The synesthetic perception of dining in the dark

The last decade has witnessed an unparalleled revolution in view of restaurant concepts. It is no more a place just to have some food, pay the bill and go out. It doesn’t just stop at the yummy food; it has metamorphosed into a place to socialise, a place to have a new story on the food, a place to have a unique dining experience and service, hinging on how we eat out than what we eat out. Consequently, there is an increasing trend around the globe on restaurants being investing on the thematic aspects through new designs, concepts and decors. Though I cannot name all those existing trends, and there are much more that I am unaware of, there are brand-new novelty restaurants providing variety culinary experiences such as under the sea restaurants, dinner in the sky, disaster restaurant where you’ll be experiencing a 7.8 Richter scale earthquakes simulated during your dine-wine, prison restaurants to have a feel of what it is like to have food in jail (though the menu will not be doing justice to the real ‘jail menu’), restaurants with robots taking and serving your order, restaurants with condoms as theme to promote safe sex and hence providing condoms instead of mints when you finish your dining and set to go, restaurants with ghost house effect and paranormal activities, flight restaurants, monkey restaurants, nudist restaurants and so on.

Adding to those series, I recently happened to visit a restaurant namely ‘Dark Table’ in the downtown, Calgary where one pay to eat and drink in pitch dark. Before going there, I had only minimal information about the restaurant after quickly going through the reviews, perhaps that was intentional as the reviewers didn’t want to add spoilers. Despite the name indicated something related to darkness and the logo indicated few dots that could mean braille alphabets, I was having a feeling that the dine-wine may be at ultralow dim light and only the food is served and assisted by visually impaired staff. With this expectation, I set out one fine evening to know what the Dark Table ‘looks’ like. At the restaurant reception with a quiet, minimal surrounding space at dim dark which reminded me of photo processing dark rooms seen in vintage color movies, I was invited by the receptionist Sera with a nice smile. There has not been any briefing about how the dining is going to be and I was just asked to place the order. The menu was remarkably short with a two or three course options in addition to a surprise starter or dessert or both. I chose a two course meal. Meantime, waiter Blaine, whom I identified as blind from his mannerisms, was ready at the reception to guide me through the next stage offering a warm greeting. Ignorance-stricken me just went ahead with my bag and mobile phone in an accustomed manner and I was told too keep all my stuff in the locker at the reception bay including mobiles phone, watch and any other light emitting devices. It was then I started ‘feeling’ a mission ahead.

The Dark Table, Calgary

At the dining room entrance with a curtain, Blaine gave me a thermocol rod to hold at one end and the other end being with him. He gave instructions including how to follow him, what all assistances he will be providing during the meals and feel free to ask if anything is unclear. He let me in and instantly I was made to dissolve into the pitch dark. The room was pin-drop silent, so did I feel a moment of instant insecurity which was succumbed soon to trusting my blind guide. The only best person who can navigate you in the darkness is a blind. The feeling of being alone also shook me a bit initially, however that thought of being at risk of misconduct in a dark room with no one else around with nothing in hand like a mobile phone had no much lifetime, as that was replaced by thought that reputation of the firm is what matters and there won’t be a compromise on that. Eventually, I kept walking following Blaine’s directions, like a blind I was touching and sensing the steps, walls and chairs and was finally seated at the table. Blaine made me feel comfortable with the place and surrounding and helped me finding the cutleries placed. Leaving me in the dark, he left the room to fetch my dinner. I started feeling my mind wandering as I did not have anything to do such as scrolling over the phone or looking around the premises or people. That made me sit there with mindfulness, observing the sounds around including someone talking outside the room and the foot steps of any one else coming. I thought about how will my food look like? What it is to know nothing about its aesthetic appeal? Is that how the blind live? Does this dining in the dark will exactly provide what the blind experience their entire life with dining in the light? Not really, might be not exact, but similar to some extent. It can also be our act and art of dealing with a different surprise which makes such dark dining experience worth commenting and story telling.

Reception area of the Dark Table

Sooner or later, I heard from the foot steps that Blaine is arriving with the food. He was kind enough to make me familiarise with the plate , food, water and cutleries. Asking me to enjoy and making sure that I felt comfortable in the dark with the food, he left. I had to feel my plate ,the food and the aroma and taste it. With no time, I was done with nothing much left. I knew that I ordered chicken kafta with tahini sauce and aubergine crisps, but I knew from the plate that there was also flavored rice. The chicken was boneless perhaps it would have been a struggle otherwise if it had bones. The pitch dark dining makes one to have a synesthetic interaction with the food with the visual appeal or element being eliminated. I felt it made me to have a deeper food experience without being distracted by any audio-visual prompts as I was focus driven towards mindful eating and experiencing the food.I also recollected what a friend of mine had sometime shared me of his experience about the practice of mindfulness in a simple act of sipping of tea while he visited a Buddhist monastery. Dark dining is also a similar experience of more focused act of taking the food into our mouth, though it doesn’t mean that dining in the dark is a practice of mindful eating. I must also add that being dined at the dark did not play any key role in tasting my chicken better than it was served the light, meaning the visual appeal mainly articulates our perception of flavor, not the real flavor. We lose only what visual flavor gives us, the expectation. For example, just like how we distinguish a raw, green mango from a ripe, yellow mango from its color. The detection sensitivity of a blind and non-blind for a particular food from the texture and smell could not be differing much, though the blind may perform better in labelling a name to a smell or taste. Nonetheless, dark table undoubtedly enables us to have a little synesthetic flavour experiences on the idea of food simultaneously appreciating the bliss of having vision.

Soon after I was done with dining, a delicious surprise dessert followed, which was a lemon cream cake, that I identified from the taste, texture and smell. After done with the meals, Blaine assisted me to the reception and left with a thankful smile. I did not forget to have a photograph taken with that gentleman as well. Later, after settling the bill, I managed some time to have a casual conversation with Sera about how their usual customer experience was. It appeared that some customers step back the moment they step into the dark and demanded their meals to be served in the light. Few of them consider from an empathic and charity perspective just to help with the lives of visually impaired. Regardless, most of the times, that unusual and memorable dining experience was what mattered most and many of them never visited a second time. Chances are also low to imitate the same when back at home. Most of the staff at the Dark Table are hired with the help from the Canadian Institute for the blind. Since I went alone, what I missed is to comment something on how does the experience differ for a group of people or family dining; nevertheless, to my feeling, the darkness intervenes how we interact among others in the group, being unable to estimate the proximity of the next person and often need to speak louder than needed and most of the talks will be centred on to finding food, being super cautious not to direct the fork to others’ plate and so on, no more intimate or romantic conversations.

From an experience-driven marketing perspective, what the restaurant claims in its offer is also something to think about. The projected aim is to provide the customer an experience of how visually impaired people experience food. To reiterate what I mentioned earlier, it is not exact, but only similar. A person with eye-sight has huge memory library of how various foods appear like and it is mostly only one time feed with the help of other senses, with which we have a mental picture of what a food looks like. When made to sit in the dark and have the food, it is the retrieval of that registered mental image that works, which is essentially different from the blind. There is also another problem when what we ordered was not the same as the one we ate, or not the one we what we thought it was. When I rechecked the menu of the Dark Table, yes, I found that the menu was designed in such a way that the meals in the course were super distinguishable, deliberately because of the dark dining. Had they provided meals with similar ingredients that would have been difficult. This might often happen even with sighted individuals while dealing with meat, ordering beef and getting diary cattle meat and unable to distinguish. However, what usually happens is we cover up that with our instant belief of what we ate was correct or later raise allegations if fact check was successful. In dark dining, the policy is in such a way that the customers don’t have the provision to see what they are eating and may be considered as a consequence. Even if this whole dark dining project may feel like a sound business case and a gimmick , if that provides a livelihood for our blind friends it has a job purposing right there.

It is the unusual dark dining experience and the associated uncertainty that drag the people to visit the Dark Table and there is no doubt that there will be a synesthetic multisensory experience as a bonus. The absence of vision merely does not ensure an exact experience of what a blind person’s dining feels like, however it may make you realise for a while the bliss of having vision and even more generous than before when you meet a blind next time, that said being more grounded.

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