Dining in the dark

MIDTOWN EATERY SERVES UP AWARENESS OF VISUALLY IMPAIRED

By: Ashlee Lacasse

There are many things people do in the dark – watch movies, stargaze, or even . . . Well, you know.

But something you may not have thought of doing in complete darkness is to eat; and I’m not talking about a bag of movie theatre popcorn. Imagine eating a three-course meal: appetizer, entrée and dessert, when you are unable to see your own hand if you waved it in front of your face. You’re surrounded by nearly 100 other people, but you only know this from the sound of their voices.

Welcome to O.Noir; Canada’s only “dine in the dark” restaurant located in the Bloor-Wellesley area of Toronto. Be prepared to drink, eat, and converse as if you were blind.

I’ll admit, I was very uneasy about going into this restaurant. I walked into the basement of the Town Inn Suites, and wondered if I was in the right place. Walking through the halls, passing by several doorways, I felt lost. There was nobody at the front to greet me, and the dimly-lit environment sort of freaked me out.

My companion and I chose the fixed-price menu, which was $39 for a three-course meal, or $32 for an entrée and appetizer or dessert. We placed our order with the hostess and were brought to the dining room’s entrance, to be introduced to our server. At this point, I felt like I was waiting in line for a haunted house at Halloween Haunt. After knocking from the other side of the door, a visually-impaired server named Victor came out of the dark dining room. He asked us our names, and whether we had been there before. He then asked us to form a line, and place our left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front of us.

There was no turning back.

I was guided through a pitch-black room, with nothing but a shoulder to hold on to. Luckily, I didn’t have to go far. My table was fairly close to where (I think) we entered.

Victor described what was on the table in front of us, and retreated.

I laughed. “What are we doing here?!” I asked my friend. I made funny faces and waved my hands everywhere, amused at the thought I was the only one who knew what I was doing.

It was then I realized that facial expressions and lip reading is often taken for granted. Focusing on one single voice in a loud, dark room is a lot harder than you would expect.

“Hello!” said Victor in greeting. When you don’t know it’s coming, it can be scary. “Ashlee, I have a glass of water for you – please take it from my hand.” It took me a second, but I found it, and put it down without spilling – second success of the night.

He then brought drinks to the couple sitting two tables down, who were loud and just as amused as myself and my friend. Until suddenly . . . They went quiet. For 20 minutes. Very low whispers, and what I think may have been slight moans are the only sounds they uttered.

Oh my gosh, this cannot be happening. My dinner guest and I laughed as we talked about pulling our phones out and flashing a bright light on them to reveal what was inevitably taking place. I even joked about turning this article into an O.Noir exposé.

“Victor, could we get more napkins?” the man shouted from his table.

I had a chicken breast with a side of potatoes and green beans, while my friend, who is vegetarian, chose the pasta with tomato sauce (the only vegetarian option, by the way).

This part was the tricky one. How do you know if the meal you ordered is the one sitting in front of you?

“The entire chain of staff is responsible to make sure the food we bring is what they ordered,” said Jianrong Feng, the owner of O.Noir. “It’s a transfer of trust between the customer and us.”

My friend volunteered to be the brave one, and took the first bite. It was important they did not mistakenly bring her a meat dish.

“I just ate a frog leg. Oh my god, I just ate a frog leg,” she squealed. Unsure of what was actually in her mouth, she imagined the worst. “Oh . . . it’s just penne,” she realized.

Not everyone is that lucky.

“Once in a while, we still make some mistakes,” said Feng. “The probability of mistakes is very low, though, because [the servers] do memorize and they’re talented.”

O.Noir also offers surprise dishes, which 10-20 per cent of the clientele chooses.

The chicken dish was good – not too salty, not too dry. They were sure to cut up the chicken breast prior to serving it, too, which was nice. That didn’t seem to do much for me, though, as I had great difficulty locating the food with my fork and finding my mouth afterwards.

So I did what any elegant lady would do, and used my hands. They were soon covered in tomato sauce, and spices from the potatoes, but I could not, for the life of me, get a hang of coordinating the movement without light. I’m a charmer, I know. Not to mention, I have a newfound appreciation for the sight-impaired and everything they are able to do seemingly effortlessly.

Dining in the dark is not for everybody, but I recommend everyone tries it at least once.

“It’s an eye-opening experience for them [customers],” said Victor, who has been working at O.Noir for three years. “It creates awareness differently, increases the understanding.”

He explained that when you cannot see, it’s natural to become more aware of your other senses. He noticed this change when he began going blind at the age of eight.

The other servers are also visually impaired, and use memorization to find their way through the dining room.

“The servers we have are very talented,” said Feng. “We need three people to do one person’s job, yet we do not lose time or efficiency.”

The other two positions are the order taker, who is also the bartender, and the runner, who brings the food to the server, tells him or her what it is and where it is going.

Overall, I would give this experience a 4 out of 5. The dinner lasted roughly two hours, which is a little long, but it’s definitely worth the time and money.

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