How Islington’s ‘dine in the dark’ eatery has stayed in the black for 10 years
PUBLISHED: 15:42 21 March 2016 | UPDATED: 15:51 21 March 2016
NIGEL HOWARD ©
As Clerkenwell restaurant ‘Dans Le Noir?’ celebrates its 10th anniversary, the Gazette chats to the French owner Edouard de Broglie about how dining in darkness challenges the senses and breaks social barriers in the process
A woman emerges from the darkness. She makes no eye contact, simply telling me her name – Nadine – and asking: “Are you ready to enter the room?”
Then she invites me to place a hand on her shoulder.
As she turns, I notice a quote from “Twelfth Night” on the back of her T-shirt: “There is no darkness but ignorance.”
I follow her into a room so dark I can’t make out any shapes at all. Where am I? Suddenly I feel absurdly grateful for the feel of her shoulder under my hand.
Nadine is one of 12 blind members of staff at “Dans Le Noir?”, in Clerkenwell Green, which is one of London’s most unusual restaurants.
Opened in 2006 by French entrepreneur Edouard de Broglie following the success of the restaurant in Paris, “Dans Le Noir?” invites diners to embark on a unique culinary experience in pitch darkness.
Diners have a choice between menus labelled exotic, meat, fish and vegetarian – the contents of which are not revealed until after the meal.
Interestingly, at the Paris branch diners don’t have this choice.
“In France our grandmothers teach us to eat everything on our plate. So we only have one menu and nobody complains. But in England people arrive with two pages of allergies so we had to make four different menus.”
I’ve opted for a mystery meat menu, while my date for the evening has gone for the more adventurous “exotic”. Both of us feel pretty confident we’ll be able to identify everything that passes our lips.
In fact, all our guesses turn out to be wrong.
According to Le Broglie, this is just one of the many fascinating aspects to dining in the dark.
“You think you know the food, but then you realise you don’t know anything,” he says. “Here, diners mix up tuna with veal. As for the wine, it’s a joke. If we make a red wine slightly cold, it becomes white – or if we serve a strong white wine, it becomes a red Bordeaux.”
Darkness also breaks down social barriers, he says – indeed, his guests have ranged from train drivers to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who reportedly said it was the only place they could dine in peace away from the paparazzi.
“We don’t have separate tables where you can eat alone with your wife; we have big communal tables,” he says. “So you can hear what your neighbour is saying and you can also talk to them.
“It kills your usual instant perception of people. You talk to your neighbour because you don’t have any conception of them – it makes for very open-minded conviviality. I love that. In a world where you meet your girlfriend over the internet, suddenly people are really talking to one another. It reverses everything.”
I soon see what he means. Ten minutes into the dinner, Nadine announces she is seating a couple next to us. They’re obviously on a date but that doesn’t stop us from all engaging in conversation.
At one point, the man asks: “How’s the food?”
Both his girlfriend and I respond at the same time, and I realise – with a blush no one can see – that he’s not addressing me.
Despite the fact half of Mr de Broglie’s staff are technically disabled, he is keen to point out that the restaurant is not a charitable venture. “I have no blind or disabled people in my family or special interest in blindness,” he says. “My goal is to show companies that with half of my staff registered blind, I can earn just as much, or more money than them.”
There are big advantages to employing blind people, he adds. “They are very focused on work, and there is a small staff turnover which means we don’t have to keep training people.”
This month, the restaurant marked its 10th anniversary. To celebrate, Mr De Broglie teamed up with the charity Centrepoint and invited 25 homeless people to dine in the dark.
“I thought if I invited famous people and journalists, they might not appreciate it so much – because they’re invited to so many different places.
“So I thought I’d invite people who would never normally be invited to dinner,” he says. “And it’s a real pleasure.”
As I re-emerge squinting into the lobby, I realise this is an experience I will never forget.
Yes, my companion hilariously mistook meat for potato and I had to resort to using my fingers out of sheer frustration.
But it’s been utterly fascinating to learn just how much we register taste through our eyes.
Believe me, you’ll never look at food in quite the same way again.
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