Dining in the Dark

Eating in th Dark

Who would want to eat in the dark?

When I told my friends about San Francisco’s Opaque restaurant, the general reaction was “Why would you want to do that?”

As my birthday drew nearer, I made a reservation. Then I told my husband, Mason — and gave him the out that if he didn’t want to go, I’d try to find another date. I couldn’t envision going alone.

Mason met me at the restaurant. Both of us wanted to wash up first, 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 at Opaque, who 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 is limited to three simple courses, which posed no problem. You can choose an appetizer, a main dish, and a dessert or 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. 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 she 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. Total blackness, to me, feels claustrophobic. While other restaurants might blindfold you to give you the experience of eating while blind, Opaque stresses that their restaurant is 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 is in a basement. In Earthquake Country. With no Exit signs. In total 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 on my left. Rather than feeling wedged in, I felt oriented. Nothing was going to creep up on me — and Mason, sitting beside me, would 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 delivered us 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, 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.

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 just knows.

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 I’d lost it on the table, but then 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 peppers and carrots. The server complimented us on recognizing so many of the flavors.

Mason said his eyes adjusted eventually. 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 stop eating any restaurant meal by cutting it in half. I eat only up to the dividing line, instead of waiting to be sated, which always comes too late. 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 need 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 like to go back with us, but Opaque doesn’t offer a kids menu and — although Sorrell is generally adventurous — you eat what you get because you can’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.

There are Opaques in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City, and Dallas. I apologize for the music that begins when you click on this link. The restaurant, to my relief, did not have obnoxious music.

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