I’ve long wanted to go to one of the Dans Le Noir ? restaurants which have branches in capitals all over the world. It was founded in 2004 in Paris by Edouard de Broglie, a French entrepreneur who was inspired by the idea of challenging people’s perceptions of food and dining. The London restaurant opened in 2006 and it’s recently moved to a new location in St John Street.
From the outside it looks like a completely normal restaurant and indeed you enter to find a bar and seating area, bright on a summer evening. You’re asked to take a seat and they take your order, easy since it’s a set menu. We go for three courses with a glass of wine and then the fun begins. They tell us that no light source is allowed in the restaurant so we surrender camera, phones and smart watches. Also coats and bags. Not to worry they’re placed inside a secure locker and we’re given the key.
Next we’re taken upstairs to the first floor and meet our waiter, Fabio, a veteran of many years. He tells us to form a crocodile, my partner first with her hands on his shoulder and me behind. Then we’re led behind a curtain, turn a corner and into total blackout. Of course we’re now shuffling, slightly terrified, but after a few steps we feel our chairs and sit down. Now, normally in darkness, after a few minutes the eyes adjust, but here there’s no change. This is really Dans le Noir, no going back.
Fabio tells us to feel the table in front of us where we discover a knife and fork wrapped in a serviette and a tumbler. There’s also a water bottle and we gingerly pass it between us as we top up our glasses. Another tumbler arrives as if by magic, this time full of white wine. Of course the only way we can check what’s in either is by experimental sips.
Now we become conscious of other voices, fellow diners also getting acclimatised and there are around 15 covers tonight. Capacity is around 50 in the main restaurant and 25 in the private dining room downstairs. We notice that we’re talking louder than normal, as is everyone else and apparently this is a common phenomenon – not being able to see your dining companion causes you to raise your voice to compensate.
So to the food. The menu is a surprise, a vital part of the sensory experience, so I can’t divulge what we ate and no pictures. All I can say is that the blind and partially sighted waiting staff do an excellent job of sliding each dish onto the table. Then begins the learning curve of using cutlery in the dark. First, you just use your fork then realise that you need the knife to guide the food onto it.
Since you don’t know what you’re getting, eating becomes a voyage of discovery. Of course, you’re guided by aromas, but it’s only when the ingredients enter your mouth do you realise what it is. Sometimes you’re not quite sure, even if you compare notes with your partner. We disagree about which animal the meat comes from and it’s only resolved later when they divulge the menu.
Portions are generous, full of flavour, and the cooking is of a high standard. The chef and kitchen staff get to cook in the light but of course the waiters have to make their way through the restaurant in pitch black. You hear their gentle “Coming through!” as they steer people or plates and no dishes are harmed during our dinner. We wonder, though, about the mess we’re making, dropping food on the table, the floor or even on our clothes. And how do they clear up afterwards for the next sitting?
Our meal takes about 90 minutes and we notice that we’ve been eating faster. It’s partly because there are no distractions, but also because the job of clearing your plate turns into a mission. It’s almost as though you’re under orders to finish everything, even using fingers to check it’s all gone. Also toilet breaks involve going out into the light, a bit of a hassle even if you are guided by the capable staff.
So at the end we’re guided back out into the light and there’s a certain sense of relief, even though it’s now night outside. As we sit and wait for the bill, we hear about the dishes we’ve just eaten and shown pictures. It’s been unique experience and one I would heartily recommend. The big surprise is that our clothes have survived unblemished.
The 3 course set menu with one glass of wine costs £67.
69-73 St John Street,
London, EC1M 4AN
+44 207 253 1100