Dark Dining

Shared a unique experiencel with redmed, capital_l, and technolope at Opaque in San Francisco on Friday. The short story is that we ate a meal together in an entirely lightless dining room, helped by servers who are each visually impaired to some degree.

First off, the place is hard to find … and not just because we were in a cab in a strange city. Opaque is downstairs from a sister restaurant, “Indigo.” it’s behind one of those doors that leads directly into a basement – and it’s easy to miss even with the sign. We were sitting in the cab staring straight at it when the greeter popped her head out around the door and waved us in. Apparently this happens a lot.

You make your menu selections in an alcove before going into the dark. The meal is prix fixe for three selections – with a couple of additional treats mixed in. I picked the tuna sashimi (yes, I know), the salmon curry, and the espresso infused pana cotta. They started us off with a little cucumber amuse bouche, and there was a tray of veggies somewhere in the middle. We also got a relatively phenomenal (in my limited experience) bottle of wine.

The atmosphere is hip and stylish without being pretentious. The music is a gentle sort of ambient drum and bass thingamabob. This was certainly intended as an upscale experience – but not highly formal.

Our server was named George, and we were all on a first name basis with him. He met us at a curtained entryway, instructed us to put our left hands on the shoulder in front of us, and led us through a series of S-turns and past more curtains into pitch blackness. George eventually stopped, took my hand and put it on a chair back. He passed back along the line, seating each person, and explaining the layout. Square table, two to a side. He explained who was where and oriented us. Water glass on the left in front of you, two forks at your left hand. A knife at your right. Rose petals on the table – which I thought was a really nice nod to the idea of a floral centerpiece. Rose petals are soft.

It’s important to note at this point that we’re talking about total blackout. In three hours of sitting with my eyes open, I didn’t catch even one glimmer past a door or around a corner, nothing. It was a little warmer and more humid than I’m used to in restaurants – but the music was low and the voices around us were muffled a bit. Apparently this is as much social engineering as acoustics – the servers deliberately set the conversational tone and pace lower than standard restaurants – and people tend to follow along. George confirmed that there were perhaps 25 or 30 people in the room with us. A small restaurant.

So once George left to get our wine, we four were in the dark. I realized in a hurry that trying to do even basic tasks would require a much higher level of attention than I usually employ. I found myself setting up little patterns. Left hand has a reference from the corner of the table to my left. Water glass ought to be a forearm length up and a handspan in – and so on. We amused ourselves sharing these little tips and tricks – as well as getting the inevitable nervous giggles out of the way – until George came back with our wine. We had gotten a bottle, and as such someone had to pour it. We nominated capital_l. The advice was to hold the glass at nose level, close to her face – and to try to sense by sound, smell, and temperature in the glass when it was getting full. As a last ditch, he recommended the tried and true “finger in the glass” method to make sure not to overflow.

Fully armed with wine – we shared the most careful and deliberate clinking of glassware. This brings us to the rather intimate part: Eating in the dark is requires touching. To find the glassware – we negotiated a contact point above the table with our free hands, and brought the glasses there. George brought everything to redmeds corner of the table. She would take a hand (reference point on the table again – thank goodness for systems) and place the plate in that hand. She figured out that the various menu choices each had their own shape of plate. Clearing the table was the reverse process. Once we got it down – we were pretty efficient. In fact, once I got through the appetizer, I was totally comfortable getting food to mouth with my utensils. I found myself spending a lot more attention on smell and texture. applied a structured search technique to ensure that no morsel was left behind. Stories were told about certain of my tablemates giving up and eating their steak with both hands, like a sandwich, but I have no idea about any of that.

I found that my mind settled out and became very calm remarkably quickly. I suppose that a lot of my thoughts are actually just reflections inspired by whatever is in my visual field. It helped that I was among good friends who settle me down anyway. We laughed and talked and joked – handed food and plates back and forth – and admitted that we couldn’t see a darn thing and that it was 100% okay.

Somewhere in there, I had the single best curry soaked potato chunk of my entire life. I am told that the sound of happiness I made, upon eating said potato chunk was “dirty.” Oh precious potato chunk, I will remember you always.

After about three hours of dining, we lingered over glasses of port, and then somewhat reluctantly reversed our chain back to the door. Out through the curtains and up the stairs into the evening.

All through today I kept noticing that having the lights on is distracting.

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