Over the last few years, my sister and I have unintentionally created something of a tradition when it comes to birthday gifts. Both of us value doing things over having things, and as such birthday gifts to each other (when we're residing in the same country, at least) tend to take the form of an experience rather than a parcel to unwrap.
We've done pretty well over the years, perhaps subconsciously one-upping our gifts of the year before. There have been shows on the West End, dining experiences in Sicily, a trip to Buckingham Palace, the Harry Potter film studios, music concerts, famous Tudor castles and lush bed and breakfast retreats... the list goes on. But Lauren's gift to me for my birthday this month has to top the list so far. She took me to a truly unique dining experience, Dans le Noir (that's 'in the dark' for those of us non-Frenchies).
Yes, that is exactly what it sounds like; a restaurant in absolute pitch black, where diners are essentially blind, the idea being that with one sense completely taken away, others - primarily smell and taste - are heightened. Diners are asked to chose from a list of four menus with minimal information: green is vegetarian, blue is seafood-based, red is meat-based, or white for a combination of all three. Beyond that, you know nothing.
The staff here are all visually-impaired, and that creates a certain sense of comfort as you are instructed to place your hand on your waiter's shoulder, having just been introduced, and follow them through several layers of heavy curtains until you are in a noisy restaurant.
A ONE-OF-A-KIND EXPERIENCE
As you are enveloped by utter darkness, cutlery clinks on plates and jovial voices boom out around you - or do they only seem to do so in the absence of a face they belong to? Stepping into the dark was quite honestly one of the most bizarre sensations I have ever experienced. It would have been completely unsettling if not for the warm shoulder beneath my hand and the strong voice leading me on which, as well as guiding words, seemed to say "welcome to my world."
When I say this place is dark, I mean the kind of dark where you can't tell one iota of difference if you close your eyes or open them. We were in here over two hours and there was none of the adjustment eyes always seem to do in a dark place, no matter how dark a room or landscape; there was only black. I couldn't see the table in front of me or my sister opposite me, I couldn't see the person whose voice was chatting away not a metre away or the wall I felt as I leaned to my right as our waitress put my starter down. The dark was all-consuming.
In the full time we were there, we couldn't get over the sensation. Lauren and I kept reaching out and touching each other; clumsily clinking our glasses for birthday 'cheers' and sampling each others' food (she had the white menu, I had red). The food was phenomenal, a truly diverse menu, fantastically cooked. But, as you will have noticed, the food is almost a minor detail when re-telling of my experience. The restaurant describes itself as 'more than a restaurant; a true human and sensory experience,' and I can attest to this. It is amazing and something I think everyone should do.
As well as the fun side, the delicious side of it, there is something profoundly humbling about eating at Dans le Noir. There are so many ways in which humans can be affected by ailments or disabilities, and for the most part, the majority of us don't experience them. It is easy to be sympathetic and feel grateful for our good health, but it is extremely rare to experience what it is to have a disability by choice. When doing things as basic as cutting my food, pushing my chair out and getting to the bathroom unassisted became challenges, I was blown over by a sense of humility.
With restaurants not only in London but several major European cities as well as Melbourne and Auckland, this opportunity is open to many. I cannot recommend the experience highly enough - my only piece of advice would be make sure you go with someone you have good conversation with; with phones and any other personal possessions being left in lockers outside, it would be awkward as all hell if the banter is lacking! Though there's plenty of others to eavesdrop on... your ears can't help but pick it up!