Back in November, I went to Montreal with a couple of friends and I asked them if they would be interested in having dinner at this restaurant called O.Noir, where you eat your meal entirely in the dark. They thought this was intriguing and wondered how a restaurant ever came up with the idea. Well, the entire wait staff at this restaurant is blind so the idea is that you get to eat dinner in their world. You can read about its history on their website in the above link. It was a very interesting evening that I will never forget.
The restaurant is located in the Plateau area of Montreal at 124 Prince Arthur St. E. between St-Laurent Boulevard and Square Saint-Louis. Prince Arthur is a pedestrianized street lined with bistros and terraces in the summer. It’s a little more deserted in the winter but still in a location that is easy to find and easy to get to.
We had a reservation for 9:30 pm. We really had no idea what to expect. Would we need to order in the dark? Did we even get a choice of what to order? Are the washrooms also in the dark (because that could get really awkward)?
As we walked through the front door, there was a lobby, a sitting room and the washrooms. With lights on. We checked in for our reservation and were asked to put our coats, bags and phones into a locker. This is to ensure that there is nothing on the floor in the restaurant section that anyone could trip over. (The things those of us with sight never think of.) We were not allowed to bring our phones in because there is no light allowed and you can’t take a photo of your food anyway because you can’t see it.
Then we were led to a small sitting area (in the same lighted area) with two couches and a coffee table where we were able to peruse the menu. The menu looked delicious with a variety of different meals, many naturally gluten-free. The menu is quite meat-heavy though so if you’re a vegetarian, take a look at the menu online beforehand. It’s $34 for a two-course meal (a main dish with a starter or dessert) and $41 for all three. After we had decided and placed our order with one of the staff in the waiting area, our waiter, Fe, came out to meet us and lead us into the restaurant. He told us where we were going to be seated and how we would get there. We had to stand behind him in single file, with our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us. We walked through a door and then through a black curtain. And into complete, utter and total darkness.
The darkness was unbelieveable. I thought I knew what total darkness was. But even when I’m out in the remote woods, it’s not this dark. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I couldn’t see the three steps I had to step up. I couldn’t see the chair I was supposed to sit down on. Or the table in front of me. I had to listen very carefully to everything that was being told to me. That’s when this experience transformed into something much more than just a culinary one.
Our other senses kicked into overdrive. We immediately started feeling for the edge of the table under the tablecloth, putting our hands directly on our plates, touching the blade of the knife to differentiate it from our spoon and touching the fork tines, comparing the size of the two forks to know which to eat with. (As if it mattered because nobody would see if you used the wrong one!). Once our glasses of wine arrived, after listening to very clear instructions on what was happening (“I have your wine. I am going to pass your glass to you over your right shoulder.”), I had to stick my finger in the glass to find out how much wine was in the glass so I didn’t spill it all over myself.
What we deduced was that we were sitting at a table made up of two smaller tables, with one tablecloth over them. We were next to a wall. Jodi was beside me and Anna was across from me. Jodi felt she was too close to me because our shoulders sometimes touched, so she moved her chair slightly away only to be moved back in towards me when one of the wait staff noticed she was now farther into the aisle. Because they need to memorize where the tables are, the chairs cannot be moved.
We became hyper-aware of the noise. Conversations from other diners surrounded us and we noticed the sound of cutlery on plates. When the three of us started talking after we had sat down, we became very tuned into each other’s voices and the conversations of other “blind” patrons started to fade into the background. Until we heard “Shhhh” all around us and an authoratative voice speaking over everyone else said, “Please keep your voices down. The staff need to be able to hear what’s going on around them. If it is too loud, then it becomes a danger to the staff and to you.” Not only that, but we had to call our server by name instead of waiting for the usual eye contact and raised finger to ask for something.
When the food came, more unexpected experiences arose. First of all, I had no idea where my food was. I had ordered beet salad as an appetizer and BBQ ribs, mashed potatoes and coleslaw as the main. When I started eating my salad, I put an empty fork into my mouth more than once because I could neither fill the fork with food or keep the food balanced on it. I felt very sloppy and child-like. But then, since nobody could see me, I used my fingers to feel my plate so I knew where the food was and then used my thumb and forefinger to place food on my fork. Not only that, each forkful was a bit of a surprise because I couldn’t see exactly which ingredients of the salad were on the fork. I was very focused on savouring each bite and identifying all the different tastes and textures. When the main course came, it wasn’t as difficult because I had ordered ribs and they are just one ingredient and supposed to be eaten with your hands. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I’d had to cut a steak.
Another interesting thing that happened was that I had forgotten that the ribs also came with potatoes and of course, I couldn’t see them so I didn’t know they were there. The ribs were served piping hot and I hate hot food so I let them sit for a while. (I know it’s weird. It’s just me. My meal always has to sit for a few minutes to cool to a temperature I can handle.) I ate several ribs and then put the bone down on the plate into the mashed potatoes, reminding me that I had them. But by this time, I realized I wasn’t exactly hungry anymore. This is probably why we, as a culture, end up eating more than we should. Because our eyes tell us to finish everything and we don’t listen to our bodies telling us that we’ve actually had enough.
One friend had ordered the “surprise dish”. When she had ordered it, she was asked if she had any allergies or any foods she was averse to. She said no. But when her main dish arrived, she couldn’t get it down. But she couldn’t figure out what it was either. Without being able to see it, she couldn’t identify it. She just knew that the texture was very disagreeable to her and she couldn’t eat it. After she spoke to Fe about it and he had substituted something else for her, he told her it was scallops. This shocked her because she usually really enjoys scallops.
The meal continued this way. By the end of it, I could feel my hands coated with BBQ sauce and I couldn’t imagine what the state of the tablecloth was in at this point. Luckily, none of us knocked over any liquids or dropped anything on the floor (as far as we know). After a while of chatting, two of us noticed that the other hadn’t said anything for a while so I asked, “Are you asleep?”, to which she replied, “No! I’m just resting my eyes!” We laughed! You could totally fall asleep at the table and nobody would ever know!
Eventually, one of us had to use the washroom and when we asked to be led back out to the hall to the washroom, we were offered the choice of having dessert out in the light. I got the distinct feeling that it’s not an uncommon occurrence for customers to want to vacate the restaurant sooner than they would if it were a regular restaurant. Anna decided to have her dessert out in the lighted sitting room. So Fe led all of us, hands on shoulders, out into the sitting room again and that was the end of our dinner in the dark.
What an incredible experience! It’s not exactly relaxing though because there is a lot of thinking happening throughout the whole meal. And it’s probably not a good idea to have too much to drink since you need all your senses about you. The food I ordered was delicious and the prices were standard. I think that everyone should give it a try just for the experience of it. Not only is it unique but it also really opens your mind as to what life is like with limited or no sight. It is definitely a lesson I will remember.
A portion of the profits from your dinner goes back into organizations that serve and support the visually-impaired of all ages.