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Blind dining at Dark Table

Updated: Mar 16

Rose appears in the doorway, a tiny girl with a big stage presence. Her straight brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she's wearing black pants and a black short-sleeved shirt. She speaks with animated gestures, like an improv artist, but this is the first and last chance I'll get to observe them. She shakes our hands and repeats our names. Then she says, "My name is Rose. If you need anything at all, I don't want you to be polite. I want you to call my name like you're Jack and the Titanic is sinking! Rose!! Is this your first time here? Cool! Are you nervous?! Are you excited? I'm excited! Put your hands on my shoulders and follow me!"

Is it weird that I can remember everything but her eyes? Or is it actually perfectly normal? I feel like I could draw a convincing likeness of her from cheekbones to toes, but for some reason, when my mind tries to reconstruct a composite from memory just over a week old, I can't see her eyes—or recall if I ever saw them. Was she wearing Stevie Wonder blackout shades? It could have been yellow Fright Night contact lenses for all I know. I suddenly feel paranoid that maybe I never make eye contact with anyone and this is the first time I'm realizing it. Or maybe there's just something about looking at someone who can't see you, that makes you instinctively avoid looking them in the eye...

Anyway, we enter the restaurant and the door closes behind us. I can no longer see Rose or anything else. I have my hands on her shoulders and Mr. Pink's hands are on mine. He asks if it's going to be absolutely pitch black like this in the restaurant and Rose teases back, "That's why we call it blind dining... It's not dim dining!" Dim dining! Rose is funny. She's fucking delightful.

"You don't have to worry about any steps or doors," she says as we follow closely behind her. "Nothing is going to trip you or hit you in the face. There's a curtain coming up on your left, and just past that we're going to make a 90 degree left turn."

We're given simple instructions: follow behind her in single file as she leads us first to the restrooms and then to our table. The restrooms are dimly lit and separated from the dining room by two sharp turns and a hallway. There are heavy fabric drapes over what I assume are the structural doorways. Later, Rose will tell us if we could see the room in full daylight, we'd see a lot of curtains and a shit ton of duct tape.

I'm trying not to step on her heels, but periodically our little "train" comes to a jolting halt as Mr. Pink pulls back on my shoulders and we all crash into each other. He laughs and apologizes and then picks up the rhythm again. Every time it happens, Rose says, "Oopsy!" as if she'd been going too fast and I say, "Sorry, it's not me! Babe, are you okay?" Mr. Pink says he's fine, "it's just really dark."

When we get to our table, Rose carefully deposits us next to each of our chairs, then describes the layout of the table. We're seated across from each other at a two-top with open space on either side. I move my hands along the sides of the table, getting a feel for its boundaries. I would guess it's roughly 24 to 28 inches square. Is that a standard table size? I'm probably bad at 3D modeling, but if you've been to any cafe, you've sat at this table. There are napkins and placemats, no table cloth—if you think about it for a minute, this is no doubt a safety measure. We each have a fork and a spoon but no glasswear (which is perfect for me—I hate being given water at restaurants. I never drink it and they just get in the way). There is no centerpiece but my brain will go ahead and construct one anyway, a fuzzy sort of dividing line that bisects the table halfway between us.

I ask Mr. Pink, "Where is you at?" Reaching out and groping around, but definitely not flailing."Okay," I say, "I'm reaching out with my hand. My left hand..." I slowly sweep my hand across the table over the invisible barrier, then I realize... "Oh shit, I mean my right hand, your left... Aha—there you are!" And we're finally holding hands.

Rose bounces back into our nonexistent peripheral vision like a slimmer, less visible, female Tigger. She asks if we're doing okay, if we're comfortable. If we think we'd like to stick around for the whole experience? "Absolutely," we say, of course! Mr. Pink asks, half-joking, if anyone ever gets up and leaves at this point, and Rose tells us that at least once or twice a week someone does leave just a few minutes after sitting down. "Seriously?" I'm shocked and slightly offended... on her behalf. Why would anyone go to the trouble of coming here, knowing what the deal is, only to leave a few minutes later?

Rose says, "Well... It's never the women. Haha, it's always men. I think they start out thinking they'll be able to handle it, but then once they're sitting in the dark they realize they don't have any control, and they just can't do it. They say, I'm sorry, but this just isn't for me."

"Huh. Well, we're doing great," I say enthusiastically. "You might even have to throw us out eventually when you get tired of us and you're ready to go home!"

We pre-ordered our meals and drinks out in the foyer when we first arrived (steak for Mr. Pink and lamb rigatoni for me). We have glasses of sangria to go with our "surprise" appetizers and two different glasses of wine with dinner. We're looking forward to "blind taste testing" to see (or whatever) if we can tell the difference between his Malbec and my Shiraz. When the first course arrives, Rose tells us only that "it isn't soup," and then scampers off... at least that's how I imagine her moving through the inky blackness—an energetic, echo-locating superhuman in a room full of the disoriented and newly blind.

I cautiously feel around the dish in front of me, which is either a shallow bowl or a very high-rimmed plate. I pat towards the center of it, trying to get a sense of shape while avoiding the risk of putting my fingers into something I don't want to end up digging out from under my nails. I can feel several randomly organic-shaped things on a bed of something vaguely leafy. Nothing wet or gooey, which is first of all, good, but also rules out salad, which would have been my first guess. Still picturing a super-dry salad, I gently stab at it with my fork, hoping to spear a selection of things without sending anything flying.

I can see absolutely nothing, but I have a mental map of the dining room around me. Mr. Pink is straight in front of me, and there's maybe a wall or partition behind him. If Rose's entries and exits are anything to go by, the kitchen is behind me and to the right. The curtain/doorway where we came in is behind me to the left. Beyond the curtain to the left are the bathrooms; beyond the curtain to the right is a hallway, then a left turn and the front entrance. I think.

I've carefully placed my sangria on the left, since Rose always approaches from my right. We both manage to navigate the whole plate-silverware-glasses setup rather well, neither of us audibly losing any silverware or knocking over any glasses. I even successfully rummage around in my purse for a scrap of paper, on which I'd scribbled the restaurant's address, which I fold up very tightly and lean all the way down to the floor to slide the paper under the leg of the table, which is just a fraction of an inch too short. This effectively stops its slight but annoying wobble. (Awesome—I'm winning at blind dining!)

And yet... Three bites into the appetizer, I still can't identify it. It tastes good, whatever it is. But it's not salad... It's not any kind of meat... It has finely grated cheese on top, like Parmesan or Asiago...

"Mushroom caps," Mr. Pink says suddenly. He's beaten me to it. I say, "Omg, totally."

Our entrees are very good; my pasta is bite-sized and the sauce is the perfect consistency. Mr. Pink's steak is neatly sliced in bite-sized pieces but still manages to be reasonably "rare," a noteworthy culinary achievement all its own. At first, we had planned on circumventing the whole bite-sharing/stabbing-hazard process by getting up and switching seats, but in the end we manage to reach across the table and share bites just like normal, civilized, sight-impaired people. We trade sips of wine, and I guess that mine is the Shiraz, which I like better—he also prefers his own, so we're both right and we're both happy.

Even though the first thing Rose told us was, "there are no steps or doors," when my brain mapped out the room, it created a second level in the floor plan. I can tell there are at least three or four other occupied tables in the room by the sound of their voices and the apparent direction they're coming from. It seems like there were voices coming from behind Mr. Pink, but since I had already imagined his back against a wall, I think my mind tried to compromise by envisioning two steps up to a sort of mezzanine.

We're nearing the end of our entrees when Rose comes over to ask how we're doing. She says my name. "I'm hearing a lot of stabbing going on over here." I laugh and explain that I think I'm finished but just wanted to make sure I hadn't missed anything. "Oh," she says. "You know, nobody's looking! I would just pick up the plate and..." She makes slurping noises. (I laughingly admit, even in the dark, the idea of messing up my lipstick in this manner never occurred to me!)

Our mystery dessert (lemon cheesecake with blueberries) is much more easily identified than the appetizers, which still haunt me every time I tell someone about the experience. They inevitably give me this look (or I imagine they do) that says, "If I were eating mushrooms, I'd be able to tell."

I know you'd like to think so. But all that stuff they say about the other senses being heightened? It's not instantaneous. You don't just close your eyes and suddenly find that you can hear and feel everything so much better. For the average sighted person, between 30 and 60 percent of the brain's pathways are involved in processing visual data—and when a person loses their sight, much of that is gradually remapped to the other senses. That's a true, documented phenomenon, but it's anything but immediate. The first stage of losing your sight (for an evening, anyway, which is the only extent to which I'm qualified to report on such things), is realizing how much of your experience of eating is influenced by what you can see.

After dessert, Rose clears our table and Mr. Pink asks if it was a busy night. I can tell we're the only guests left in the dining room. She tells us that she had been the only server working that evening, and at the 6 o'clock seating, she had ten tables. We arrived at 8:30 for the second seating, which was only five tables. "Holy crap," I say, "Ten tables is a lot." I quickly add, "I'm not just saying that to suck up... I was a server a long time ago!"

(I immediately wonder if that sounded weird... In the pitch dark, you find yourself thinking the strangest thoughts—as self-conscious as ever, but in totally novel ways. Without the visual cues of body language and facial expression, you wonder, do I sound more or less genuine—friendly—interested—interesting?)

Rose asks if we have any plans after dinner, and Mr. Pink says, "haha, we were thinking of kidnapping you!" Rose laughs and says thanks, but she has a boyfriend, so of course I retort, "Is he here right now?" And we all laugh. (Oh, what? Like you've never flirted with your server?) A few topics later, I mention that it's Mr. Pink's birthday, and she asks him how old he is—and then, without a second's hesitation—she asks me the same question, which is why I'm inclined to believe when she seems genuinely surprised to learn that we're roughly twice her age. She says she would have guessed that we were in our mid-20s (aww, can we keep her?). "Do you guys get that a lot?" We do... but what I don't say is this is the first time we've heard it from someone who can't see us!

And then it was time for the portion of the evening when we get to ask Rose all the random questions we've never had a visually impaired person around to ask, and she answers them like a motherfucking boss.

Have you been blind since birth? (No, she started losing her sight when she was eight and by 16, she was legally blind.)

Is it like being in a pitch dark room? (Not exactly. For some people it is, but she still sees variations in light and some colors, but no shapes or anything.)

If you were outside on a sunny day, would you know it was sunny—aside from the heat, like would you have a sense of the sun shining on your face or would it be just like being in a dark room? (She thinks she would have a sense of the light, but she isn't completely sure and for some blind people there's definitely no difference at all.)

She tells us that she has perfectly preserved visual memories from when she was a child, so she still "sees" her parents in her mind's eye as they were back then. While her sister experiences them getting older every year, in Rose's 3D simulation, they're eternally youthful. Their voices may gradually alter with age, but to her, their hair will always be free of grey and their faces will remain unlined, forever. I think that's kind of wonderful.

As she's talking about being able to see variations in light and color, Mr. Pink and I have the exact same thought at the same time—remember that documentary about the guy? "Oh my god, Rose, have you seen—um geez, I mean have you, uh... So, there's this movie..."

We tell her all about the 2005 documentary Black Sun (which I wrote about back in 2008) and she agrees that it sounds amazing and she will definitely try to download it tonight. I think she even mentions the Pirate Bay—truly a girl after our own hearts! She walks us out to the foyer and we have a big group hug, and then we open the front door and head out into the bright, cacophonous lights of the Vancouver night.

Mr. and Ms. Pink highly recommend Dark Table.

From the Dark Table website: "Upon arrival, take your time and choose from a first-class menu... When you're ready, you'll be led to your table in the dark dining room by a blind, or visually impaired server... With an unemployment rate of 70%, the blind face obvious challenges in a society that is preoccupied with visual communication, but in a dark dining environment, the tables are turned—the non-sighted servers guide the sighted. In the words of William Shakespeare, 'There is no darkness but ignorance.'"

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