in the dark? Here began my first lesson; namely that partially sighted people have to rely on their memory far more than I do, with my sieve-head note-taking. Then the next issue raised its head; since I would be going alone, the idea of being in close confines with total strangers I couldn’t visually check out worried me. And beyond that, trusting someone else to feed me something I couldn’t visually check out worried me even more. I used to be a chef and a restaurant critic for pity’s sake; nothing gets past my lips without microscopic scrutiny! Even before the event my appreciation was mounting for those who have no choice other than to eat in darkness.

So, off to the Pink and Lily. It was raining and black as pitch on the road, but eventually the pub made an appearance, illuminated and twinkly in the darkness. Inside it was welcoming, pretty and fragrant with crackly fires burning birch logs. Andy’s sidekick, a man as warm as the atmosphere, called Jonathan but describing himself as the evening’s Debbie McGee, swapped my comfortable coat for a far less comfortable eye-mask and asked ‘Are you ready then?’ (answer, ‘No!’). He led me awkwardly and cautiously down four steps into a previously unseen part of the building and counted me past a row of chairs before seating me in the fifth one. Andy came and stationed himself before me across the table. His voice sounded distant and we had a polite chat for a few moments before he left to greet other guests. The room felt cold and empty and the warmth and embarrassment of a few minutes earlier soon soaked away from my head and shoulders and instead I had to wrap a scarf around my neck against the chill.

Voices and shuffles accompanied the deep dulcet voice of Debbie McGee as more people arrived and were gently seated opposite and alongside me and introduced as Pam, Larraine and Tessa. Drinks carefully located, we settled into safe conversation about Andy’s guide dog, Winnie, then our own dogs, where we had travelled from, and how we came to be here.

Food arrived. We had been forewarned that a small starter would be placed directly into our hands, and had been offered the opportunity of going off to wash them first, but I dared not move from my seat.

The starter was warm caramelised pineapple on toasted gingerbread with an unidentifiable piece of meat on top, later revealed to be duck. It was lovely. In fact, all of the food we ate was lovely; safe, comforting, with a few icy splashes of sorbet punctuating the courses. For me though, it didn’t work at all. This far out of my comfort zone, my sense of taste was not heightened, as expected, but rather went into a kind of emergency mode whereby only basic senses such as sweet, salty, bitter and savoury were registered, along with vague temperature differentials. My brain seemed entirely focussed instead on the safety aspect of what I was expecting my mouth to deal with – was this going to be good or bad for my body? – and the bewildering logistics of loading an appropriate amount of whatever it was onto a fork and into my mouth with no unpleasant surprises along the way. Each mouthful felt like the silence after a car crash; a deliberate computation of the mind to check if the body was still complete, not hurting and functioning normally.

I hated it. Or at least, I hated trying to eat a meal in the dark. The nice polite ladies next to me seemed in no way perturbed, although Tessa said afterwards that it was a tiring experience. The remaining ladies at the table I couldn’t hear well enough to gauge specifically how they were getting along although they seemed cheery, and the adjacent table of guests seemed to be having a noisy whale of a time, revelling in it.

I didn’t hate the whole experience. A little poetry was read, mid-course, and without a printed page to tangle up the eyes, the words and sweet woodland stories seemed to slip effortlessly through the seated guests without impediment, which I enjoyed (but I do like listening to well-read poetry anyway). Also, I was forcefully struck by the ‘presence’ of those waiting at the tables. Without them uttering a word or sound, you could tell immediately that someone had come to stand beside you, and not only that, but their presence was totally identifiable as male or female. Debbie McGee, aka Jonathan, smelled of worn leather and took up a whole lot more breathing-space than the pub’s friendly own girls, whose presence felt cooler and smaller, but still very much there. How weird is that?

At the end of the evening we counted down to a grand un-masking and there was an unexpected flash of awkwardness again as we saw our nearest neighbours for the first time. For a few seconds, it felt like meeting a stranger, until the brain reassured me that these fresh faces contained exactly the same voices I’d been conversing with all evening and, no need to panic, were therefore the same people.

Clearly, there is indeed a large part of the world that I’m only subliminally conscious of, and Andy’s Supper Sense brought some of it into sharp relief. Social and personal safety zones were much more sharply defined, some sensations actually enhanced by the darkness, and the trust of those around us far more greatly appreciated. For anyone interested in discovery, intrigue and life not quite like we already know it, it’s an enlightening experience.

I didn’t need to take notes in the end. They seem to have taken care of themselves.