Dining in the Dark

Where to have supper sans sight

Diners enjoy suppers sans sight at Montreal's O'NOIR.

How much do you really know about food? Can you tell pork belly from beef? Bison tongue from chicken? Certainly you can when the menu tells you what you’re eating and your eyes confirm it, but what happens when you’re plunged into darkness and presented with a plate of unknown food? It could be anything. The guessing game begins and everything turns upside down.

See Dining in the Dark Slideshow

In the last decade of so, a handful of restaurants around the world have sprung up that offer diners the opportunity to explore the world of food with all the senses but sight. But surely our taste buds tell us what we need to know, right? Turns out, not so much.

Some of these restaurants turn off the lights while others blindfold patrons. Servers may be visually impaired or wear night-vision goggles. Some places let you know what you’re eating ahead of time, but most don’t. None allow peeking or light of any sort — cellphones are checked at the door — and some don’t even want you to go to the restroom during the meal, all the better to concentrate.

And concentrate you must. You’ll be amazed at how much menus and sight inform perception of taste — when it could be anything, anything at all you’re tasting, how do you know what it is? Restaurants have fun with this notion, sending your senses topsy turvy with tricks that leave you thinking you’re drinking a sour ale with ginger when it’s actually a Michelada Cubana (Negra Modelo with salsa, Worcestershire sauce, and lime). Your starter might contain blueberries and your dessert could be laden with corn and cumin, but you’d never guess — at least I didn’t at a recent Lights Out dinner at Louisville, Ky.’s Mayan Café, an educational experience hosted in conjunction with the Idea Festival.

I was blindfolded and, after recovering from my initial disorientation from temporary loss of sight, I turned my attention to deciphering what was on my plate. I rapidly abandoned my silverware. The volume in the room rose as diners around me began to guess aloud about what was on their plates. After each course, the chef presented the plates with a flourish as we were allowed to temporarily whip off our blindfolds. Most diners were stunned to find their guesses weren’t even close. I think that’s how the chef liked it.