Out of sight at Montreal’s O.Noir restaurant
MONTREAL — There’s a lot to like about O.Noir. There’s just not a lot to see.
O.Noir is a restaurant where you eat in a pitch-black dining room, so dark it is unnerving, feeling for your food as you are plunged into an unfamiliar world. You are served by blind wait staffers who easily make their way through the dark, the world in which they are most familiar.
It is all meant to enhance the dining experience of the sighted by sharpening their remaining senses to a remarkably heightened degree.
“Some customers are at first afraid of the dark,” said Alejandro Martinez, general manager. “They’ll come out and say ‘I can’t do this,’ but we calm them down and they go back in, and say later they’re happy they did.”
You enter the small lobby and place your order with sighted employees (chefs are also sighted), opting for a two-course meal for $34 or three courses for $41; part of the proceeds go to local groups that serve the blind and visually impaired, Martinez said. Then you get the lowdown on what to expect and are asked to forfeit anything with a light, such as cellphones, tablets, and luminous watches, stowing them in lockers.
You are assigned a blind wait staffer and hold their shoulder as they lead you into the blackest black you can imagine, a dining room completely and at first frighteningly devoid of any light.
I had Guillaume, a veteran who’s been here since it opened about eight years ago. He led me in, sat me down, and then uttering “see-yon,” wait-staffer shorthand for “attention” in French so they don’t bump into each other, took off into the dark for my water, wine, and bread. He returned, announced his presence, and held the items to my left shoulder where I took them to put on the table.
The sensory explosion was amazing. Unable to see, I could only smell the food being cooked in the kitchen, the sounds of other diners, the heightened taste of my meal.
I found myself hunched over my calamari appetizer, spooning the tender morsels into my mouth for fear of dropping any. The fork-tender filet was pre-cut, but I had no qualms about chewing larger pieces in half and dropping them into my plate, not worrying I’d appear a slob.
I felt the plate for its size and ran my hands over the table to gauge the contour, a bit alarmed when I jostled my napkin and saw a flash of static electricity. That probably happens in every restaurant I’ve ever been to, but I never noticed until ensconced in darkness.
Throughout the dark space was the conversational thrum of any restaurant where you can watch fellow diners and guess what they’re talking about or the lives they lead. Here, you’re hamstrung by doing it purely by sound. And given that most of the chatter was in French, I was left very much alone with my thoughts.
One of which was this: guilt for feeling sudden empathy for those living constantly with blindness while I did it for a scant hour or so. I would return to the sighted world. They would not. It was a thought at once comforting and humbling.
I talked to Guillaume about life as a blind person, and he was gracious and charming in telling me that sighted people needn’t be shy about helping them on the street, but stressing we ask first. Never, ever just grab a blind person’s arm, he said, adding, “I’m a very passive person, and if you touch me, you’re invading my bubble.”
To demonstrate he suddenly touched my arm and asked how it felt.
“I was startled,” I said.
“Exactly,” I could almost feel him smile.
Guillaume told me the unemployment rate for the blind is a stunning 70 percent or so.
“Most blind people don’t work,” he said. “I am so grateful to be here.”
As I was for having him as my guide. He led me out after I was done, and I blinked at the sudden light. I shook his hand and left, my perception of his world forever altered and appreciated.
And that’s the best thing not on the menu at O.Noir.