When our friends from Westchester, Beth and Aviva, told us last year that they were coming to Israel in February to celebrate Aviva’s bat mitzvah, we told them we would love to partake. All in all, we saw them a few times during their two-week stay: at Tzipori, one of the most sophisticated archaeological sites in Israel, for a Torah service and then dinner at Makom Be’Sejera; a sleepover at our house and then a volunteer project picking turnips with Leket, Israel’s national food bank, followed by dinner at BlackOut.
A dark restaurant, BlackOut is one of many worldwide—New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Tokyo, Paris and Tel Aviv-Yaffo, among others. We had first learned about it four years ago during our visit to the Dialogue in the Dark exhibit at the Children’s Museum in Holon, where we walked in total darkness with a blind guide, who told us how he gets around, where he lives and how he works at a restaurant for the blind in Yaffo, in the same complex as the blind and deaf theater troupe called Nalaga’at or Please Touch. So when Beth proposed joining her family for dinner at BlackOut, I jumped. I remember having been so impressed by our museum guide years earlier, eager to support Nalaga’at in any way possible.
Our group of 15 (Beth’s family from the US and us) gathered outside the door to the restaurant, which was inside the theater complex. A balding, seeing man wearing a headset and holding a clipboard greeted us, passed out menus and explained how BlackOut functions: there are three fixed-price menus to choose from—vegetarian, fish and surprise—each offering a main dish and dessert. We were to study the menu, choose our meal, place our order with him and wait. The restaurant seats about two dozen people but, since we were such a large group, other smaller parties were being escorted in ahead of us. Everyone’s personal belongings—coats, purses, bags—were to be locked in small lockers outside the door, he explained, so that we were unencumbered and the path stayed clear for the blind waiters. He asked us to go to the bathroom before entering so that we didn’t have to get up and walk out at any point. And anyone who wished to wear a black bib over their shirt could take one from the basket. Since our group was so big, we were divided, the seven kids at one table, who were seated ahead of us, and the eight adults at another.
Finally, it was our turn and we were instructed to form a single file line with one hand on the person’s shoulder in front of us. When the door opened, the host exchanged a few words with a young, toe-head blond man with shoulder length hair, introducing him as Eli, our waiter for the evening.
Eli stared right at us, but his eyes were glossed over and vacant. His English was excellent as he explained to us that we were standing in the outer area to adjust our eyes to the dark before heading into the restaurant, which was even darker, and that there was a curtain on the left and a sharp turn to the right. We shuffled, one small step in front of the other, aware only of the person in front of and behind us, as well as of the noise of our fellow diners. I heard Daniella and Simone talking and laughing somewhere in the room but couldn’t see them to say anything.
“Stop here. Your chair is directly in front of you, just feel for it. Pull it back slowly so you can sit,” Eli commanded in a gentle voice. Beth was across from me, her brother-in-law was seated on my right and Philippe on my left. Once we were all seated, Eli spoke again. “Your napkin, fork, knife and glass are on the right if you feel around. There is a pitcher of water on the table. When you pour water with one hand I suggest you put your other hand inside the cup so you know when to stop pouring. I’ll be back. Good luck.” I think he walked away. I had no idea how many tables were set up, how many wait staff worked in the room or how the room was configured. The darkness was intense, so intense that I closed my eyes to relax them.
While we waited for the food, we talked. “So what do you miss most now that you’re living here?” Beth’s nephew asked. In his early twenties, it was his first trip the country and he was enchanted. I rattled off my miss list: being able to communicate with ease, read letters from school easily, knowing ants lived outside (we share our upstairs floor with a steady stream of them and keep Raid ant traps out at all times). “And what are the things you like about living here?” I loved how this young man whom I had only just met felt comfortable—in the darkness—to ask. In the blackness of the room, our guards were down and we could speak openly.
At one point, Eli returned with warm bread baskets that he put in between every two people to share, telling us what and where. He asked if anyone wanted to drink anything—wine, beer, Coke—and memorized our orders. Our group was big and rowdy, roaring with laughter while trying to pour water and find the food. “Please try to keep your voices down,” Eli shushed us, “there are other people in here and it’s not nice for them if anyone is too loud.” Because we couldn’t see anything, our other senses, especially auditory, were working overtime.
The next time Eli came back to the table was to bring the food. “Who ordered salmon? Who ordered the stir fry noodles? And the surprise vegetarian dish?” One by one, Eli called out and gingerly passed the plates down from person to person.
“I don’t get it. How does he know whose meal it is?” I whispered to Philippe. Did he put his fingers in and taste each one first, I wondered. Neither one of us could figure it out. Slowly, I stuck my fork around the plate, stabbing noodles and vegetables, twirling them onto the fork and lifting them gently to my mouth. Bite after bite, I worked my way through the delicious stir fry. It wasn’t haute cuisine, but the food wasn’t the focal point. Philippe and I even managed to exchange a few bites to taste each other’s.
When Eli came to clear our dinner dishes, he asked how he knew whose dish was whose. “The shape,” some unidentifiable person said. “I had a bowl and her fish was on a plate.” I nodded my head up and down even though no one could see me. I had noticed my dinner was in an octagonal-shaped bowl, making it easier to find the food.
“Are the chefs blind too? Are they cooking in darkness?” I asked him. He answered that they were in fact not and cooked in the light so they could see what they were doing. He told us how dining in the dark exists in many countries, which amazed me.
At the end of the meal, we left the restaurant the same way we came in, single file, with one hand on the person’s shoulder in front of us, shuffling, paying attention to the sounds we could hear and the things we could feel. Once we had all gathered in the ante-room where the lights were dim but not completely dark, we de-compressed to get our eyes adjusted again. Eli thanked us and wished us well, and we did the same.
On our drive home, the four of us kept marveling at the magical evening. We agreed the food was good but the experience of simulating blindness, being served by blind waiters, using our other senses more was thought-provoking and powerful.
As we drove north, away from Tel Aviv, I looked up at the stormy sky and out at the raging waves crashing in the Mediterranean. They were beautiful sights that I was glad to see.