On a recent Thursday evening, the lobby of Dark Table is filled with roughly 10 skittish, yet charged, customers, all with reservations for the downtown Calgary restaurant.
We’re asked to turn off and place our phones in a locker along with anything else that emits light. We form a single-file train, hands-to-shoulders, and are led by a visually impaired “guide-server” to our tables in the dining room.
It’s a pitch-dark cavern.
The sudden change leaves us completely sightless, with only a bright red “exit” sign looming above us.
Our eyes never quite adjust to the darkness. But anytime the blackout curtains surrounding the dining room shift, the room is illuminated by a dull light showcasing a dining area roughly half the size of a high school gymnasium.
Eating meals in the complete dark empowered us to be aware of each burst of flavour from the dishes.
Unfortunately, the two-course, $36 “six-hour braised lamb ragù rigatoni” was bland; the cheese and tomato sauce took over the entire dish. However, while diners may not go back entirely for the food, they may bring others for the unusual experience.
Dark Table calls upon diners’ more adventurous side, asking customers to abandon their sight to dine in the complete dark.
The idea behind it is to create a unique approach in the culinary industry; removing diners’ ability to see should force them to rely on their less dominant senses, like taste and touch.
Franchise owner Moe Alameddine started Dark Table with this specific goal in mind. He also wanted to remove distractions, like phones, from the dining experience, while bringing awareness to the topic of visual imparity.
Dark Table hires only those who are visually impaired to be their guide-servers. Servers who are able, in complete darkness, to guide diners to their tables and serve them without any mishaps.
Alameddine, a Lebanese immigrant who had been in the fast-food business for 10 years, started the Canadian Dark Table concept in 2006, with Montreal and Toronto restaurants called O.Noir, meaning “the black.” He later opened the Dark Table venues in the West, with a location in Vancouver’s Kitsilano area that opened in 2012, and the Calgary venue that opened in 2017.
Alameddine currently resides in Vancouver.
According to the Dark Table website, the blind dining concept originated in Switzerland in the home of a blind man named Jorge Spielmann. Spielmann blindfolded his guests "in an attempt to show them what eating is like for a blind person."
Dark Table partners with CNIB, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Ads are posted on the organization's website whenever openings arise for new, visually impaired guide-servers.
Blaine Deutscher, one of the Calgary restaurant’s visually impaired guide-servers, has been living with blindness since he was a child. Deutscher says he has struggled with unemployment most of his life.
The Dark Table website states 70 per cent of blind people are unemployed in Canada.
“It's really nice to see a restaurant that wanted to give the blind an opportunity – work – and provide a stable job,” Deutscher says.
He recalls when he first heard a restaurant was hiring only the visually impaired to be their servers, he was overjoyed.
“It gave me, in some ways, a reason to live,"-Blaine Deutscher
“Because you've got stable work versus living off the government, so you feel like you're a contributing member of society,” says Deutscher.
According to Deutscher, Dark Table uses visual impairment as an advantage, by providing an odd, yet interesting experience for Calgarians.
Dark Table is true to its name. Upon approaching the building on 6th Avenue S.W., a small but bold, luminous title hangs above. However, the building is windowless, and the exterior is black. The one-page menu posted outside differs from many other dine-in restaurants because Dark Table does not have an overwhelming selection of meals.
When entering Dark Table, customers are greeted by a sighted bartender in a well-lit room. Here, diners order their meals – there’s the option of two or three courses, but only seven choices for the main course (steak, chicken, fish, lamb, vegetarian, vegan option, or a “surprise”). The appetizer and dessert are unspecified “surprises,” and diners can choose which of the two courses they would prefer if they opted for only the two-course meal.
Chef Nasrin, who is sighted, picks the various "surprise" dishes; those dishes change every two weeks.
Once diners are seated, the humorous guide-servers bring utensils, drinks, and meals – vividly describing the placement in an attempt to help customers navigate without the benefit of sight.
During the meal, the excited voices of customers continually saying, “It’s so dark,” “Is this your leg,” and “Where are you guys?” swarm the dining room.
The guide-servers are quick to bring the meals and drinks, clear the tables, and answer any questions – except for telling customers what’s on their plates, in order to keep the customers guessing.
The guide-servers continue to work diligently, leaving many in the room seemingly dumbfounded with their grace and hospitality. They work with surprising elegance, leaving many wondering aloud whether they are truly visually impaired.
According to Deutscher, this ease happens because visually impaired people have been forced, due to their lack of vision, to learn to adjust quickly to new surroundings. He said Dark Table supports the staff and provides training and practice to walk the space.
And while admitting some mistakes like spills or bumping are natural, Deutscher says customers have been very understanding.
For the diners on this particular Thursday evening, getting anything into the mouth is a struggle, from the first bite to the last sip. Utensils become a problem; it’s extremely hard to tell if anything is actually on the fork as it’s brought to your mouth. A cup filled to the brim with water seems to morph to different locations because of frequent accidental misplacing.
Most of the meal is like a guessing game. Constantly feeling for your food, wondering what you are eating, if you have finished everything on your plate, and how much you spilled on the table or yourself.
When in need, diners are led to the (lighted) bathroom and back – with their guide-server’s assistance for every step.
Once finished with their meals, guide-servers escort the diners back to the well-lit lobby where they pay and are notified of everything that was on their dishes.
Before entering the dining room, first-time customer Harsanjit Bhullar was visibly excited to experience sightless dining. He said this was because of the positive comments he had heard about Dark Table from friends and family.
By the end of the meal, Bhullar said he’d gained a new understanding and appreciation of the visually impaired.
"It opened up some views of how people that are visually impaired, what they have to deal with – especially during eating, or even other activities. So, that was good to experience."-Harsanjit Bhullar
He adds that he picked up and smelled the food before eating to ensure it was the food he ordered.
"And you also have to see if your plate is empty – and since you can't 'see' it, you have to feel your plate."
Bhullar wasn’t the only one.
As intended, we relied heavily on our other senses – taste, smell, touch, and hearing – to get us through the night.
Luckily, I came out relatively unscathed, with only a few sauce stains on my shirt.
- By Harsimran Chahal