Blind Lead the Sighted at Restaurant in the Dark (2006-09-11)
by Max Harrold, The Gazette
Forget about a feast for the eyes at the new O Noir restaurant opening Friday in downtown Montreal.
The dining room is completely dark - as in pitch black - so patrons will have to rely on their taste, smell, hearing and touch for enjoyment.
Call it a new way to connect with your food.
"It's a really sensual way to eat," said Moe Alameddine, the 37-year-old owner and general manager of the 50-seat restaurant on Ste. Catherine St. near Guy St.
"It makes people more aware, it creates jokes," Alameddine said.
"And it makes an extraordinary ambience.
"It's crazy, yes, but it's fun."
Eating in the dark has already been a hit in Los Angeles, New York, Australia and Europe, Alameddine said.
Obtaining a table at the London restaurant Dans le Noir sometimes requires a two-week wait for a reservation, he added. O Noir is the first such establishment in Canada.
The meat, fish and fowl on O Noir's menu of Mediterranean fare will be boneless: less fear of choking that way. Bite-sized portions will be served for the same reason. Soup, with its potential for hot, messy spills, is not available.
Adding to the experience will be the waiters and waitresses - all visually impaired.
Following the example set by other dark restaurants, Alameddine, who is not blind, hired 10 servers who are 50-per-cent to 90-per-cent visually impaired. Three are musicians, others had done only telephone work, some had never had a job at all.
"The unemployment rate for the blind is as high as 75 per cent," Alameddine said. "But if you teach them, they can do the job."
In what became as much a social experiment as a business venture, Alameddine worked with employment and rehabilitation services for the visually impaired to hire and train the servers.
The new workers touched and felt everything in the restaurant. They also practised talking with headsets they will wear to communicate with sighted kitchen staff, who work in a separate, lighted area.
Server Bianca Lussier-Dalpe, 24, said Alameddine helped the servers devise a system for walking back and forth to the kitchen while carrying one plate a time. "We need the other hand free to make our way to the table," she said.
Service will be a bit slower, but not that much, because there will be one waiter per section, about twice as many as a restaurant with lights, Alameddine said.
During the meal, Lussier-Dalpe said, the servers will help sighted customers "see" what it's like to be blind.
"It's an amazing challenge, but I know it's something I'll be good at," said Lussier-Dalpe, who is severely limited in her ability to see colours.
Lussier-Dalpe will work part time at O Noir. She also teaches piano at two music schools on the South Shore.
Alameddine said his first time eating in the dark - in Zurich - was a real awakening.
"I was terrified at first," he said. "I had never been in such a situation. But then I heard my friends laughing. Everyone was so funny and warm. The food was amazing. The smell of the herbs and the food, the taste of the wine, everything was intensified."
He got a private investor to help him start the business, in which he has put more than $200,000. "I didn't even go to a bank," he said. "Everyone thought I was joking about this."
O Noir's entrees average $9 and main courses are priced around $25, he said. There is a full liquor licence.
Diners will be greeted in the bar area of the restaurant, which is lit. They will leave any glowing cellphones and watches in lockers, get the key, order from the menu and meet their servers.
Then, while resting a hand on their server's shoulder, diners will be led past black velvet curtains and to tables in the dining room's blackness.
If you need salt or to be escorted to the washroom (which is dimly lit), your server is your lifeline. Just say the word, Alameddine said.
"Just remember," he said, "we don't eat with our eyes."