Dans Le Noir ?, which is staffed by visually-impaired servers, has opened several locations around the world.
The question mark in Dans Le Noir ? is puzzling at first but makes sense the moment you enter the lobby of the restaurant, which is lined with gym lockers to store your belongings, as though you were about to strap into a ride with a splash zone. And, in many ways, you are, because soon your server will lead you down a corridor, beyond two curtains and into a dining room that is entirely pitch black. The whole experience is a question.
On a recent visit to London, my friend—who had seen Dans Le Noir ? in the 2013 movie About Time—suggested we visit the restaurant. The chain was founded in 2004 by French entrepreneur Edouard de Broglie and has since spread across the globe, to varying success. (New York’s location closed in 2012.) Mesmerized by the gimmick, we wondered what it would be like to eat a multi-course meal we couldn’t see. Would the flavors taste more intense? Would we be able to find our mouths? Was it true that we could get naked without anyone noticing? We’d heard rumors, and we needed answers.
After we locked up our bags and phones (I felt pangs of separation anxiety immediately,) we lined up behind our server, Jack, gripping each other’s right shoulders as he led us to the dining room. The moment we were swallowed by darkness, I panicked. I panicked hard. Normally when you enter a dark room, your eyes eventually adjust, but here, they do not—not once for the next two hours could I make out shapes or even shades of dark. Your eyes may as well be closed. I could hear diners chatting jovially, though I had no sense of how many people were in the room. The food smelled delicious, so I took a deep breath and let Jack guide me to my seat and walk me through the positioning of the water, napkins and silverware. To get acclimated, I felt around in front of me, accidentally sticking my fist into a glass water. (My hands make fists when I’m nervous.) Jack told us that most people end up eating the meal, a surprise menu from chef Rafal Zaremba, with their hands.
When our first course arrived, we were obsessed with identifying the flavors and ingredients. People who fancy themselves cooking show judges will find the experience delightful. The meal is almost gamified. What is that purée? Carrot? Wait, are there peas? Is that salmon—no, arctic char? My friend and I passed each other handfuls of fish and meat to taste, waving our hands in front of us until we made contact. You don’t get any answers until the end of the meal, when a waiter shows you the menu with pictures, and you see that the plating was much more sophisticated than what you’d imagined to be a shapeless pile.
We started to feel more comfortable after finishing our surprise cocktail and first course—I was certain mine had been salmon and pea shoots. (It was not.) My friend said, “It’s feeling breezy,” which marked a major shift in the meal. Before we arrived, we decided on a code to say when we wanted to undress. She’d heard that people did that here, and I wondered, from a purely journalistic and intellectual standpoint, if nakedness would enhance the dining experience. I can now confirm that it did. I was wearing a dress with quite a few complicated straps on the front, so I could only pull it down halfway, but when I did, I felt comfortable and relaxed. This, I thought, is how we’re supposed to eat. We both observed that our voices sounded like radio hosts to each other. Even though we were surrounded by people, our conversations felt more intimate than the one we’d just had at a normal bar. I could only hear her, and everything else was background noise. In the darkness, your senses sharpen.
I was too shy to ask our lovely server Jack, who has worked at Dans Le Noir ? for six years and kept affectionately calling us “my ducklings,” whether he suspected we were topless. At one point during the meal, he was instructing us where our fresh glass of wine was, and my friend said, “How do you know?!?,” worried that he had a mechanism for seeing us. Not only has he been doing this job for six years—and navigating the world without sight for longer—but he had put the glass down himself. Of course he knew where it was. Our very unoriginal secret was safe.
As we were led out of the room after our meal, the dim light of the corridor felt blinding. Even more jarring was the process of looking at the menu of what we’d eaten and seeing how very, very wrong we were. For example: I had mistaken monkfish for lobster and pumpkin for carrot, and I will never forgive myself. I can’t believe I’m even telling you now.
While the food wasn’t some of the best you’ll find in London, the experience was. After scrubbing my sauce-covered hands for five minutes, I hailed a cab and drove across the city, which now seemed more illuminated than ever.