Descending into a 1950s buffet-style, hotel supper spot, I started my journey into a few hours of blindness. It was dim at sunset, but would be always, due to the lack of natural light in the depths of an old Church Street hotel. The carpet showed its age, telling of the kind of heavy traffic this space must once have entertained. Nobody schmoozing in the lounge could remember exactly what the place had been before, and nobody had ever been there, but we could agree that not much had changed from whatever it was. Anticipation was palpable amongst the guests invited to a unique fundraising event in support of Toronto People with AIDS Foundation and the Friends for Life Bike Rally. Each guest shelled out $60.00, $25.00 of which was donated to Harvey Malinsky’s campaign to raise $28,000.00 in total. I took my parents with me to dine in the dark.
O Noir is a restaurant staffed by blind waiters, at which guests are led into darkness to eat with all four senses. We could not see the room, our plates, where our cutlery was placed or the strangers sitting across from us at our table. Smell, sound, touch, and taste were heightened by the pitch darkness. We could see nothing save the Indiglo of one of our fellow diner’s wristwatch. Trying to keep the colours of my dinner inside the lines of my plate, and consistently thinking I had succeeded to fill my fork with grilled calamari, roast chicken, or vegetable ragout, only to bring an empty fork to my lips, was all part of the experience. Time and time again I failed at eating blindly. I changed my strategy, put away my table manners and social graces, licked my knife to ensure I wouldn’t drop it on my lap and have to Shout it out later, and used my grubby hands to feed myself this tasty mystery meal. The sound became deafening, as guests got more comfortable with the darkness. Instead of communicating through body language, or eye contact, friends would up their volume to be acknowledged, and it was horrifyingly loud. I could hardly keep my attention on the fascinating situation I found myself in. The food was good, but it wasn’t really about the food. We were stepping into a reality that is almost impossible to understand. Putting trust into our servers to guide us to our seats, serve us what we had ordered, to anticipate our movements and navigate around our chairs, purses, gestures, and requests was nerve racking and pushed me right out of my comfort zone. I generally eat with my eyes first. Not knowing what was in front of me, not knowing what to expect, and not being able to see how my food was presented was challenging and intriguing. I was thrilled.
Restaurants of this genre are popping up around the world in Paris, Montreal, Australia, LA and New York, and Canada contributing 5% of profits to organizations that support people who have barriers to sight. Our waiter, Victor, told us that all of the staff was hired through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). The concept is novel, but a novelty the restaurant remains. I will likely not seek out these dining rooms where I travel, nor will I be likely to visit Toronto’s O Noir again any time soon. It will be interesting to see how long the business stays afloat. I can’t imagine there would be very many repeat customers. That being said, it is well worth it to push your boundaries and do something out of the ordinary, and I highly recommend going to O Noir in order to do just that. Enjoy!