Last week, our friends Dawn and Marq invited us to join them at Opaque, a restaurant that allows its patrons to experience dining in a completely unique way: in the dark. This European trend arrived to SF a few years and the point is for the diners to use their senses of taste, touch, sound and smell, rather than sight, when eating. All of their servers are either blind or visually impaired and are specially trained to serve meals in the dark. I thought this sounded like a really incredible concept. I’m all about trying new things and I thought this would be a really interesting way to experience food in San Francisco.
We arrived at the restaurant and the first thing I noticed is that it was underground. We were led down the stairs to a little waiting room where we were able to review the pre-fixe menu in the light and make our choices for the evening. As we sat in this little room, we couldn’t help but feel like we were waiting for some sort of amusement park ride. Marq turned to me and said, “Why am I scared to eat food?” That summed it up – we were all a little apprehensive but a lot excited for the experience! Without really thinking about how difficult it might be to eat some of these things, I chose the Ahi Tuna Salad, Grilled Chicken with Braised Chard, and Couscous, and a Chocolate Cake with Strawberries and Vanilla Ice Cream. The Hub ordered the same salad, Salmon and Roasted Veggies and Espresso Panna Cotta for dessert. Usually we like to split all of our restaurant meals down the middle so that we maximize our meal, but it didn’t really seem like that was going to work out this time…
After we placed our order with the hostess, our guide Katie came out to get us. The hostess suggested that we think of Katie more as a “guide” than a server, and allow ourselves to completely trust her and give in to the experience. Katie lined us up and had us place our left hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us as she led us into the dining room. We walked in and it was PITCH. BLACK. DARK. I’m not talking about like, camping in the wilderness dark where your eyes eventually adjust to your surroundings. I’m talking Cave dark. Black Hole dark. Center of the Earth dark. You could not see a single thing, not a shadow, not an outline, not a tiny pinhole of light, nada. I was scared. I immediately had an overwhelming urge to burst into the light and see something. I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to last the whole dinner.
We arrived at our booth and settled in. As soon as we sat down I started to feel more comfortable. We felt around the table to figure out where our silverware, napkins, drinking glasses, etc. were located. We all had several run ins with the butter dish, which was gross and hilarious. We decided to be brave and order a bottle of wine. I was afraid I might spill it, but who was going to know? The Hub asked if we had our eyes opened or closed. I had mine open and his were closed. To me it felt like more of an effort to consciously keep them closed, but it was more comfortable for him than having them open. Either way, none of us could see a damn thing.
Katie brought us an amuse-bouche, which was some smoked salmon on a cucumber round, topped with wasabi cream. I think this was an effort to ease us into the dining process with a one bite test, which we all passed. Next she brought us a vegetable crudités with 3 different types of dips. Really? Three dips? Somewhere out there on the table? We couldn’t even handle the butter situation. Dawn joked that next we were going to have to ice a cake. After sticking my hand in all 3 dips, I decided to forego the dip and just eat the vegetables. It was fun using our sense of taste and touch to figure out what the vegetables were – Bell Pepper, Carrot and Snap Pea!
Then the rest of the meal started arriving. Now, before we even arrived to the restaurant, The Hub kept telling me that we were going to end up eating with our hands. “You’re crazy!” I told him, “Why would I eat with my hands? Just because it’s dark doesn’t mean I can’t use a fork and knife!” But when our meal arrived, I understood what he meant. I had no frame of reference for where my food was or what my food was. Sure I could cut up a piece of chicken with my eyes closed, but that’s only after I knew the size, shape and location of the chicken. I ended up pushing the couscous onto my fork with my fingers and picking up my chicken and taking bites of it. The Hub embraced his prediction and ate the whole meal with his hands. Dawn had pasta, so she was able to eat with a fork a little bit easier, but at one point she laughed, “I keep eating forkfuls of nothing!” I think we were all making a big mess.
The food tasted good and smelled great, but the whole experience made me realize that, for me, actually seeing the food is crucial to my dining experience. After all, you eat with your eyes first, right? But what a fun night we had! We joked, laughed and talked even though we couldn’t see each other. Every once in awhile one of us would say, “I know exactly what expression you have on your face right now!” We all wished that the lights would come up at the end of the meal so that we could see our plates, just how much food we’d eaten, and the mess we’d made. But that scene, like the rest of our night, exists only in our minds.
When we were finished with our meal, Katie came back to check on us. There was some music playing in the restaurant and Marq remarked at how much the music reminded him of Virgin Airlines. Katie laughed and agreed and we began discussing the things Virgin does to create a great experience for their passengers. “Actually,” Marq said, “I really like that they dim the lights a lot more than other airlines, it makes me feel really comfortable.” We all sat in silence a moment as we realized that this is something Katie could not experience. “Wow!” she said to us, “that is so cool, no one has ever told me that before.” After having spent the last two hours in the dark with Katie, that was the moment that made me feel so truly blessed to have my sight.
As Katie led us out of the restaurant and back into the little, lit waiting room, we thought our eyes might have trouble adjusting back to the light. But as soon as we entered the waiting room, everything felt just like normal. It was a relief to be able to see again. Dining in the dark was really a very unique and interesting experience, and I’m so glad I did it. Ever since then, I have really taken a new appreciation for the presentation of my meals and how much looking at my food makes me want to eat it. I highly encourage people to be brave and try out this eye-opening experience – don’t be afraid of the dark.