This post isn’t going to have any pictures. Well, maybe one picture. Of the front of the building. The reason? I recently had a one-of-a-kind, exhilarating, completely mind-bending dining experience…but I took no pictures of the food. This is remarkable since I’m usually the high maintenance blogger customer who wants a table by the window for the best natural light so I can take 14 pictures of my water glass before I take my first sip. But on this night we dined in total darkness. Black darkness. Black hole darkness. Can’t find my fork darkness. Can’t find my mouth, for that matter, darkness. Yes, we ate a vegetarian meal at Vancouver BC’s Dark Table.
When we arrived we were greeted, temporarily seated outside in a covered vestibule, and asked to place our order before being ushered in. (All the better to see the menu.) We opted for the 3-course meal which included a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. We got to choose the main dish but the other courses were going to be a surprise.
Within seconds we were introduced to our waitperson Bobby and then began the first out-of-my-comfort-zone adventure: getting to our table. Bobby asked that Jeff and I get in a single-file line behind him, conga line style, except with our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us instead of their waist. Then he took off way too quickly and I tried to keep up. You know how when you’re walking somewhere in poor lighting and you can’t see, you take teensie tiny baby steps out of caution? Well Bobby was walking full speed ahead and my brain and feet couldn’t agree on what speed to go. I felt immediately discombobulated.
Bobby then accomplished a seemingly impossible feat by getting us seated at our table without incident. I took off my Fitbit and stashed it deep in my purse with my phone so as not to ruin the blackout experience. We started off with two bottles of mineral water and spent the next 90 minutes trying desperately not to knock them off the table while still occasionally hydrating ourselves. For my first sip, I completely misjudged the height of the bottle and bumped it into my two front teeth. One benefit of dining in darkness? Nobody can see you when you make a doofus move like this.
And then the food. The starter came very quickly and the strange eating began. I felt the rim of the bowl with my hands to determine the size and then tried stabbing my fork into the bowl but nothing came back to my mouth. Try and imagine eating something that you can’t see whose shape and texture and size is unknown. I was temporarily dumbfounded and helpless. I tried poking at the contents of the bowl with my finger only to feel something cold, wet, and soft. Not what I expected. At. All.
Finally after countless unsuccessful attempts I finally got some food into my mouth. I immediately identified a grape and Belgian endive by their shape and crunch. I also noted a sweet element and something with a mysterious texture that I thought might be grainy mustard in what I thought was a dressing on what I thought was a salad. In any case, it tasted fantastic.
And then more food arrived, slightly less mysterious this time. My main dish was the vegan ratatouille with French bread and Jeff had the mushroom risotto. I enjoyed mine, but wasn’t as excited to finish the plate of veggies once I’d run out of bread. It was a good combination together but somewhat boring when eating each component on its own. Maybe it’s just my texture issue rearing its ugly head. Traditionally, ratatouille is made with eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomato. A big plate of squishy veggies is made tolerable for my stupid palate with crusty bread, but without, I was less interested. So I waited patiently for the last course.
You’d think I’d be getting slightly better at this with each passing minute, but I found dessert even more difficult to consume. My ratio of empty forks to full forks that made it to my mouth felt like about 53:1. The result? Dessert took forever to finish. It seemed like maybe a cake with a creamy filling, and it was very tasty.
Throughout the evening I realized how valuable our eyes are to our dining experiences. It was very difficult to know when I’d finished my portion. I did a lot of fork stabbing in the dark until I heard/felt that my plate was empty. Our eyes also let our mouths sort of know what to expect and without that information up front, familiar food feels awfully unfamiliar on the tongue. I also made a bit of a mess and found crumbs on my lap and felt pieces of tomato on the table after our plates were cleared.
And let me tell you, this is no dimly lit mood lighting. It was so very dark. You can’t see the table, your hands, your dining partner, your waitperson, the people next to you, the floor, your drink, nothing. Really the only light at all that pierces the blackness are fleeting blue-hued flashes when someone opens the door to the kitchen across the room.
Before leaving, we asked to use the bathroom, and so began another harrowing speed-walking trip behind Bobby across the restaurant. He deposited us in front of the doors to the restrooms and promised to swing back by and pick us up. (An interesting but completely unrelated observation: the toilet seat in the women’s room was heated. Heated! This was a restaurant first for me. And a Canadian first. Well, let’s be honest…a lifetime first for me.)
Bobby retrieved us as promised and next hurriedly walked us to a dark little corner behind a curtain where we got in line to pay the bill. The person who ran our credit card was able to tell us what we’d just consumed and as you can imagine there were a lot of ooohs and aaaahs from the group of diners in line behind us. Once we finished, the cashier hollered Bobby’s name and back he came again to walk us to the exit. It felt like a whirlwind. The whole experience was sort of over too quickly but in certain moments passed uncomfortably slow.
I did feel something like anxiety during dinner that I can’t quite describe. I’d never experienced it before. Maybe it was that my eyes never stopped trying to focus on something or find a reference point, something to help me judge the size of the room I was in or confirm what activity was going on around me. I actually felt more at ease when I closed my eyes. How strange is that? And am I the only one in that big dark room who felt on edge dining this way?
It didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy myself. I really did. There was just a lot of sensory data to process all at once, while also experiencing a lack of visual data. It required some adjustment but I appreciated the richness of the experience so much.
A few notable notes.
- The servers are visually impaired but the chefs are not.
- The dining room is dark but the kitchen is not.
- The bathrooms and alcove where you pay are dimly lit.
- Someone did bump into our table during the meal, but only once.
- We heard silverware fall to the floor, but miraculously no broken plates or glasses the entire time.
- We completely misjudged the size of our table and only noticed near the end of the meal that we weren’t seated in the middle of it but off center to one side. (Maybe we were 2 people seated at a 4-top?)
- We have no idea how many people were dining alongside us or how many people Dark Table holds.
- They have set service times each night and I believe reservations are required.
- If you’re game for a surprise main entrée the restaurant is happy to provide a vegetarian option but they ask for 24 hours advance notice.
If this sounds exciting or terrifying, I think you should try it. Eating is something we often do mindlessly so to experience a meal without the comfort of your usual visual cues and with a little unfamiliarity to leave you feeling vulnerable is truly extraordinary. It happened two weeks ago and I’m still thinking about it. And to balance any potential feelings of anxiety, let yourself off the hook when you’re getting ready for your night out at Dark Table. You don’t have to meet any unrealistic expectations for perfect hair and makeup or the perfect outfit. Your date won’t know the difference.
SPOILER ALERT. Here are descriptions of the surprise foods: the starter turned out to be endive with lemon ricotta, red grapes, and a honey balsamic glaze and the dessert was angel cake with raspberry sauce and white chocolate.