THE CROFT / With a brilliantly gripping review of 'Dans le Noir' - one of London's most unusual restaurants - Lucy Canning shows how the blackout dining experience makes for the perfect ode to all things Gothic.
As Melha, my blind hostess for the evening, places my hand on her shoulder to lead the way through numerous blackout curtains into the pitch-black restaurant, I already feel certain that my meal at Dans Le Noir will be markedly Gothic. Certainly, my journey there had been one of gloomy rain and cruel winds; if there is one undeniable element of a ‘Gothic’ experience, it is that the weather is always awful.
Upon arrival, our party of three were greeted into a warmly lit foyer and a jolly man instructed us as to the rules of the establishment: phones, watches, and anything which might light up are strictly forbidden. Having placed all these in our bags, they too were handed in - if we were to lose them in there, the man explained, we might never find them again!
Without a shadow of a doubt, there is a keen atmosphere of mystery and suspense as we wait to be led through to the main event. Feeling rather vulnerable - stripped of all my possessions and soon to be stripped of my sight - I am gripped with an insurmountable fear: what on earth do I do if I drop my napkin??
The staff at Dans Le Noir are its greatest asset. All hosts and waiters (all but the staff who work in the lit bar area which welcomes you) are blind. The concept of the restaurant is not only a stunt immersive experience, but an invitation to experience their world for an hour or so. They boast on their website that they are regularly ranked among the world’s top ten most original restaurants. Comforting and friendly from the get-go, they put us immediately as much at ease as we can be, telling us to ask them about anything and everything; in this restaurant you might find yourself knocking over a knife more than usual (and asking to be taken to the toilets much more!).
It was a case of the blind leading the soon-to-be blind as we set off through the winding corridor to the restaurant itself. Beyond the final curtain, we are immersed within a total, perfect, almost blinding darkness. We proceed deeper, still lined up conga-style, into nothingness. The suddenness of sensory deprivation sets alarm bells off in my brain. Moving at this pace, with this much intention and direction would feel dangerous if it were not for the staffs’ incredible patience and communication.
In the absence of any light, judging the distance between you and anything-not-you is a difficult task. The three of us find ourselves reaching across the table to determine how far apart we are, the shape of the table, and using the walls to figure out whereabouts in the room we might be sitting. At first, it takes me a few minutes of cautiously exploring the table to find my glass each time. But soon, I am reaching confidently, although often mixing up my water and my wine!
All three of us have chosen the ‘Meat and Fish Surprise Menu’ (they offer a vegan alternative too) and so we are also in the dark about the food to come. Grappling with our cutlery, we dig in to our first course. To my left, Ania (who many times attempted to take hearty forkfuls out of the table, missing her plate entirely) remarks that her chicken is absolutely delicious. Opposite me, Tara replies that actually it is the salmon, but does not disagree deliciousness-wise. A debate ensues between the three of us over whether we all have different starters, or if the dark is playing tricks on our taste buds.
Just as I am getting used to the anxieties of dining in the dark, I realise that I have forgotten one of the most important Gothic traditions: the melodramatic. With a *clang* I register that my plate has been breached. Spoon has met spoon. I imagine a ghost or some gruesome monster reaching through the thick blackness, groping around and now, poised to take a chunk out of my pudding. Inhabiting both the role of ‘damsel in distress’ and the burdened protagonist which characterise much of Gothic literature, I experience intense tremulations of panic and terror. After a tough preliminary battle over my lemon sorbet (which later turns out to be gin-and-tonic flavour), my opponent advances on my chocolate lava cake. With one final blow my lava cake collapses in on itself House-of-Usher-style.