Total, complete darkness. It’s not your usual setting for a dinner event with friends or colleagues. Dim, romantic mood lighting, maybe. But pitch black?
Gathering in the foyer at The Como Melbourne MGallery by Sofitel, guests were buzzing with anticipation. What will it be like? Will I spill food all over myself? Will my eyes eventually adjust? Should I have eaten more carrots this week?
At Dans Le Noir? guests are fully immersed in an incredible experience, augmenting four senses and completely removing one primary sense: sight. The restaurant, which originally launched in Paris 20 years ago and has spread across the world since, plunges its guests into actual complete darkness. Relying on their other senses, they have to eat, drink and converse with no visual references.
As guests were called by table group, belongings were safely deposited – no light-emitting devices allowed. Watches, phones and bags stowed away, guests lined up, two by two, and were introduced to their vision-impaired guide for the evening.
While entering into a completely darkened room may be daunting for some, for these guides, it is their everyday reality. This is the key pillar behind the Dans Le Noir? concept. Vision-impaired, or blind, hosts guide guests through the entire experience. This unique dining experience challenges preconceptions about what sight means to us, and the limitations on those who have low vision.
“We worked very closely with many of our not-for-profit organisations that support people who are blind or have low vision in their everyday lives,” says John Korkou, director of sales and marketing at The Como Melbourne MGallery by Sofitel.
“Vision Australia, along with SensWide and Blind Sports Victoria, work in partnership with us to help hire all blind or low vision employees, enabling them to successfully fulfil their new positions.”
Placing our left hand on the shoulder of each group member, we followed the soothing, step-by-step instructions from our guide, aptly named Gift, and entered Dans Le Noir?.
Passing a series of twists and turns, we touched down at our long table. Gift made sure we were safely seated before describing what was currently before us. Plates, cutlery, water glasses and jugs – items previously so common and unremarkable, felt new.
Part of the experiment involves guests having to work out what’s on their plates, to be revealed at the end of the evening. Emboldened by the darkness, guests tucked their napkins into their shirts and used touch to explore what was on their plate.
With social cues and inhibitions removed, guests began to fully relax into the setting. Encouraged by the group, one guest broke into (beautiful) song, laughing at the end, “I would have NEVER done that in the light.”
Without phones to distract or facial social cues to navigate, the room was soon buzzing with excitement and discovery. The conversation between guests flowed easily. The mood, convivial.
As a corporate team outing, or team building exercise, it is a perfect, unique setting to inspire and encourage the breaking down of barriers. Here, your rank or position isn’t as important as your ideas, your thoughts and opinions.
“It’s such a great, unique option for clients,” says John. “And surprisingly flexible. We can accommodate a whole range of options relevant to the client’s industry. There’s been occasions with blind wine tasting, perfume sampling, even blind fabric and texture sessions.”
Settling in the scene, stories were shared, and preconceptions challenged. Amir, a blind host, casually listed off his current projects: studying a psychology degree, working two jobs and being a part of a blind and vision impaired soccer team.
“I like to keep busy,” jokes Amir.
Amir encouraged the table to think about their workplace. Could a low vision or blind person work there? Anticipating the usual suspect of ‘It’s computer-based’, Amir reminded the table of the wonders of technology. Voice-activated computer programs mean data or writing-based jobs are entirely achievable.
“I have a friend, completely blind, he is an IT engineer,” says Amir. “And he’s employed by Google.”
After dessert was cleared from the table, the offer to exit the dining room was extended by our host, Gift. Interestingly, despite being in darkness for over two hours, most guests were hesitant to leave. Having relaxed into the darkness, we had grown used to our surroundings.
Holding one another’s shoulders like a supportive conga line, each table shuffled into the screaming light. Shielding our eyes for a few minutes as they readjusted, we thanked our guides for their attentive, patient service. Being lead into total darkness was far less intimidating with a lovely guide accompanying you every step of the way, between every course.
It was an experience that left guests feeling excited and challenged. For a society that is so anchored to what we’re looking at, how we look and visual cues, it was a remarkable experience to have that instantly removed.
It’s amazing, really, that a restaurant where you can’t see anything for two hours could be so memorable.