While it’s always good to brainstorm new ideas for exciting nights on the town, simulating a disability is not normally a winner, even for the super-bored and tasteless. Nonetheless, “dark dining”, a concept that sounds as gimmicky as it is bizarre, became an international trend after a blind advocacy foundation opened Zurich’s Blindekuh restaurant in 1999 to create jobs for the visually impaired. By creating a dining environment where the blind thrive and the rest fumble, dark dining can literally turn the tables on the typically abled.
The idea is that diners eat food in absolute darkness, allowing them to experience meals with the enhanced senses of smell and taste that blind people are said to possess. The menus are often kept secret until after dinner, thus allowing customers to go into the meal metaphorically blind as well. The servers, or “guides”, are often blind themselves.
As of last Monday night, Phnom Penh residents can now take part in this surreal gastronomical adventure at Dine in the Dark. Curious, I checked it out on its opening night with two friends.
The restaurant shares its space with Botanic Café and opens nightly after Botanic closes. Diners have a choice of three three-course dinners: international, Khmer and vegetarian, all priced at $18. You will not know exactly what you are eating, however, until you pay your bill.
“We play a lot with the discovery of senses,” said Jay Smith, co-founder, who previously ran a dark dining restaurant in Bangkok. He added that eyesight distracts diners by delivering preconceived notions of flavour.
“When people see their food, they know what that something is supposed to taste like, so the taste is already in their mouth before the food gets to their taste buds.”
After we ordered our courses (I chose Khmer, while my friends ordered vegetarian and international), we were instructed to place our watches, lighters, mobile phones and other light-producing objects into a safety box.
We were then introduced to our guide, Min Bona, a gregarious 20-year-old student at Krousar Thmey, a school for the blind and deaf, who goes by the nickname “Baby”. Like all the servers, he suffers from a major visual impairment that leaves him with very little eyesight. He would be our lifeline in the dining room, whether we needed to have our beer refilled, to be escorted to the restroom, or to be rescued from a freak out.
“Don’t worry, I will take good care of you!” he said playfully before taking us to the dark room.
Bona instructed us to form something of a conga line, with each person grabbing the shoulders of the person in front, as he led us upstairs. At the dining room entrance was a decontamination zone that consisted of a series of zigzagging curtained passageways, with each one darker than the one preceding it. When we finally reached the dining room, there was not even a hint of the tiniest light flicker sneaking in from outside – we were in absolute darkness.
Once at our table (it was necessary for Bona to personally seat each of us to avoid crashing into the table), we began to process our surroundings. The size of the room was indeterminable, but we judged that there was just one other party present. An eclectic range of modern music played on the stereo, including electronic, R&B and rock, which provided a comfortably familiar counterbalance to the strange setting.
The most overwhelming factor was the vulnerability that we felt with the loss of eyesight. Unsure of our surroundings and at the mercy of Bona, who was never more than a few feet away, we sat glued to our seats, not wanting to lose track of our glasses and cutlery, which served as the only landmarks on the table of which we were certain. My dining companions, who were well out of arm’s reach, registered in my head as disembodied voices in some weird vacuum. I sat with my back unusually straight as I peered around the room searching for light, while my dining companions were peculiarly hunched over.
My first awareness of a heightened non-visual sense occurred when I smelled our beer arriving. Ordinarily, beer’s odour is light and unobtrusive when confined to just two beer mugs, but the lack of visual cues sent the smell to my mind’s forefront the way the appearance of a frothy glass of golden lager does under normal circumstances. It was an average glass of Cambodia beer, but the flavour tasted more pungent than usual, and I found myself sipping it slowly over the course of an hour.
When the plates arrived, I found myself putting food into my mouth that I recognised, but could not quite place. Taste was certainly enhanced, with spiciness having an exaggerated effect. I ended up having a similar experience with meat to one of Smith’s previous customers in Bangkok, who mistook tuna for beef.
I also felt no shame in breaking table manners as I used my hands to pick up food that I could not locate with my utensils, although I felt extra self-conscious at the sound of my own chewing. And while I felt the urge to clean every corner of my plate, worried that I would miss a tasty bite, my companions and I felt full quicker than usual, unable to see the delicious food in front of us.
Conversation also took on a peculiar nature. I sit next to both of my dining companions at work all day, every day, so we are well used to each others’ company and little social ticks. But with no facial expressions or hand gestures, communication was entirely verbal, and we spoke rather candidly: in one instance, I recounted a previous romance in more detail than I may have ordinarily. Misunderstandings also arose with hilarious results, such as when one of us thought the other two were conspiring with Bona to pull a prank on her, despite nothing of that sort in the works. We also realised that we could not say our guide’s name without prompting a response from him, and once he thought he was needed, it was difficult to convince him he could return to his post – though most of the time we weren’t sure if he was there or not.
As we discussed the surrealism of eating without vision, it occurred to us (somewhat guiltily) that we were describing Bona’s daily reality. But then it occurred to me that with his lifetime of practice, it was Bona who had the upper-hand in that room while the three of us suffered from sensory impairment. When the time to pay came (in the light, fortunately), I had never been happier to tip a restaurant worker.
“It must be very difficult,” said Bona after dinner. “But fortunately, we are blind, so to work in the dark is no matter [to us].”
Despite concerns that dining in the dark would be a cheap gimmick, our dinner was a fun and memorable experience. Will I try it again? In order to attract repeat business, Dine in the Dark will have to get increasingly inventive with its menu to keep the novelty alive.
When the menu options rotate next month, as Smith said the restaurant plans to do, I would like some more eccentric dishes. Perhaps even a daredevil option, with the likes of fertilised duck egg and deep fried critters. In the meantime, give this dining experiment a shot: it’s worth the risk.