Many of us know what it’s like to dine at a restaurant. You sit down, order food, admire the plated dishes, eat, talk with friends, and absorb the restaurant’s ambiance— a simple set of tasks.
Now imagine doing this blind.
At 14 BlackOut restaurants across the world, participants dine in a room devoid of light, simulating the experience of someone with blindness. Attendees wave goodbye to their vision, enhancing and testing the way they taste and connect with their food.
Not unique enough? All the waitstaff in the restaurant have visual impairments or blindness.
Located inside the NaLaga’at Center at Tel Aviv’s Jaffa Port, Israel’s only dark restaurant invited me and a friend to participate on behalf of ISRAEL21c.
Although a computer malfunction accidentally canceled our reservation, CEO Oren Itzhaki swiftly handled the glitch with composure and kindness – not an easy feat, because the restaurant has predetermined group seating arrangements.
BlackOut is not just any restaurant, and the theater it’s located in is not just any theater. NaLaga’at (Hebrew for “please touch”) leads the way for experiences like BlackOut, hiring actors who are blind, deaf, or both.
With its unique stage productions, NaLaga’at has formed a cultural hub that celebrates disabilities rather than ignoring them.
What’s the key for?
With no prior knowledge about the experience, when my friend Jordyn and I walked into a theater lobby with a reception desk and the lights on, immediate confusion washed over us.
A waiter seated us at a table in the lobby and handed us a menu and a key. Jordyn and I could not stop laughing, amused by the utter unknown of what we were about to experience. Why did we have a key? Why were we in the light?
A server came to take our orders for an appetizer, entree and dessert. For each course, the restaurant offers a surprise option.
Jordyn and I ordered the surprise appetizer and stuffed mushrooms to start, the surprise vegetarian dish and the surprise fish dish for the entrees, and a pistachio dessert and a surprise dessert.
As any outgoing foodie would do, I repeatedly asked the waiter about the menu. What did he prefer? Which dish was best?
Each time, he gave the same response. “I can’t say anything about the dishes. You need to pick on your own!” I finally asked if this was his way of serving us or part of the BlackOut experience. He laughed and responded that it was the latter.
“Your jewelry isn’t too shiny; you should be good to go,” said the server. A quick look of amusement flew between Jordyn and me.
Then the waiter answered our highly anticipated question, “What could we possibly need a key for?” As it turns out, BlackOut requires all attendees to put their phones in a locker: no pictures or light.
Waves of anxiety
A small self-contained building in the lobby was our dining place.
The wait staff called out each reservation by name and the participants formed a long conga line at the door, placing our hands on the back of the person in front of us.
While the staff in the lobby had complete vision, the waiters inside the dining area had visual impairments. Once the line assembled, our waitress Nicole introduced herself and led us into the dark abyss.
“I’m smiling,” I said to Jordyn. I had the sudden realization that she could not see my emotions, so instead, I voiced them.
The restaurant’s name was no lie – I have never been thrown into such darkness. Closing my eyes and reopening them made no difference.
Waves of anxiety rushed over me during the first couple of minutes. I realized I was trapped in my thoughts. The disappearance of my vision felt like a departure from control, freedom, and awareness.
Questions and concerns raced through my mind, questions with answers that usually come naturally to me.
I carefully moved my hands to locate my silverware. My finger dipped inside a wet substance, which I realized was butter.
My heart dropped when they announced there was a water pitcher on the table. Imagine pouring yourself a glass of water in complete darkness. Safe to say I didn’t drink much water during dinner.
Hands become eyes
Then came the moment we had been waiting for: the food arrived.
A surprise dish is always daunting because any food could arrive on the plate. At BlackOut, I didn’t even know how to eat this unknown dish because I couldn’t see it.
I went in strong with my fork, soon realizing that the texture called for another way of eating. My hands became my eyes and I realized the dish was some variation of a flatbread.
Jordyn and I also wanted to taste each other’s dishes, meaning we had to navigate passing plates to one another.
If the lights were turned on mid-meal, you would see Jordyn and I hunched over our plates and eating our food with our hands. We came to the realization of this terrifying image and couldn’t help but laugh.
Without vision, we operated like animals in survival mode, knowing that no one else could see us.
Connecting without eye contact
Nicole, our waitress, shared her story with us during dinner.
At age 13, she was diagnosed with an uncommon infection affecting her eyesight. Her vision first blurred, then it became difficult to see faces from far away, and then Nicole lost her ability to read.
The man across from me asked her, “Are you in a relationship?”
“I’m married with three kids,” Nicole responded. She met her husband through a trip with the theater group; he worked the scenery and lighting for many performances at the Na Laga’at Center.
“Eyes are the window into the soul,” the common saying goes. But I’ve never considered how relationships form without the element of eye contact.
I found that the limited use of eyesight seemed to enhance my other senses. While chewing my entree, I relied purely on taste to figure out each ingredient in the rice.
Jordyn and I enjoyed debating the contents of our food. With each bite, I tried to determine a new ingredient. We decided not to talk while eating to focus on the food.
With darkness around me, the concept of eating meant trying to distinguish every morsel of food in my mouth, with taste as my overwhelming sense, rather than sight.
A snapshot into a different lifestyle
I left BlackOut beaming. I gained a new experience, and a snapshot into a lifestyle I never thought I could begin to understand.
I had a new perspective on love, relationships, and even the seemingly simple task of eating. There are ways to function and thrive without vision, even though sight is often regarded as the most frequently used sense.
Jordyn and I noticed that when we only ate and didn’t talk, our taste buds seemed more alert and intensified. We also noticed that in between dishes when we conversed, our conversations went into more personal depth than they usually would while dining out. I credit these conditions to BlackOut.
I assumed that my ability to connect with Jordyn in the dark would falter, but the void of all vision instead enhanced how we ate and connected.
BlackOut may have been dark, but it brought light to a new experience and way that many people live life.
Reservations can be made for BlackOut here. The restaurant serves two rounds of meals every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. At 6:30pm the restaurant serves the “Classic Menu” of a main course and a dessert. At 9pm, the restaurant serves the “Premium Menu” including an appetizer, entree and dessert. The kosher cuisine is vegetarian with vegan and gluten-free items available.