I just had the most unique dining experience of my life and I have no idea what my food looked like. Basically, the above is what I saw for two hours straight.
NOTHING. I mean absolutely nothing. Didn't matter if my eyes were opened or closed, couldn't see even a speck of light.
This happened in Tel Aviv last month at the Nalaga'at Center on the port in Jaffa. The cultural center employs some 70 people, most of whom are deaf, blind or both. The center has a theater, a cafe run by waiters who are deaf and a pitch-black restaurant with a staff of blind waiters. We bought tickets to experience it all! The evening started with a theater production called "Not by Bread Alone" performed by about 15 actors who were both deaf and blind. Through a fascinating combination of sign language, super titles, translators and vibration, they told us their stories while baking bread onstage. Some had slight vision and could see sign language. Those who were both deaf and blind communicated by holding on to each others' hands while signing- the simple movement creating the communication.
They shared their dreams with us- things like being able to go to the movies or going for a walk unaccompanied. So much of their communication was based on hands and feeling, and this metaphor was shared with us in the way they kneaded and then baked bread onstage. After an hour of inhaling this amazing aroma, we were invited to use our sense of taste to enjoy the bread that had just come out of the oven, onstage with the actors. Amazing.
Afterwards, Jack and I went to dinner at the same center's restaurant called Blackout, where the waiters are legally blind and there are no windows or lights. The guests, once inside, cannot see at all. Before we entered the restaurant, while we could still see, we paid the $30 prix fixe fee and ordered our food and wine from a menu. To mix things up we ordered the chef's surprise menu. The hostess led us inside the first door to meet our server, a young 30-something woman who had been born blind. She asked me to put my hands on her shoulders and she would lead us in like a train, following her. As we walked through the black velvet curtain, I heard the bustle of a restaurant, but I could not see a thing. Not even light up watches or cell phones were allowed. We wound around about 20 steps or so until we arrived at our table.
She told us the tables were all communal: we were being seated at a six-top, and that four other diners were already at the table. If we needed anything, we were instructed to just call out her name. We instantly felt around to find where our napkin and silverware were, careful not to knock over any glasses. Jack was seated across from me, which is normal usually but in this situation seemed odd. We were far enough apart that our knees weren't touching, and if he stopped talking, I couldn't be sure he was even there. The darkness was at first exciting, then a bit disorienting and almost scary. (I could see how someone prone to panic attacks would have a hard time!) I felt the need to hold Jack's hand across the table just to make sure he hadn't gone anywhere (although where would he possibly go?!).
When the person beside me left, our server came over and suggested he move next to me- that most people preferred that seating arrangement. She was right- it was then much more comfortable. We could hear each other more easily and sit closely enough that our shoulders touched, which quickly put me at ease and all thoughts of anxiety vanished. She brought our wine and sounded very sincere when she promised us it was indeed what we ordered. But really- how would she know? Someone who could see had to tell her. A lot of trust was involved in this whole ordeal.
When the food came out, we weren't sure what it was going to be. As she carefully but seamlessly placed our food in front of us, I was told I had ravioli and Jack had fish. My plate had a small round nob on the edge to tell her which plate was which. As to what else was on the plate, we had to just find out. After a few mouthfuls, I really wanted to know what exactly was on that plate, so I stuck my fingers in it! What? It's not like anyone could see! (They must have been offering the bibs outside for this reason.) I felt mushrooms and perhaps some greens and something mashed, later determined to be a side of creamy polenta. After that, I had a better idea where to stick my fork! ...Until I was about half way through and kept coming up with empty fork-fulls. Then I went back to the finger method.
All our other senses were notably heightened- the smells were intense and suddenly everything seemed loud. People in the restaurant periodically said "shhhhh" because it got hard on the ears. I couldn't keep my hands off Jack (and we are not PDA people, at all!). We talked about what we were feeling throughout the whole dinner (again, not a usual thing for us) and tried to guess how many tables there were and how they were positioned. How many people where in there with us? (about 25). How many did the restaurant seat? (40). Was the restaurant full? (only half- surprising!). Is the chef blind? (He's not). If we wanted to run and get out, which way wold we go? At one point Jack proclaimed that he was naked. (He wasn't). But our hebrew speaking tablemates understood some English and laughed. We were curious about our waiter- she was very friendly and spoke English well. She loved working at this restaurant and studied Kabalah in her spare time.
By the time my dessert came, I was pleased that I hadn't spilled the wine- if only I were always that careful! I'm not sure what the dessert was... some sort of baklava inspired stringy basket woven-type pastry filled with a pudding like cream and seasoned with rosewater. Our server made us feel the bottle to be sure it was empty when she took it away. When we were ready, we called out our waiter's name and she escorted us out, hands on shoulders.
In the end, we didn't think the food was remarkable. My veggie raviolis with cheese and mushrooms were good, but nothing too unusual or groundbreaking in terms of ingredients or cuisine. It was more about the experience. But I can only imagine if this sort of experience was paired with something Heston Blumenthal or Wylie Dufresne could dream up. Apparently these "blind restaurants" exist in other parts of the world too- I'd jump at the chance to try it again.
The exterior of the restaurant (above). Some of the staff's seeing eye dogs wait for them to get off work.
photo by erin gleeson.