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Dining in the Dark

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollJuly 16, 2007 9:11 PM


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Upon moving to a new city, one naturally pokes around a bit to find interesting things to do that one's previous location may not have offered. Los Angeles, of course, is the modern Mecca of novelty and experience, so one is faced with an impressive menu of possibilities. But this one struck me as particularly clever: Dining in the Dark, which is just what the title promises. The idea is to take a relatively standard restaurant experience, but to turn out all the lights, removing that pesky "visual" aspect provided by the ambient photons. You save a bundle on decor, and you can charge extra for the novelty! Genius. So naturally we had to try. And on Saturday we did. This little video comes from a local TV station that solved the "How do we do a story on TV about something that happens totally in the dark?" problem by bringing in an infrared camera. It's not held at a standalone restaurant, but only happens on weekends in a conference room at the West Hollywood Hyatt. (Saving on decor, remember?) The waitstaff guide you to your table, which is decorated with a few rose petals but otherwise as uncluttered as possible. ("Bumping into stuff" is a big part of the dark experience, but you get used to it.) The staff is generally very helpful, and you are encouraged to shout for them if you need something at your table, or wish to be escorted away -- I'm pretty sure that the restrooms were not themselves dark, although I didn't check. You were, however, expected to be able to pour your own wine from its bottle to the glasses without soaking the table. I managed. The idea, of course, is to offer a different angle on the process of eating and enjoying a meal with friends. Deprived of sight, your other senses rally to the task, and you are more sensitive to the sounds and tastes around you. And it's certainly not impossible to get by; blind people do it all the time. Actual blind people, of course, don't have the option of stepping back into sight once the meal is over, and there was a danger that the whole operation would seem like some sort of creepy "blindness tourism." But I never got that sense; the waitstaff themselves are all blind or visually impaired, and if anything the experience gives you just a tiny bit of insight into what their lives must be like -- or would be like, if they lived in a world in which great efforts were made to accommodate their sightlessness. The menu itself was simple, and purposely so: by concentrating on a few basic and recognizable flavors, the chefs offer you the opportunity to disentangle all of the ingredients for yourself, without seeing directly what they are. And the food itself was none too shabby; I can vouch that the truffle-infused macaroni and cheese would have been a hit under any circumstances. True, there was occasionally a temptation to bypass the traditional knife and fork and use one's fingers. It may even have occasionally happened that one would mistakenly push a morsel off of one's plate, and rescue it from the table with one's hands; happily, there were no witnesses, and I'm not saying anything. The above video, while evocative, really gives the wrong idea by letting in the infrared cameras. The foremost lesson of the dark dining experience is that it is really, really dark. That might come as no shocking news, but it makes you realize how very rarely in this world we are really plunged all the way into complete darkness. We are usually always accompanied by streetlights, or the glowing face of an alarm clock, or the stars in the sky. True and absolute darkness is a different experience, and one worth trying. I love those photons, but I would definitely do it again.

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