Hands on the shoulders of our server in front of us, Aaron’s on mine, we formed (what I’m sure was) an awkward human chain. As we slowly shuffled our feet, both trying to keep up with our server, but not trying to step on the heels of the person in front of us, we passed through a dark, heavy, velvet curtain designed to keep all light out. As the curtain drew to a close behind us, we found ourselves engulfed in complete and utter darkness. A darkness so black, it felt almost oppressive. And this is where we were eating dinner.
Blindekuh, which translates to blind man’s buff, is the first restaurant in the world where visitors dine in pitch black. The restaurant in Zurich, opened in 1999, is part of the blindekuh Foundation who’s purpose is to promote dialog between the visually impared and sighted communities. Today, they have a second location in Basel, and partner with other establishments all over Europe. There are dark resaurants all over the world, but blindekuh was the first (according to their website). Waitstaff are all partially sighted or blind (the chef and other employees are not), and they are the largest employers of this segment of the population in Switzerland. They have a rotating menu and each week offer the choice of three first courses, two main courses, and three desserts. Or, you can be daring and opt for a 3 or 4 course surprise menu. We decided to choose our own menu - dining in the dark was enough adventure for one night for this old married couple without the added uncertainty of what food we’d be eating.
When we got to our table, our server Matze, a young man not much taller than myself with a slight build and strawberry blond hair, told me he would show me to my seat first and then show Aaron to his. I felt the cool, thin metal back of the chair, pulled it out slowly, and gingerly lowered myself. The last thing I needed to was to fall out of it in the complete darkness. Once seated, he explained how the table was set: forks on the left, knife and spoon on the right, water glass in the upper right, and a cheese dip with bread in the middle. He took our drink orders (a riesling for me, a beer for Aaron) and disappeared - or so I assumed, it was dark and we couldn’t see him afterall. My fingers nimbly and gently felt for where everything was on the table. We sat there, in a state of stunned bewilderment for a few minutes. I reached for my knife and the bread to try some of the cheese dip - which turned out to be frisch kase (kind of like cream cheese) with herbs mixed in.
With our eyes useless, our ears took over. There was a loud group of young men in there, talking very loudly. It probably seemed even louder due to the lighting conditions. There were people eating - we could both smell the food and hear the clink of silverware on their dishes. I felt to my left (something metal and large, which I later realized was a radiator) and to my right (the cool, thin metal back of another chair). I even put my hands directly in front of my face to test how dark it was. I knew they were only inches away - I could hear the difference when I spoke and feel my breath in my palms when I exhaled, and of course, I put them there - but couldn’t see them. Being in complete darkness was borderline disconcerting.
Matze returned with our drinks. We didn’t even attempt to toast each other. We knew it would end in broken glasses or spilled drinks. Instead, we each sipped our drinks, still adjusting to the utter darkness. Again, Matze returned, this time with our first course. Thankfully, each time he arrived, he would announce himself with a pleasant, “Matze here!” At first, we couldn’t hear him approaching but as our dining experience continued on, our ears started to pick up on subtle noises that preceeded his arrival. Aaron noticed him clicking his tongue, in a form of echolocation. We would have never heard those nearly inaudible sounds had we had use of our eyes. It really is amazing how blocking one sense heightens the others.
I went in to dinner fully prepared to walk out with food on me. I carefully placed the napkin in my lap, ensuring it was completely covering my white jeans (in hindsight, I might have worn darker pants). One thought that kept creeping in to my thoughts all day: how would I know that my plate was empty or what food was where? Turns out, it wasn’t even necessary. As I started to eat my salad, I instinctively knew where the food was, and where it wasn’t. I had half expected to have to stink my fingers in there to feel around; no one else in the dark would even see, but the idea still seemed like poor table manners. Instead, I could feel the resistance on my fork, feel my knife pushing bits around, hear the clink of silverware on an empty spot. I had expected it to take me a long time to finish my salad without having use of my vision. In fact, it took me only slightly longer. Turns out, I still have trouble getting those last pieces of lettuce, regardless of my vision state.
When the main arrived, I was feeling much more confident in my blind dining abilities. I had little trouble feeding myself (thankfully!). A pleasant side effect of dining in the dark is the intensity with which you can smell and taste the food. Just as the conversations of others felt almost deafeningly loud, the smell of the food was nearly overpowering and the taste even more so. The food was delicious! I asked Aaron at one point, “Do you think they bother plating the food since we can’t even see it?” He answer, “Yes, of course they do!” Turns out he was right. Further digging on their website showed pictures of the chefs preparing plates for patrons. Yup, the food was plated nicely just like you would find in any other fine-dining restaurant.
A couple of times during the meal, there were brief, bright flashes of light. The maitre d’ had ask guests to leave any items that can emit light - even a watch with glow in the dark hands - in small lockers in order to protect the sanctity of the darkness. So one can only imagine the indignant exclamations of the guests when light is suddenly emitted from a camera flash. If people could have seen the offender, I’m sure there would have been glares of judgement. Rather, their displeasure was heard.
Two courses down, we were left with just dessert. I had selected the “medley” because I have a nearly insatiatible sweet tooth. There was no further description beyond, “a selection of four dessert” so I had zero clue what was being served. Dessert proved to be a little more difficult to eat and at one point, I did have to use my fingers. There was a pastry of some sort that I couldn’t manage to cut into a smaller bite, and was too big for a single bite. So, I ended up having to pick it up. My dessert selection included a citrus sorbet, a cake, a pastry (which I suspect was similar to a cannoli), and a piece of apple strudel. Again, all of it was incredibly tasty and I can’t pick a favorite part of the meal.
At the conclusion of dinner, we stood up and Matze lead us back out in the same manner he had led us in: hands on shoulders in a chain. As we emerged through the first set of heavy velvet curtains into the light lock that had seemed incredibly dim before dinner, we were momentairly blinded by it’s brightness. Matze waited while our eyes adjusted before heading out to the main lobby. We thanked Matze and paid our bill. We left Blindekuh with satisfied appetites, humbled, and with a new appreciate for the challenges experienced by those who suffer from vision impairment.