After fumbling and almost knocking over a glass of wine, I finally located the piece of bread I was searching for. I just hoped I was using it to mop up the sauce on my own plate and not my neighbour’s.
This could only happen at Dans le Noir? – the restaurant where diners sit in the dark and are served food by blind waiters.
The restaurant, whose London branch has recently celebrated its 10 year anniversary, was opened by entrepreneur Edouard de Broglie with the help of the Paul Guinot Foundation for Blind People.
The foundation began running events in the dark in the 1990s to raise public awareness of what it is like to be blind. De Broglie, who previously worked in the technology sector, approached them about opening a restaurant based on the same concept.
“I made a lot of profit and I wanted to invest my money in an idea that was socially useful,” he told me before my visit.
“The foundation was losing money every time they were running an event, which I thought was really crazy. So I offered to invest and to make a profitable company.”
Upon arrival at Dans le Noir? (French for “in the dark”) we were greeted by a sighted member of staff in a lit bar and asked to choose between four colours that represent four different menu options: white (exotic), red (meat), blue (fish) or green (vegetarian).
I opted for red and my boyfriend chose white, before we were introduced to our blind waiter for the evening, Roberto Rebbechi.
Rebbechi led us through a door and then a curtain into the main restaurant. To say the space is pitch black almost seems like an understatement. If you raise your hand one inch in front of your face you see nothing. If you close your eyes then open them again, it makes no difference.
Apparently, it’s not unusual for diners to panic when they first enter the dark room and as we slowly walked further and further away from the entrance I could feel my heart beating out of my chest.
Rebbechi gently moved us by the shoulders to help us navigate our chairs on the communal table and introduced us to our neighbours. Strangely enough, hearing friendly voices of people I’d never met before made me immediately feel more at ease.
“I had a feeling at the beginning communal tables would be useful because in the dark people need to reconfigure their environment, so they can talk to their neighbour,” De Broglie explained.
“As they don’t see them, they don’t have preconceptions of people. It’s a very open-minded space.”
One of the nicest things about Dans le Noir? is that you never know who is sat beside you and unless you leave the dark room at the same time, you never will.
De Broglie told me about a time when he was sat in the room himself alongside a man who said he made “strange films”.
“I didn’t understand – later I found out it was Tim Burton!” he laughed.
I won’t give away too much about the food as half the fun during the meal is trying to guess what you’re eating, but what I will say, is that my starter included the most delicious steak I have ever eaten. I was convinced it was beef with some sort of marinade, but I was very, very wrong.
The “beef” was actually an exotic meat I never would have ordered, yet I’m so glad I had the chance to try.
According to De Broglie, it’s not unusual for diners to be surprised by what they’ve eaten when they’re shown the menu in the light at the end of the evening.
“People taste the food like they’ve never tasted food before. They think they know the food, but it’s much more difficult to understand the taste and the smells when you don’t have the light,” he said.
“People question themselves on the way they eat and the way they enjoy smells – everything.”
By the time we reached our third course, my boyfriend and I decided to abandon our cutlery altogether and get stuck in with our hands. We chatted about why we bothered to stab the air with a fork in the first place when no one could see us.
We also pondered whether we should be more adventurous with our food shops from now on and spoke a lot about what it must be like to lose your sight.
This sense of questioning you’re left with after dining at Dans le Noir? is why the restaurant has a question mark in its sign.
By the end of the meal I happily sat with chutney around my mouth, feeling sticky, but oddly liberated.
This may have been because Rebbechi pointed out: “In the dark, we are all beautiful and young.”
As well as giving diners like us a thought-provoking evening, the restaurant changes the lives of men like our waiter.
Rebbechi began working in the catering industry in Italy when he was just 16 years old. He moved to London in the 1980s and, after gaining several more years of experience in other people’s restaurants, achieved his dream of opening his own business.
“Shortly after I opened my business I started to have some problems with my eyes and gradually became blind,” he said.
“Because I was self employed I managed to carry on for 10 years, but eventually I decided it was getting a little bit too much for me. I gave up my business and decided to see what the future was holding for me.”
Rebbechi tried a series of courses including computer skills and physiotherapy to try and pave a new career for himself. It was one of the course co-ordinators that told him Dans le Noir? was soon to open a London restaurant.
“I applied and I said to myself ‘I’m going back home'”, he said.
“I never thought I would be able to work in a bar or restaurant again being blind, but this project has given me the opportunity. It’s a wonderful thing.”
While De Broglie is clear the restaurant is a profitable business and not a charity, it is clear that Dans le Noir? is doing a lot of good in the world.
As well as providing blind people with employment, the restaurant has paired up with numerous other charities over the years.
To mark the 10-year anniversary, De Broglie worked with Centrepoint to invite a group of homeless 16-25 year-olds to enjoy the restaurant for the evening.
The company also runs ‘Dans Le Noir? A Light For Africa’, a programme that helps brings electricity and computers to schools in Africa.
“The idea was that kids in schools without computers were almost partially blind, so we liked the idea that the blind could bring light to sighted people,” De Broglie said.
As we were guided back into the light at the end of our meal, I found myself feeling grateful for my sight for the first time in my life.
I left the restaurant remembering Rebbechi’s wise words: “Sometimes a bit of suffering guides you in the right direction.”