(Above: A quick preview of my most recent Vancouver dining adventure.)
Key ingredients to a fully satisfactory foodie experience – presentation, garnishes, flare – don’t merely add colour and contrast to a meal. Visual plate appeal whets appetites, teases our taste buds and, after sense of smell, is the second part to enjoying a meal before chow, fare, food, grub or an absolutely alimentary masterpiece passes our lips.
At Dark Table, though, guests pay $39 to skip the visual digestion of the average dining experience over a three-course meal in complete, blinding blackness. The dark dining phenomenon – which has brought blackness to restaurants in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Toronto, Boston, Berlin and Zurich – has found a permanent home in Vancouver, giving diners the opportunity to not see what they place on their forks (or more accurately, in their hands) as they eat in public, and leave their blindfolds at home.
We chose our mains in broad daylight outside the West Broadway restaurant’s pitch black interior. Garlic prawns with citrus risotto and seasonable vegetables was the last thing to catch my eye as we were escorted into a waiting room.
From dimness to darkness, we congo-lined into the room around raucous laughter, clinking silverware and the sounds of guests taking stabs at what they were eating, and then attempting to do the same with forks. My hands on our waitress’s shoulders, my date’s on mine, we strategically weaved our way to a table-for-two, enveloped in darkness, surrounded by bodiless dinner guests
We felt our way around our table – one fork, one blunt knife and an individual packet of butter on what felt like a clean table cloth. I could have sworn it was red, but that was only a guess.
All wait staff at Dark Table are visually impaired. There are no night vision goggles, and communication relies on calling out over diners overcompensating for the loss of one sense by loudly filling up another. After glasses of red wine – Shot in the Dark, of course – our surprise starters arrived. Feeling my way around a fruit salad, which turned out to be half-made of vegetables, I struggled to identify grapes – which were actually blueberries – and honeydew – actually cucumber – coated in a mint dressing that didn’t quite appeal. The starter was messy, and forks just weren’t an option.
Eating in blackness toys with your mind. It lacks the romance of a dimly lit dining room, but brings an odd sense of personal intimacy that leaves you feeling alone with your thoughts and slightly disconnected from whoever you’re sitting with. The boundaries between you sitting as an individual, with your date, with everyone else, are completely in your head. Your actions are yours to judge. I imagine I can see my hands. I can picture where we’re sitting. But as the kitchen door occasionally opens and sheds light on the scene, I get glimpses of how disoriented I really am.
Dark Table is a cacophony of sounds: the occasional shatter of a glass, guests calling out pleadingly for Rose – who seems to be the only waitress working – and over-analytical guesses mumbled through full mouths about what’s going into those mouths turn a private dinner-for-two into a loosely shared group experience with people you won’t ever see again, and never really saw to begin with.
The main was manageable with a fork, with the prawns de-shelled and steak pre-cut. The meal was filling, but you pay for the experience. Dessert was an underwhelming palate-cleansing chocolate cake.
It was a unique experience that left me with a greater appreciation for how big of a role sight plays in the enjoyment of a fine meal – not to mention how challenging a simple meal out becomes without visual cues. Despite the fun we had guessing what we were eating, and our slightly amused anticipation to find out of how much food we’d spilled down our outfits over the two-hour sitting: Dark Table, like the annual ice-chilling Polar Bear Swim or trying soft shell crab – is an experience I feel completely satisfied trying only once.