Dining in the Dark

By Sean Carroll | July 16, 2007 12:11 pm

Upon moving to a new city, one naturally pokes around a bit to find interesting things to do that one’s previous location may not have offered. Los Angeles, of course, is the modern Mecca of novelty and experience, so one is faced with an impressive menu of possibilities. But this one struck me as particularly clever: Dining in the Dark, which is just what the title promises. The idea is to take a relatively standard restaurant experience, but to turn out all the lights, removing that pesky “visual” aspect provided by the ambient photons. You save a bundle on decor, and you can charge extra for the novelty! Genius.

So naturally we had to try. And on Saturday we did.

This little video comes from a local TV station that solved the “How do we do a story on TV about something that happens totally in the dark?” problem by bringing in an infrared camera. It’s not held at a standalone restaurant, but only happens on weekends in a conference room at the West Hollywood Hyatt. (Saving on decor, remember?) The waitstaff guide you to your table, which is decorated with a few rose petals but otherwise as uncluttered as possible. (“Bumping into stuff” is a big part of the dark experience, but you get used to it.) The staff is generally very helpful, and you are encouraged to shout for them if you need something at your table, or wish to be escorted away — I’m pretty sure that the restrooms were not themselves dark, although I didn’t check. You were, however, expected to be able to pour your own wine from its bottle to the glasses without soaking the table. I managed.

The idea, of course, is to offer a different angle on the process of eating and enjoying a meal with friends. Deprived of sight, your other senses rally to the task, and you are more sensitive to the sounds and tastes around you. And it’s certainly not impossible to get by; blind people do it all the time. Actual blind people, of course, don’t have the option of stepping back into sight once the meal is over, and there was a danger that the whole operation would seem like some sort of creepy “blindness tourism.” But I never got that sense; the waitstaff themselves are all blind or visually impaired, and if anything the experience gives you just a tiny bit of insight into what their lives must be like — or would be like, if they lived in a world in which great efforts were made to accommodate their sightlessness.

The menu itself was simple, and purposely so: by concentrating on a few basic and recognizable flavors, the chefs offer you the opportunity to disentangle all of the ingredients for yourself, without seeing directly what they are. And the food itself was none too shabby; I can vouch that the truffle-infused macaroni and cheese would have been a hit under any circumstances. True, there was occasionally a temptation to bypass the traditional knife and fork and use one’s fingers. It may even have occasionally happened that one would mistakenly push a morsel off of one’s plate, and rescue it from the table with one’s hands; happily, there were no witnesses, and I’m not saying anything.

The above video, while evocative, really gives the wrong idea by letting in the infrared cameras. The foremost lesson of the dark dining experience is that it is really, really dark. That might come as no shocking news, but it makes you realize how very rarely in this world we are really plunged all the way into complete darkness. We are usually always accompanied by streetlights, or the glowing face of an alarm clock, or the stars in the sky. True and absolute darkness is a different experience, and one worth trying. I love those photons, but I would definitely do it again.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food and Drink
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  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    That sounds really awesome. Were the menu items all recited by the waiter?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    What amazed me is the idea of you going through an entire dinner without multiple, never mind just one, bathroom breaks.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    We’ll leave my bladder out of this, thank you. Mollishka, you made your menu choices before stepping into the dining room. They kept that simple as well: Mediterranean salad or butter salad, chicken/beef/tofu/ravioli/salmon for the entree, and tiramisu or white chocolate cheesecake for dessert. All quite delicious.

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    I could swear there were actually different SHADES of dark. That’s how dark it was. I can also attest to the fact that Sean’s bladder held out for the entire meal. And I TOTALLY used my fingers, at least to locate the food items on the plate before awkwardly spearing them with the utensils… It’s tough enough getting rice pilaf on your fork in the light…

  • http://www.theory.caltech.edu/~preskill John Preskill

    That’s all well and good, but I’d like to hear more about Sean’s bladder.

  • Chris

    Do the waiterstaff have night-vision goggles or something? I can’t imagine how they manage to bring the food without destroying it, or letting in light from the kitchen.

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    The waitstaff are blind or visually impaired, and quite good at maneuvering in the dark — although our waitress DID accidentally give me the wrong dessert, and got a bit turned around as she tried to lead us out of the dining area after the meal. It’s all part of the experience. I was impressed at how well she managed. Everything is carefully arranged so no smidgen of light creeps in, even from the kitchen, thanks to judicious placement of dark curtains and the like.

  • http://www.booberfish.com/blog Greg

    A restaurant opened in Montreal this year that offers the same experience, called O.Noir. I haven’t had a chance to check it out myself but it’s generated a lot of buzz about it.

  • Garbage

    This whole experience is part of a bigger project

    http://www.dialog-im-dunkeln.de/home_en.htm#Ausstellung

    I missed it in Hamburg but promised to be quite intense…

  • graviton383

    You could, of course, order an ’89 Margaux and up with a
    ’94…somehow I just wouldn’t trust the wine sevice & would pay the corkage fee. Of course, opening the bottle & swirling the wine in the glass would be entertaining in itself. Sounds like fun..

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    You mean you wouldn’t be able to tell??

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    I’m sure you could tell (I’m talking wine here), provided that you didn’t knock over the glass. I recall a physicist knocking over a glass of Winston Churchill champagne in bright light…that was about $50 that soaked into the tablecloth!

  • graviton383

    I know the physicist of whom you speak as I paid for that champagne…yes, I’m sure `expert’ taste buds could tell the differences in the wines in THIS case but for
    other random possibilities it’s not so clear as blind tastings inform us… I see that London, Singapore, Montreal, LA,.. all have such restaurants but not (yet) NYC or
    San Francisco. I’d definitely try it..

  • http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog Scott Aaronson

    Do you also pay in the dark? Cash or credit card?

  • Jeff

    http://www.studenttraveler.com/mod-Pagesetter-viewpub-tid-10002-pid-198.html

    this is an article on one of the original restaurants that opened in Paris — it was published in the magazine I used to run back 3 or 4 years ago. I’d love to try the west hollywood version one day.

  • citrine

    Do you sign a release form about not suing the establishement if you bump into someone or something as a result of the dark and/ or the wine? What if another patron falls over your table or knocks into you or walks aways with someone else’s jacket or handbag?

  • Jason Dick

    Just fyi, from the images, that was not an infrared camera. It appeared to use light amplification tech instead. Infrared images tend to be multi-color, with the colors corresponding to temperature, and the images tend to be blurred compared to what we are used to seeing.

  • Jason Dick

    Oops, looks like I might have been mistaken. Did some more digging, and apparently they *do* use IR-range light, but instead of merely being a camera, they also have an IR light source, which accounts for the greater similarity to visible range light.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_vision_device

  • Tim

    This is certainly an interesting concept. I suppose a restaurant that has a pest problem could go to this model so that none of the diners could see the rats.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Nice :-) There’s a similar place in Munich Essen im Dunkeln. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t really appeal to me. Not because of the dinner, but because I like to go out for company and I prefer communication with eye contact. Also, if someone sneezes I’d like to know where the projectiles flew… bon appetit – B.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    off topic: didn’t you use to have a ‘recent comments’ box in the sidebar? where did it go?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    We did, and we’ve been having some technical difficulties with switching servers. Hopefully it will come back at some point.

  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    I bet this restaurant serves two-buck chuck.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    It doesn’t strike me as clever. People live through meals in the dark in Baghdad and e.g., in India during power-cut season.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Jason, just remember that “IR” covers a wide band, from wavelengths typically emitted by everyday objects (like, around 10 microns) to the near infrared (such as maybe 760-1200 nm), which is not correlated to ordinary temperatures. The latter can produce interesting differences of reflectivity, like the strong reflection from plants that made for those colorful reddish (false color) expanses of plants in pics taken with Infrared Ektachrome (what ever happened to that? Not only did it fade away in general, but I never saw for example picture of Mars taken with it. That would sure disprove the idea of the dark patches being vegetation we know of.)

    PS: I saw some recent posts up in the side bar, that I couldn’t get to because of an error message. Now I can’t find them IIRC. Were they lost forever?

    PS – I read about two-buck chuck, and how it violates ordinary economic “laws” (something better, that costs less.) Or if it doesn’t then they are kind of circular anyway, since you define the value as whatever people pay etc.

    ‘Two-Buck Chuck’ Snags Top Wine Prize

    Listen to this story…

    Morning Edition, June 18, 2004 ยท When it comes to wine, some consumers still equate quality with price. But at the 28th Annual International Eastern Wine Competition, a $1.99 bottle of California Wine, the 2002 Charles Shaw Shiraz, beat out 2,300 wines to win a prestigious double gold medal.

    Sorry, I don’t think economics is a real science either.

  • http://thecrossedpond.com adam

    I read an article about a restaurant like this somewhere in France, a few years back. Not sure if that was the first one, though.

    For myself, I hate not being able to clearly see what I’m eating.

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    Arun, I don’t doubt for a minute that people in Baghdad endure meals without light. I lived through more than one blackout in my NYC years. But even in blackout conditions, there’s always some sort of ambient light, SOMEWHERE, even if it’s just the stars twinkling above. The complete absence of any light at all is what made the experience unique. It was so dark that the glow of someone’s wristwatch would seem like a full-power lighthouse beam.

    It’s a schtick, to be sure, but it’s a compelling and thought-provoking one, should one be inclined to ponder the experience beyond the “Wow, I can’t see a thing” factor. I, for one, came away with a deeper appreciation for my own sight — and for not suffering the kinds of power outages in places like Baghdad and India.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/clock/ coturnix

    Very cool experience. I did eat in the complete dark, though, in my lab. As a circadian researcher, I had to do all sorts of stuff in the complete darkness….

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Jennifer, I guess one should be thankful for all experiences that make one thankful.

    Speaking of eating in the dark, in the epic Mahabharata, the to-be-great archer, boy Arjuna is eating at night when the wind blows out the lamp. Reflecting on the fact that his hand continued to convey food accurately to his mouth, he wondered whether it would be possible to shoot in the dark…..

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    A-ha, The recent comment box is back :-)

  • Pingback: L.A.’s Dining in the Dark()

  • http://firesight.org Barbara

    I got a Google alert on your Dining in the Dark blog & comments – how awesome! My organization (FIRE) actually puts on a fundraiser just like this every year to benefit people who are blind. We were worried about the “blindness tourism” concept, too, but it hasn’t happened here (in Tallahassee, FL) either. We have folks who are blind guide you to your seat, but the food is served by the Sheriff SWAT Team with night vision goggles. I’ll have to ask them about shooting in the dark (LOL!) Great post.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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