Paint It Black
Every night before I go to bed, I have a ritual that I go through. After brushing my teeth, I check all of the doors in my house to make sure they’re locked. Then, before I get under the covers, I make sure the bedroom window is open just enough to let in fresh air, but not so much that all of the heat will escape before the sun comes up.
I realize that this sounds like pretty standard behavior for someone with a self-diagnosed case of OCD, but there’s a twist: I do the whole thing with my eyes closed. My house is pretty dark at night – especially when transitioning from the bright fluorescent lights of the bathroom. I can barely see anything in the dark anyway, so I challenge myself and go through the routine while completely blind.
I imagine that we all play these little games with ourselves; holding our breath while driving through long tunnels or otherwise restricting the use of our senses. But the thing is, if we really need to, we can always take a breath or turn on the lights. This limits the imagination because, in the back of our minds, we understand that it’s just a game.
To really test yourself, you need to go to a place like Opaque, San Francisco’s home to the underground phenomenon known as “dark dining.” Tucked into a discreet basement dining room in Hayes Valley, Opaque offers a three-course gourmet meal – served in absolute, pitch black darkness. The waiters are all legally blind and for the price of your inhibition and a prix fixe dinner, you will be too.
On a recent Friday night, my wife and I descended the dimly lit steps into Opaque’s narrow lounge. The sighted host took our drink and food orders and then called for our waiter on a CIA-style walkie-talkie. The curtains parted behind us, and a large man emerged from the darkness. He introduced himself as Senya and then with the calm of a Zen master, instructed us to place a hand on his shoulder and follow him into the void.
Of course I knew the concept going in, and I expected the place to be dark. But I thought there would still be some kind of muted light – at least a faint glow from a doorway or window. Not so. The point of dark dining is to completely rob you of the sense of sight, and Opaque has taken pains to ensure no light at all seeps
into the dining room. My little bedtime routine has not prepared me for this. I keep my hand firmly on Senya’s shoulder and inch my way to the table.
Once inside, I am immediately struck by the loss of visual information. Without sight, we are dependent on Senya to explain the most basic things: where the table is in relation to the booth, how to step out of the way while the other person pulls out their chair, where the water glass is in relation to our hands. I’m forced to relearn a lifetime of behavior with every action.
I know it’s a cliché, but without sight I feel my other senses becoming more attuned.
Somehow, I can tell everyone else is straining to figure out what is going on around them. There is some brief laughter and stray conversation, but mostly I hear people talking about things that would otherwise be incredibly mundane. “Here’s my water glass,” one woman says. “I’m taking a drink.” “I think I figured out how to use my fork!” someone else cries out with delight. Then they fall silent as they sense that everyone else is listening to them, groping for their own forks in empathy.
Like a ninja, Senya suddenly appears at my side with cocktails and an amuse-bouche. He had asked our names when we first came in, and addresses us individually as he sets things on the table. Or rather, as he hands them to us. When you’re blind, it doesn’t make sense to have someone place something in front of you. You’ll just end up sticking your fingers in your drink as you try to find it in the dark. Instead, everything Senya brings to the table is delivered to my right hand. That way I can set it down and, more importantly, know where it is the next time I need it.
Even with my plate exactly where I want it, I’m not sure how to handle the cutlery. It doesn’t seem right to eat tuna tartare with my hands, but getting it onto my fork proves to be a serious challenge. Perhaps sensing my distress, Senya again quietly materializes next to our table. “I hope I’m not disturbing you,” he says in his sublimely placid voice. I ask him about going mano a mano with the appetizer and he says he actually recommends it. Well, I think, why not? It’s not like anyone can see me.
At this point I feel I am getting the hang of the basics. I successfully eat my tuna and I am able to get a beverage to my mouth without incident. I take in my surroundings. I realize that running a pitch-black restaurant must entail an entirely different set of concerns than a conventional restaurant. For all I know, the tablecloths are covered in hideous neon patterns and the stemware came from Goodwill.
Many basic restaurant functions require some outside-the-box thinking at Opaque. For example, I ask what would happen if I spilled my entire dinner on the floor. “Someone would clean it up,” Senya replies. But how? How would they find every piece of tenderloin, every single cherry tomato in the dark? Without seeing him, I can tell Senya is smiling. “Night vision goggles,” he says.
Our main courses arrive. I have the steak, which comes with garlic mashed potatoes. I’m not into the idea of going knuckle deep in a pile of whipped spuds, so I decide to brave the silverware. I stab blindly at my plate, eating whatever I am lucky enough to spear with my fork. Leaving every bite to fate is actually kind of fun. Each mouthful is like opening a present. It’s a...green bean! Yay, this bite is...steak!
Chefs often say that you eat first with your eyes, which explains why any decent restaurant will put a lot of effort into the appearance of its food. By removing sight from this equation, the whole experience of eating undergoes a subtle shift. I register the texture and flavor of the food in stages.
With the steak, I first notice the charred bark, a sure sign that the meat has been grilled. Of course, I can’t tell if the inside is pink or not. In order to confirm that it is medium rare as I have ordered it, I have to focus on things like the texture of the meat and the amount of juice that runs into my mouth as I bite it – and then compare that to memories of other steaks I have eaten in the past.
My wife and I have fully embraced the concept at this point, and we start musing about other situations that would benefit from the heightened sensation of absolute darkness. We both agree that a massage would actually be better in the dark – no more suddenly opening your eyes to find yourself staring up the nose of your masseuse. I also think that
a pitch-black dance club would be cool. Without anyone watching, you wouldn’t be hamstrung by self-consciousness. If you wanted to bump ’n’ grind, you would choose your partner based solely on their movement, not the cut of their jeans or the quality of their boob job.
“Hello Ethan. I have your dessert.” This is Senya, once again appearing like a whisper at my side. He passes me the panna cotta , and I take in the strong aroma of the espresso glaze. I feel the weight of the plate and hear the spoon slide across its surface. I feel the table tilt as my wife shifts in her chair. Above my head and to the right, the speaker goes silent as one song ends and another begins. Next to me a man’s voice asks, “What are you doing?” A woman’s voice replies, “I’m eating a strawberry.”
After dessert, Senya
thanks us and leads us back out to the lounge. What before had
like a dimly lit grotto now feels shockingly bright. I pay our bill
make for the darkness of the open street with eyes half-closed.
That night, after brushing my teeth, I turn off the light and close my eyes as usual. But instead of fumbling straight for the front door, I give my senses a moment to adjust. I hear the water heater click off in the basement. Outside a car in need of power-steering fluid rounds the corner. I taste toothpaste in my mouth. A cool breeze comes in through the open window and I feel the darkness all around me.