O Noir Restaurant – Montreal

This is where myself and two colleagues from Saskatchewan had supper tonight after the end of the CLA conference…

It's pretty amazing for a number of reasons.  This restaurant is completely in the dark once you leave the reception area where you order your meal and leave all forms of illumination in lockers (cell phones, lighters, LED watches, etc.)  Also:

1) it only employees vision-impaired or blind people as wait staff (a group which has one of the highest unemployment rates in society)

2) the lack of any light whatsoever in the dining area means that you focus more on the food and the conversation than might otherwise happen in a regular restaurant meal

3) there's also an environmentally-friendly message inherent since they literally use no lights or illuminated signs inside the majority of the restaurant (not that this is a green model other restaurants would follow!)

Here a summary of my experience…
– As the video clip says, you form a “train” with your vision impaired
waiter leading the way to your table, giving instructions along the way
(“Please hold this curtain back for the next person”, “We are turning
left now.”) 

– I'm not claustrophobic but when I first entered the dining area, that was the sense I felt.  Once the door shuts behind you and you walk through a black curtain, there is a complete cave-like darkness that we rarely to never experience in our day-to-day lives.

– A quick stop at the restrooms (which were softly lit luckily!) helped me get my bearings after that first immersion of darkness and I wonder if they subtly encourage patrons to make this pit stop intentionally for that reason?  (Or maybe the staff don't want to be walking us back and forth all night?)

– You are guided to your table over aisles that are carpeted while the table areas have regular floors (presumably so staff can help differentiate?) 

– The waiter does a great job of explaining where you are and helping guide you right into your seat. 

– You are brought fresh buns with butter on a plate and suddenly, something you've done your whole life without thinking about it is an incredibly awkward task (I think all three of us ended up eating mostly plain buns then getting huge clumps of butter, having thought we'd done a better job of spreading it than we apparently did.)

– the place settings are very minimal – a “grippy” placemat, two forks, a knife.  Nothing else on the table – no salt and pepper, no other condiments and definitely no flower vase centerpiece.  Oh, a napkin which I promptly tucked into my shirt, bib-style! 

– At first, it feels like your eyes are straining to see some light,
any light, but eventually the feeling wears off and you adjust to the
complete darkness then later yet, you start seeing all kinds of weird
white “blobs” swimming in front of your eyes (at least all three of us
had this happen – and all at roughly the same time) which never really go away though you do get used to them.

– Next up, a round of water and it almost feels like the meal is structured to slowly escalate in how challenging it is (I'd ordered wine before entering the dining room but it was served with my meal, not when we were seated or shortly after.)  The water is served in real, not plastic glasses which is what I thought we might get.

– We “cheated” a bit since one of our party had done an internship at CNIB so she was able to offer some insight that a “civilian” wouldn't have had.  She later observed that this experience probably topped any simulation that they did for her training since that was always such a controlled environment.

– Exploration was a big part of the experience – feeling as if it was the first time you'd ever held a fork in your hands or reaching out to see if there was anything beside you (there was – a table beside us at the same distance as any other restaurant would be – but no one was seated at it.)  I even stood up at one point and stood on my tippy-toes convinced the ceiling was really low.  My colleague observed “Can you normally touch the ceilings in restaurants?” and I had to admit that no, that was not usually the case. 

– Another big part was the constant sharing of what you were experiencing or wondering – “are you using your utensils or your fingers?”, “What color do you think the chairs are?”, “What about the napkins?”, “Did you take your glasses off?” 

– I did sneak in my watch in a pocket – only the hands are illuminated, not the hour markers – so it's not very bright.  But then, I ended up mis-reading it anyhow, thinking it was 9pm when it was really 8pm!  Still, one of our party observed that being without a clock was, in some ways, the most disorienting thing after the lack of any sight at all. 

– On that note, even though they had the room completely dark, you would occasionally (or at least we thought we did) see the briefest flash of a soft light on the ceiling.  We suspected this was maybe from a kitchen door opening somewhere (or less likely, from the bathroom door or maybe even if the door to the entrance or exit happened to still be open when the curtain was pulled back?)

– Your eyes would play tricks on you.  One colleague swore that there was a bar in the dining area when we first entered it and had that last glimpse of light from behind us.  I actually blurted “Who's there?” at one point, thinking our waiter had come back to the table or someone else was wandering around!

– We wondered if they would end the evening by flipping on the lights at the end to “reveal” the room (there are two seatings per night and we were the early one) but our waiter said they like to keep the mystery.  (My theory on that is that the restaurant was originally a Chuck E. Cheese and they didn't bother to re-paint the purple walls with cartoon mice on them!)

– Next up is the salad course (we all had avocado with lime dressing) and my main memory of this is that my strategy was to hold my face about two inches above the plate then try to shovel food in with the fork.  Still ended up using my hands to get some of it. 

– The main course was the scariest part – I'd ordered filet mignon and wondered a) if I'd have to wield a steak knife and b) if I'd make a huge mess.  Surprisingly (?) the steak came pre-cut into strips that I could fit in my mouth in one bite (someone who doesn't have quite as big of mouth as me might not have done this!  But there was no steak knife either so who knows?)

– Oh, this article says the food is sometimes pre-cut to lower the risk of choking.  It also says soup isn't available due to danger of burns but we were all a bit surprised to be offered tea or coffee at the end of our meal (one of each being ordered.)  The restaurant's “Press” page has lots of other articles and reviews including a story from Up! by one of my favourite writers from my time in Calgary, Marcello di Cintio. 

– our drinks were served (with the salad course I think) and so we now had to keep track of two glasses which we'd been instructed to keep at the top right of our placemats.  Again, surprisingly, it didn't take long to get to the point where your motion reaching for the glasses was almost as natural as it would be in a fully lit room – definitely not as slow and cautious as when the first water glass arrived.  But we did have one water glass knocked over anyhow, luckily it was nearly empty and even luckier, it didn't hit the floor.  (We asked after and they said they probably don't lose any more dishes than a regular restaurant does since most customers are being so cautious.)

– there were at least two birthday parties in the room somewhere – so we heard “Happy Birthday To You” once in English and once in French.  (The first time, the entire restaurant joined in.  The second time, there wasn't perhaps as much enthusiasm though we did join in again.)

– I think we were told afterwards that they can seat up to 87 people at maximum capacity.  At one point, I observed that our waiter didn't come around very often and wondered if this was due to some sort of traffic-management the wait staff utilize to not bump into each other or if it was just reflective of that slow-paced service you get in some pricey restaurants?  Turns out it was a more prosaic reason you'll find in any restaurant in the planet – someone hadn't made it into work so our waiter was the only staff member on the floor, managing all the tables by himself!  (Needless to say, he got a much larger tip than the one I'd already planned to give him!)  

– the price was $30 for either an opening course and a main course or a main course and a dessert or $37 for all three courses.  You had a few choices in each of the three categories plus could opt for a “surprise” in any of them.  (I had avacado salad, filet mignon main course and surprise dessert which turned out to be a chocolate mousse cake.  Passing that around so my two dining companions could have a bite was another interesting experience.) 

–  Their web site says another location in opening in Toronto at the end of June so if you get a chance to check it out in either city, I'd highly recommend it.  The librarian I heard about it from (thanks to Terri T. for the tip!) suggested it'd be even better to go with people you don't know very well or had just met (a conference being the perfect opportunity for this) although I enjoyed the comfort of being with people I knew a bit better. 

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  1. From Head Tale - Review of @willowonwascana “Dining in the Dark” Event #yqr @willowwineguy @mecheftim on 29 Mar 2016 at 9:49 pm

    […] When I was in Montreal for a conference in 2009, I got to have the very cool experience of dining at “O Noir”, a restaurant where you eat your entire m…. […]

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