PARIS — The kissing noises coming from the next table are as audible as they are predictable. After all, this is Paris on the most romantic day of the year in a restaurant full of lovebirds dining in absolute darkness.
The female half of the couple tells her partner she is scared she will become separated from him during the short jaunt from the restaurant’s foyer to the table.
“It’s fine now, I’m not afraid anymore,” she says once seated. He answers her with kisses.
Other than the name, one indication that something is different about “Dans Le Noir?” (In the Dark?) is the suggestion when making a reservation that one should arrive early for instructions. A hostess in the lighted front bar area explains how the experience will unfold and takes drink and meal orders from giddy, giggling couples. Patrons are not shown a menu but order by choosing a combination of starter, main dish and dessert, and stating any dietary restrictions.
The cuddling continues. A slightly unsettled middle-aged woman speaks into a cell phone; her husband is having trouble finding a parking space. The hostess introduces Benoit, one of a dozen of the visually impaired wait staff and the first important instruction follows: to form a conga line in order to be led inside by the blind guide, who quips that there’s nothing to worry about except the swimming pool.
Proceed through the thick black curtain and then blackout — it is so dark the eyes do not adjust.
The conga line reaches the table and everyone feels for one of the 60 seats in the main dining room. Benoit instructs diners how to pour wine or water by placing a finger inside the glass to measure when the liquid reaches the top. He tells everyone to call his name if there are any problems. The usually cliched courtesy takes on an added significance.
Burst of laughter emanate from one corner. From the other side, someone shouts, “Watch out! It’s hot,” as if passing a dish. A man’s voice asks for a knife. More laughter. Someone begins to sing “Happy Birthday” to which the male half of the kissing couple chants, “Can-dles! Can-dles!” His girlfriend wonders aloud how high the ceiling is.
“It’s like we’re in a beehive,” the girlfriend says, comparing diners to worker bees, buzzing and flapping to produce more honey.
The pair attempts to organize the table, feeling around for silverware and glasses. She spills water on herself and cracks a dish when the water jug slips out of her hands, but none of this dampens her excitement.
“I’m having so much fun, this is extraordinary,” she gushes with the wonderment of a child, to which her boyfriend responds, “That’s the point.”
Meanwhile, the cell phone pair is now seated, having stayed behind at the bar for a pre-meal drink. When Benoit walks by and asks if everything is all right, the husband responds, “Everything is fine; it’s very destabilizing.”
The food arrives and course after course, the guessing games ensue, using the different aromas, textures and flavors as clues: spongy, fleshy, crunchy, licorice? Definitely chocolate. The woman from the kissing couple attempts to feed her partner, who nervously jokes that it would be unfortunate if she took out his eye with her fork or grazed his cheek with her knife.
The pair that had trouble finding a parking spot discusses how “everyone is not concerned with outward experience.” There are people who are really bothered by the way others perceive them and here, “we’re all the same, there’s more equality.” Social status no longer matters, she says.
He says he’ll have to think of a way to top this experience next Valentine’s Day. When dessert arrives, he tells his wife, “I’m not in a hurry to leave,” and observes that one eats more quickly when it’s not possible to see the food or to pace oneself by one’s dinner companion.
Such observations are common at this concept restaurant that opened in Paris in June 2004 and has expanded to London, with more franchises expected this year, according to Celine Hanich, a 25-year-old manager. She said that rather than being a social service agency, the restaurant employs the blind wait staff because they are the best suited for the job. A sighted person psychologically could not handle being in the dark for six hours a day, she says.
An estimated 200,000 people are considered severely visually impaired in France, with about 60,000 of those considered fully blind.
“It’s a business but it’s useful; a job with a purpose,” Hanich said. “I really like what I do.”
After the meal, the kissing couple gave their first names as Akila and Rachid but declined to give their last names. They only started dating on Jan. 1.
“I haven’t totally come down from my trip,” Akila, 30, said about her Valentine’s Day surprise. She borrowed a piece of paper from a reporter’s notebook to write down everything she had eaten. Diners can survey the menu, complete with photos, after the meal.
Asked by Hanich, the manager, if she planned to reproduce the recipes at home, Akila said she just wanted “to remember this magical and unique moment.”
Back in the light, others said the shared experience of equal disadvantage helped create a convivial atmosphere. Morgane Fary, a 23-year-old school teacher and her fiance, Saad Belgaid, 36, a screenwriter, had just met Angela Oliveira, a 26-year-old lawyer and her boyfriend, Matthieu Bataille, an agent with the electric company. But after dining side by side, the two couples emerged from their meal laughing and joking like old friends.