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Here’s a restaurant theme you didn’t see coming: darkness.
The concept of purposefully eating in complete pitch-black dark originated with Jorge Spielmann, a blind clergyman from Zurich. When guests ate dinner at the Spielmann house some would wear blindfolds during their meal to show solidarity with their host and to better understand his world. What Spielmann’s sighted guests found was that the blindfolds heightened their sense of taste and smell and made their dining experience more enjoyable. That gave Spielmann the idea to open a dark restaurant, which he did in 1999.
Today you can stumble into dozens restaurants around the world where that question made famous in an American commercial in the 80s — Where’s the beef? — takes on a whole new meaning. Most dark restaurants employ blind waiters, offer a single set menu, and ban anything that could give off light (like cigarettes, cell phones and cameras) from the dinning area. All of them also have normally lit bathrooms though you’ll need to ask your waiter for help in finding it.
Here’s our illuminating look at some of the world’s dark restaurants:
The Blindekuh (Blind Cow), Spielmann’s establishment in Zurich, is the world’s first dark restaurant. Not coincidentally, it is also the world’s first restaurant with an all blind waitstaff. Since its 1999 opening Spielmann has started a second Blindekuh in Basel, Switzerland. Both retain the friendliness and unpretentious atmosphere you’d expect in a restaurant opened by a clergyman. The Blindekuh serves lunch and dinner.
At the Nocti Vagus in Berlin, patrons do not only experience their meal in darkness but take in a show as well. Upcoming “shows” include a jazz band, a seminar on health benefits of raw food (no one will notice if you sleep through it), a comedy act, and an “astro juggler” (which, we have to think, will either violate the restaurant’s policy on total darkness or will be rather unimpressive to witness). The Nocti Vagus has several set courses you can choose from, but in the spirit of the evening we suggest the “surprise menu”.
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Note: There’s also new dark restaurant chain in Germany, Unsicht Bar (Invisible Bar), with establishments in Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg.
China and Hong Kong
The Whale Inside (sometimes simply referred to as the “Dark Restaurant”) opened in Beijing in 2007 and has been such an overwhelming hit since that it has already expanded to Shanghai and Hong Kong. The dark’s draw here has less to do with heightening one’s pallet than it does lowering one’s social inhibitions. The restaurant is an extremely popular with couples on a first date, especially couples who met over the internet (who presumably figure that they’ve never before seen their partner in person so why should they start now?). Given the groping that’s happening in the promo video on the Whale Inside’s website homepage we can only imagine what happens when the video camera is turned off. The waitstaff here wear infrared goggles. Dinner costs ¥250 (about US$26, €28).
Feb 2010 Update: Sadly, it seems this restaurant has closed since our visit. If you know otherwise please leave a comment.
You wouldn’t expect a Hyatt Hotel in a place like West Hollywood to host an all-dark restaurant, yet that’s exactly where you’ll find Opaque. Other Opaques (if that’s the plural) are in San Francisco and San Diego. All three are among the world’s most expensive dark restaurants (the set meal is $99). They also emphasize the trendiness of the dining experience. After all, this is California.
New York City
The CamaJe Bistro, in Greenwich Village, is unlike all the other entries on this list—the restaurant is lit and the patrons experience darkness by wear blindfolds. The blindfold method of darkness is logistically easy (when you want to go to the bathroom, for example) but since not all of the patrons, and none of the waitstaff, are blindfolded we, personally, would feel much more self-conscious here than we would in all-dark digs.
Pod Krídlem Noci (“Under The Wing of the Night”), in the center of the Czech capital, is your typical ritzy restaurant during the week but serves food in total darkness on the weekend. During the “World of Darkness” times the set menu will set you back 790 CZK (US$45, €33).
Paris, London, Moscow, Warsaw
The most successful chain of dark restaurants to follow Spielmann’s dark dinning concept is Dans le Noir?. Yes, that’s “Dan le Noir” (In The Dark) with a question mark at the end, perhaps as an acknowledgment that one can’t be completely sure of where one is when one can’t see anything. The original Dans le Noir?, which opened in Paris in 2004, arguably offered the best culinary experience of any of the world’s dark restaurants. The popularity of the food propelled the restaurant to open branches in London, Moscow and Warsaw, with further expansion plans in the works.
Most dark restaurants offer one or two set menus. At O.Noir, in downtown Montreal, patrons choose from a selection of several entrees before preceding into the pitch black dinning room. There’s a fixed price regardless of your selections: a very reasonable C$30 for lunch and C$37 for dinner. 5% of the profits are given to charities that serve the blind.
Compared to the other dark restaurants we review on this page The Dark Side in Melbourne, Australia is less about trendy eating and more about fun and rowdiness. If your wanting to add a bit of fun and practical jokes into your Melbourne holiday ideas, meet your dinning companions for drinks in the normally lit Light Side Bar. Then move over to the pitch black Dark Side, where group singalongs are encouraged after dinner and the waitstaff (who have the advantage of wearing infrared goggles) like to play practical jokes on the patrons. There’s no website so call for information. 604 St Kilda Rd, tel. (03) 8530 1850.
Note: The Sydney branch of the Dark Side recently closed. No word on whether the last person to vacate the restaurant was asked to turn on the lights before he left.
Tel Aviv, Israel
Thanks to one of our readers, Tom, who brought Tel Aviv’s Blackout Restaurant to our attention.
Blackout is part of Nalaga’at (“Do touch”), an organization that’s the world’s first and so far only theater company comprised entirely of deaf and blind actors. Theater goers often eat out prior to taking in a play. So Nalaga’at decided to open a dark restaurant served entirely by blind waitstaff. Dinner at the Blackout Restaurant happens in two seatings timed to correspond to Nalaga’at‘s theater performances. The combined cost for a theater ticket and a three-course dark restaurant meal is a mere 180 shekels (about US$43, €33). Try seeing—or not seeing—a dinner and show on Broadway at that budget.
What do you think of eating in the dark? Our well-lit comments section awaits: