(CNN) — There is more to Dans Le Noir? than meets the eye. Beyond its gimmicky premise, this restaurant has a vision: to raise awareness of the visually impaired, by staffing the restaurant with blind waiters or “guides.”
Dans Le Noir? — French for “in the black” — invites diners to eat and drink in just that: the pitch black. The idea is by suppressing a person’s sense of sight, it will heighten their other senses.
The first outpost of Dans Le Noir? (yes, the question mark is part of the name) opened in Paris in July 2004. The restaurant concept has since expanded to locations in London, St. Petersburg, Barcelona and, most recently, New York City.
Edouard de Broglie is the president of the Ethik Investment Group, which owns the restaurants. He believes corporate social responsibility is the root of the company, and more than 50 percent of the staff has a disability.
“When you see disability as a difference, but not as a problem, then it brings you to very interesting concepts and ideas,” said Broglie. Fittingly enough, the backs of the staff’s T-shirts display a popular quote from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “There is no darkness, but ignorance.”
In this case, the industry-wide practice of “blind tasting” — tasting an ingredient while blindfolded then deciphering what it is — takes on a deeper emotional undertone. The tables are turned: The diners become the blind, and the blind, who rely on the help of others daily, become the guides.
At the New York location, the restaurant joined forces with Lighthouse International, an 107-year-old organization that helps people cope with the challenges of vision loss.
“People are cognitive that the person serving has that visual impairment. It’s a very interesting psychological test. They aren’t relying on their own senses and that just forms a connection,” said Barbara Gydé, the Chief External Affairs Officer for the organization. “It’s not sympathy, it’s empathy.”
Interaction with sighted people isn’t the only challenge, said Gydé. “The reality is it’s harder for people who are blind to find jobs.”
Samuel Davis III has seen both sides of the world, and found a home at Dans Le Noir?. The 51-year-old Bronx native was left blind in 1984 after being shot in the head.
“God took away my sight to give me sight. I have a brand new outlook on life,” said Davis. “I was supposed to be dead.” As he seamlessly navigates the pitch black room, Davis puts uneasy diners at ease with quips like “I could do this blindfolded” and “Don’t worry, I’m scared of the dark too.”
That vivacity and charm is crucial — after all at their core, restaurants are in the business of hospitality, said Broglie.
“It’s not easy. It’s like anything else, it’s mind over matter — if you don’t mind it, it doesn’t matter,” said Davis, who used to wait tables when he had his sight.
Employees like Davis go through a two-month training period, memorizing the layout of the room and how to set and bus tables. Because of the nature of the restaurant, particular emphasis is put on safety.
During dinner, the guides pass down training of their own that visually impaired people use on a day-to-day basis. For instance, it’s more effective to eat the contents of a plate from the outside-in so food doesn’t end up being pushed onto the table. Or, in order to refill a drink without the glass overflowing, place your finger slightly in the glass so when you feel the liquid on your fingertip, you know to stop pouring.
However, some former patrons like Jasper Gerard acknowledge that other factors – namely the food – are sacrificed for the sheer concept. Gerard, who is the restaurant critic for the Telegraph, reviewed the London outpost in 2008.
“If £187 for three is not daylight robbery, that is due only to the lack of daylight. If this joint has any merit, I’m in the dark about it,” he wrote.
The New York location opened in March, and hasn’t been subjected to an official review. Regardless, the experience of Dans Le Noir? has seemingly struck a chord. It’s been eight years since the original Paris location opened, and the company has plans to expand even further.
“People tell me I don’t know how you do it,” said Davis. “I’ve been blind 28 years, you’ve been blind an hour and a half. I admire you guys to even have the courage to do this.”
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