Dining in the dark at Dans le Noir

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset Dans le Noir
Processed with VSCO with a5 preset Dans le Noir Photo: Dans le Noir

630 Chapel St South Yarra, VIC 3141

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Opening hours Thu-Sat 6.30-10.30pm
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9825 2228

As far as immersive dining experiences go, it's probably a lot more comfortable to dine in Dans le Noir's impenetrable darkness than at London's all-nude Bunyadi. But I guess that depends on which of your fears is greater: public nudity, or dining with strangers while deprived of a key sense for more than an hour.

Both experiences are guaranteed to push your buttons. But at Dans le Noir, the French franchise that now has a branch at South Yarra's Como Hotel, there's more to its pitch than a gimmick.

You might have heard of the franchise, also known as dining in the dark. The Paris branch was founded by socially-minded tech entrepreneur Edouard de Broglie in 2003 as a way to titillate diners through sensory deprivation but also educate them by hiring visually impaired servers to tell their stories over dinner. Now a global interest, you can have a literal blind date at nine branches worldwide, including London, New York, Auckland, and in Melbourne.

A 'surprise' main course from an earlier menu at Dans le Noir
A 'surprise' main course from an earlier menu at Dans le Noir Photo: Dans le Noir

Having dunked myself in the darkness I can promise you three things. It is not comfortable. It is not culinarily earth moving. It is, if you overcome point two, an exercise worth your time.

Dinner starts with a "check in" in the restaurant foyer where we're asked to relinquish phones, watches, rave sticks, plutonium and anything else that might even remotely glow in the dark.

De-phoned, there's nervous chatter from the diners as we learn the 10 of us will be eating together. We're invited to pick between three menus: "chef's surprise", "fisherman's cove" and "seasoned vegan". We also order our drinks for the evening from the choice of a wine match, beers and a "surprise cocktail" that I hope involves someone sneaking up and yelling "martini".

A salmon entree from the fish menu
A salmon entree from the fish menu  Photo: Dans le Noir

We then queue and are split down the middle so we'll be seated opposite our dining partner. Our host Margaret, who has zero vision, emerges from behind a curtain and tells us to remember her name. "I'm your only hope of finding the exit, and waving won't help."

Grasping a shoulder in front, we're then led beyond the curtain into total, muffled darkness. This isn't just a room with the lights out. Two switchbacks mean not a single photon remains. The silence is deafening, the lack of light has a physical weight. The chatter dies. Grips tighten. It sinks in that we will be completely, utterly, drink-spillingly blind for an hour.

I widen my eyes. I shut them. I wave an invisible hand before my face then slowly, gently poke my unseeing eyeball because there's no instinct to stop. Dinner gets weirder from there.

Margaret breaks the tension by tasking us with pouring our water. There's clanking and accidental hand touching. We get cocky and attempt a cheers with our surprise cocktail that tastes like a gin-y lemon, lime and bitters with a thick cinnamon rim. "Just go in with confidence," I say, dousing the table.

It is an OK drink, followed by some not particularly exciting food. Still, it's entertaining getting it to your face. Plus, you quickly learn this isn't the point. As Margaret drops and clears our entrees (mystery red meat later identified as kangaroo, with beetroot crisps and wild rice), main course (large lamb hunks with fried kale crisps and a roasted pepper situation) and dessert (the best executed, featuring freeze-dried apples and an apple jelly, stewed rhubarb and fresh strawberries with a creamy element) she invites us to use cutlery (hard!), guess the dishes (also hard, but more down to lack of salt than sight) and to ask her anything.

We ask if guide dogs panic. Yes! Hers recently got her trapped in a lift. Are there many jobs for the vision impaired? No! Dans le Noir is Margaret's first placement in four years. She's one of 10 workers here, and she loves it. She's good at it, too. Her jokes are solid. But it's the real chat about real challenges delivered in the dark where it has non-confrontational cut through that gives the whole experience legs.

Margaret casually talks about opportunities closing for the vision impaired – secretarial jobs with expanded remits that are no longer within reach; a factory that solely employed workers with disabilities that was defunded, leaving many out of work. "People who aren't lucky like me. They probably can't work elsewhere."  

Is this starting to sound like a pity party? Do I sound patronising? Probably. I haven't walked in these shoes before. When was the last time you did? I sit through the experience with feelings flipping between elation at how novel and weird it feels physically, and confronted. Margaret talks about her brothers stealing food from her as a kid. As we eat our rhubarb she remembers almost killing a friend when gifted a bunch and being told to cook it like silverbeet (the leaves are toxic). 

They're onto something. This is perspective-shifting that happens gently, under the cloak of darkness. It's also pretty fun. The room can seat five tables of 12 like ours. Usually it's more raucous, we're told. Shirts have been swapped, wedding rings lost and proposals made surrounded by strangers drinking their rather abrasive sangiovese. 

Margaret leads us out. The light hurts. She hopes we'll come back with friends. I feel frustrated. Better food could lift this sense-bending, deeply moving experience into the stratosphere. I tell them so. Last I heard, the menu is under review. I hope it is. This is a porthole into a different universe I think you need to step through. We need more people to step into the darkness and emerge into the light.

Pro Tip: Book for July 25, when Vision Australia holds a fundraiser.

Go-to Dish: A hot bowl of sensory deprivation and truths

melbourne.danslenoir.com