Jul 15, 2010 | London, UK
Jul 15, 2010

As an exercise in empathy we went to eat in total darkness at a restaurant staffed by blind waiters who were not called waiters but guides.

In the lighted bar for sighted people, we got to choose between vegetarian, fish, meat, or surprise. I went for surprise.

They took us down a hallway, hands on shoulders, turned a corner, passed through two sets of thick black velvet curtains, and then we were there in the darkness. Our eyes did their best to adjust to the dark, but in the end there was nothing to see.

The guide took us to the table, showed us the chairs, and had us sit down. It was a new thing to experience a dinner table like this — the edge, the wall, the glass, the plate, the napkin, the fork and the knife only by touch.

The food came, and we tried to see what it was, but instead we had to feel and smell and taste what it was. This was awkward at first and felt messy, but once we could see that no one could see, then it felt primal and clear.

Familiar flavors and textures were there on the plate, but it was hard to say what they were, because you never really think about this stuff so carefully — so often you just order and eat.

There was something cold and slippery that tasted like some kind of bland plant, which ended up being leek pie. On another region of the plate there were some pieces of lobster, on another there were arugula leaves with mustard dressing. Over everything were little bits of caviar.

I started off with silverware, but in there silverware seemed like a silly contrivance whose only purpose was to impress other people with neatness. It was far simpler and more effective just to use your hands and your teeth, and the strangers in the dark at the other tables seemed to agree, because forks and knives only clinked together when someone new arrived, and would then be put down for the rest of the meal, and all you would hear would be shuffling bodies, low talking, and the occasional "Mmmmm."

The guide took away the plates and brought another course, this one bigger and stranger. There were slices of some kind of meat that felt like roast pork, but that didn't quite have the flavor. There was another meat that tasted fishy, but that didn't feel like a fish. The meats ended up being zebra soaked in lemon butter, and kangaroo drizzled with anchovy oil. Then there were things that tasted and felt like roasted potatoes, but in the end I learned they were pears. The crispy parma ham was easy to know anywhere, even without being able to look. There was arugula too, with a mustard dressing over it.

In the end the guide brought dessert, which was on a chilly rectangular plate with curved edges and corners. There was some kind of dish on the plate, filled with cold lemon custard and pieces of fig. Next to the dish was a piece of milk chocolate filled with nougat ice cream. Once I took a bite of this I worried the ice cream would drip down onto the plate, so I held the piece of chocolate in my hand, with the open ice cream side facing the ceiling, like a bird bath in a cave. There was also a shortbread cookie, which was easy and like a relief.

At first it was pretty freaky in there, not being able to see, and I even felt a little faint from the sudden loss of control, which was like sensory claustrophobia. But even as sight closed down and stopped working, the other senses opened up and took the chance to matter more — a chance they rarely get.

When all the food was gone, the guide came over to ask if we were ready to go back to the light, but we were not ready to do it. It was safe and comfortable there in the dark, and we didn't want to leave it.

Conversation was different when you could not see body language or look into eyes. It was gentler, somehow less judgmental. There was only the quiet voice across from you and what it was saying. There was nothing to look around at, so you could really be in the place where you were, and you could give all your attention to the person who was there with you — something very hard to do in the light.