[This month’s column is penned by Loren Rhoads, our “Grave Fascination” columnist.]
Dining in the Dark
A couple of years ago, I hit upon the perfect way to celebrate my birthday. A restaurant opened in San Francisco that was completely dark inside. Food was served—and eaten—in total darkness. When I told my friends about the Opaque restaurant, the general reaction was “Why would you want to do that?”
In fact, the closer my birthday got, the more I wanted to go. I made a reservation, then I told my husband, Mason. I gave him the out that if he didn’t want to go, I would try to find another date. I just couldn’t imagine going alone. Luckily, Mason was ready for the adventure.
He met me at the restaurant on the edge of San Francisco’s Western Addition. Both of us wanted to wash up before dinner, so the hostess directed us into an adjacent restaurant to use their facilities. That solved my worry about using a public restroom in the dark. I washed my hands really well in case I needed to resort to eating with my fingers.
We checked back in with the hostess in the doorway at Opaque. She gave us menus and sent us down a staircase to a narrow hallway full of upholstered benches. She followed a few minutes later to take our orders and ask if we had any food allergies. I’m allergic to shellfish, which I wouldn’t be able to see to avoid in the dark. She promised that it wouldn’t be a problem.
Opaque’s menu was limited to three simple courses. You could choose an appetizer, a main dish, and a dessert—or you could ask them to surprise you. I wasn’t ready for that level of risk, but I did commit myself to the mystery dessert.
Our waitress arrived to take us to our table. Like all the servers at Opaque, she was legally blind. She turned away from us, then asked me to place my hands on her shoulders. Mason put his hands on my shoulders, kind of like a conga line. Then the waitress led us through some twists and turns away from the lighted hallway into the dark.
I’m not afraid of the dark, but I don’t like small places. This total blackness felt claustrophobic to me. While other restaurants might blindfold you to give you the experience of eating while blind, Opaque stressed that their restaurant was entirely dark.
I’d wondered how they accomplished that. Obviously, the lights would be off. Were the windows painted over? Were the tables curtained off? Surely, there must be a lighted Exit sign, at least? The answer was the one I didn’t consider: Opaque was located in a basement. In Earthquake Country. With no Exit signs. In utter blackness.
After Mason and I had been seated, I fought down a panic attack. If I hadn’t wanted the experience so much, I might have fled. At least I had a wall at my back—behind a cushion—and another wall along my left arm. Rather than feeling wedged in, I felt oriented. Nothing was going to creep up on me. Mason sat beside me to guard my right side.
The table had been set before we arrived. I ran my fingertips over the silverware. Mason was instructed to meet the server at the edge of the table where she would pass him the food and clear away our dishes.
She brought an amuse bouche to get things started. We were supposed to guess what it was. We found it easy to recognize salmon with a drop of wasabi on a slice of cucumber.
After that, I had a mixed green salad with warm goat cheese, candied walnuts, and grapes. In the outside world, I don’t like grapes. I don’t like anything with a skin you bite through, especially if it’s squishy inside. In the dark, unable to eat around them, I really enjoyed tasting grapes for the first time in my life. Their flavor blended beautifully with the slightly salty cheese and the sweet, crunchy walnuts. I think I polished off every bite of salad.
I found it surprisingly easy to use a fork without seeing what I was doing. If you think about it, your hand knows how to feed you. Unless you eat in front of a mirror, you never see how your hand moves or where exactly your mouth is. Your body learned what to do when you were very young.
The only part of the meal that made me uncomfortable was when I misplaced my fork. Instead of putting it down on the right-hand side of my plate, I set the fork down along the top. I thought I’d need to admit to the server that I’d lost it on the table, but my frantic fingers finally bumped into it.
Flavors seemed brighter in the dark. My nose isn’t very sensitive, but I could practically see the colors of flavors as we explored a mystery plate of crudités. The lemon aioli was bright yellow, probably brighter than if I had been able to see it. The sun-dried tomato dip tasted orangish pink. The hummus felt toasty brown. We gobbled up the slices of bell peppers and carrots. The server complimented us on recognizing so many of the flavors.
Mason said his eyes eventually adjusted. He could see shadows. The only thing different when my eyes “adjusted” was that I finally stopped seeing lights shooting all around the room. I never really saw anything beyond black.
I hadn’t realized how much of a meal is visual to me. I’ve never paid much attention to presentation, but I usually start eating any restaurant meal by cutting it in half. I eat only up to the dividing line, instead of waiting to be sated, which I always notice too late. In Opaque, without the visual marker that I’d finished my allotted portion, I kept eating my salmon entrée for the sheer sensuous pleasure of it. I never knew if I’d get a bite of white beans or sweet potato or the salmon with its perfect crust. Each forkful was a wonderful surprise.
While I didn’t actually need my mystery dessert, I wasn’t ready for the experience to be over. I figured I’d eat a few experimental bites, then push it aside. Instead, the first bite gave me shivers of pleasure. Vanilla ice cream, drizzled with warm caramel sauce, melted atop hot apple crumble. It was exactly the dessert I would have ordered, if it had been on the menu. In the end, I forced myself to push it away unfinished.
The whole experience was much more fun—and so much less frightening—than I expected. Our daughter would have liked to go back with us, but Opaque didn’t offer a kids’ menu and—although Sorrell is generally adventurous—you ate what you got because you couldn’t see to do anything else. That in itself was a valuable lesson.
I didn’t miss the birthday candle and cake, but our server brought me a card with a birthday message spelled out in Braille. When Mason and I returned to the entrance to settle our bill, I blinked in the lights, relieved and grateful for the ability to see.
While there were once Opaques in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City, and Dallas, only the Santa Monica restaurant still appears to be open: https://darkdining.com/.