Ever taken a bite of something with your eyes closed -- a carrot, a slice of grapefruit -- then had trouble identifying the flavor?
That surprise you felt at finding out you'd actually bitten into a peach, not a banana, is behind the increasingly popular "dark dining" phenomenon.
With roots in Europe and North America, the playful concept is fast spreading across Asia. There's Senses restaurant in Hong Kong, Blind Art Restaurant in Seoul, Trojan Fairy in Beijing and Bandung's Blind Cafe and Restaurant in Indonesia.
This month, Bangkok joins the list with the opening of Dine in the Dark (DID) in the Ascott Sathorn Hotel.
Secret menus, intensified flavors
Roughly following the worldwide script, a meal at DID goes like this: diners are welcomed by a hostess, who helps them choose the type of cuisine they'd like to try: Thai, Western or vegetarian. Then they're led into a pitch-black room where visually impaired guides help seat them at a table.
"I felt like I was eating for the first time, literally feeling around the plate, touching and smelling every item before building up the courage to pop it in my mouth," says Bangkok writer Merritt Gurley of her recent DID experience.
"The guides were fantastic and the food was fragrant and fresh, providing a thoughtful combination of experiences; a window into a life without sight, and a sharpening of the senses required to fully appreciate dining."
DID co-owner Julien Wh says diners in Bangkok may initially be skeptical of the concept. With this in mind, DID will stick to simple dishes, though with slight twists.
Julien says he was inspired to open DID following his own sight-free-dining experience in his native Switzerland.
“I tried something and was amazed at how [my dish] tasted," he says. "I thought, 'wow, what was that?' It turned out that it was something I'd eaten many times before, but I couldn't figure out what it was just because they prepared the dish differently.
“It takes a few minutes to adapt, but all of your senses are alert. You'll find that it's easier than expected to eat in the dark."
Dark dining origins
"Dark dining" began in Switzerland with Blinde Kuh, said to be the first eatery to introduce sight-free dining when it opened in Zurich in 1999. Soon after came dark dining restaurant chain Dans le Noir, which now has branches in Paris, London and, opening this month, New York. Upmarket Opaque has several sight-free venues in the United States, as well.
Upsides to eating in the dark are obvious. There's no need to worry about whether you're repulsing your date with that shrimp tail stuck in between your front teeth. Using the wrong spoon isn't an issue, either.
But the real draw is the heightened sense of taste. Dark dining is based on the theory that flavors are intensified when people can't see what they're eating.
Providing opportunities for the visually impaired
Like most dark-dining restaurants worldwide, Bangkok's DID employs visually impaired guides and waiters to explain menu items and assist diners throughout the evening.
“We are reversing the typical situation," says Julien. "Our visually impaired staff will guide sighted people. By putting our guests in an enjoyable situation where they lose one sense, they get a chance to think about the world of blind people."
DID will donate 10 percent of its profits to programs that aid the visually impaired, says Julien, noting that employment support for the blind in Thailand is scarce.
Julien says DID plans to push the concept further by engaging the four senses in different ways. Ideas include adding surround sound, having storytellers perform during dinner and creating a multimedia show to re-engage the sense of sight when diners exit the dark.
“We will start with just dining, but we want to go beyond that,” says Julien. “We want DID to be a unique thing in Bangkok.”