Dining in the dark

Imagine eating in the pitch black, served by visually impaired waiters. This idea might sound leftfield but the dining in the dark restaurant experience has existed for 20 years, has versions worldwide, and even features in a film by Richard Curtis.

Founders of these restaurants say that as 80 per cent of our sensory input comes visually, this experience changes the way we eat, and also gives guests a greater awareness of disability. But is there any real evidence that eating food in the dark makes it taste any different?

I first came across dining in the dark in the Richard Curtis rom-com, About Time. It seems a perfectly kooky place for the characters of the film to meet. ‘Dans le noir’, the London restaurant featured in the film, claim that; “Eating in pitch darkness will challenge your senses like no other culinary experience has done before. Deprived of sight, you will use your nose, taste buds and probably also your fingers to discover what you are actually eating and drinking.” But, as their website also claims, is there any evidence that eating food you can’t see tastes different, or gives you a greater empathy for the experience of those with blindness and disability?

The physics of food

Gastrophysicist Professor Charles Spence is interested in how people perceive the world around them and in particular how our brains manage to process the information from each of our different senses to form the multisensory experiences that fill our daily lives. His research focuses on how a better understanding of the human mind will lead to the better design of multisensory foods, products, interfaces, and environments in the future. His book Gastrophysics: the new science of eating has a chapter on dining in the dark. 

“As a gastrophysicist focused on dining and the senses, I am really interested in how sensory cues beyond the food itself influence the dining experience. Be that the impact of experiential dining, how music and noise affect the taste of food, where bright lighting makes us drink more... and as one element of the growth of experiential dining we have the interest in removing one sense to see how it influences the experience of food.”

Charles Spence

Blind man’s bluff

The ‘Blindekuh’ (Blind man’s bluff) restaurant in Zurich was set up by blind and partially sighted founders Jürg Spielmann, Stephan Zappa, Andrea Blaser and Thomas Moser in a former Methodist chapel in September 1999. They are one of the largest private-sector employers for people with impaired vision in Switzerland. In their 20th anniversary year they are celebrating still being “successful with our two restaurants in Zurich and Basel and creating jobs for blind and visually handicapped people”.

Versions of the dining in the dark experience can be found around the world, (the Blindekuh team have advised on most of them,) where you can eat your dinner in the dark, served by a visually impaired waiter, all in the pursuit of a different kind of gastronomic experience. London’s Dans le noir suggests that it’s a learning experience on several levels; you’ll lose your inhibitions and talk to strangers, think more about the food you’re eating, and learn about blindness and disability.

Blindekuh

Professor Spence explains that a sighted person and a blind person’s brain are fundamentally different; “In some versions of dining in the dark, the suggestion is that it connects normally-sighted diners with the experience of those who have lost their sight. However, the dining experience of the blind might not be so easily reproduced, given cortical plasticity, which means that the blind brain (depending on when blindness occurred) may be connected in a way that is different from a sighted individual with the lights off.”

Also, he has found little evidence to support the suggestion that dining makes the food taste better; “I am afraid no matter how hard we looked, and we looked pretty hard, we couldn’t find any evidence to suggest that the experience of food can be improved by taking away vision. It really does set such powerful expectations that without them we are kind of lost… So, ultimately, while it makes for an interesting experiential dining experience, once, if it was really a simple hack to improve the taste of the food then surely we would all be eating blindfolded at home.”

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All for science...

In the pursuit of science, I decided to see if eating blindfolded might make a meal taste better, or at least different. I cooked a surprise meal for my husband and got him to wear a blindfold whilst eating it. (Maybe sounds more like 50 Shades than About Time.) He concluded that he thought more about what he was eating, trying to identify the ingredients, and ate slower, so as not to drop food or get an empty fork. He didn’t feel that the food tasted any different, or that his other senses were heightened. In fact there was an overwhelming uneasiness at not being able to see the plate. And that was in a safe, familiar environment. Dans le noir reports that people are regularly unable to handle the dining in the dark experience, and the Blindekuh suggest it’s not suitable for children under seven. 

Dining in the dark is something that you might do once, as a unique experience for a sighted person to make you think more about a sense you take for granted, but not probably something you’d do more than once. Though maybe you might meet your future soulmate, just like the characters in About Time, as Professor Spence notes that literal blind dates in the dark are becoming a popular fad in Asia! 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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