They say that when you have your main sense taken away – for most people, their sense of sight – all other senses become heightened. That is the philosophy that the Toronto restaurant O.Noir operates on, allowing their guests to experience food and the practice of dining in pitch darkness. In this manner, guests will be able to approach and taste their food in ways they haven’t experienced before. Little things, such as not being able to see where you’ve placed your water glass or your knife and fork take dining to a whole other challenging level. And while the meals may be prepped in a fully functioning and fully lit kitchen, the serving staff is blind. For the hour-and-a-half dining experience, the serving staff becomes your guides leading you through their world sans sight.
There’s a deep sense of mystery surrounding O.Noir, even as you approach the venue at 620 Church St. The entrance is above ground with a flight of stairs leading to the restaurant proper beneath. This, unfortunately, does make the venue inaccessible to those with mobility concerns – as the dining room in complete darkness would not be easy to navigate. The foyer of the restaurant is only moderately lit, a consideration for those coming out of the dark dining room so as not to harm people’s eyes. From there, guests are able to browse the menu.
The dining packages are of two-course meals, either a starter and a main, or a main and a dessert, for $32.95. Or, there is a three-course meal of a starter, main, and a dessert for $39.95. For each course, there are a number of set delectable items to choose from such as the grilled octopus with olive oil and lime or the arugula salad with fresh mushrooms and Parmigiano with a lemon dressing on the starter menu; the pesto chicken breast with potatoes and vegetables or marinated shrimp with herbs served with risotto and vegetables for mains, and chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert. For the more adventurous, each menu has a surprise option that truly allows patrons to flex and expand their taste buds.
My review partner, Vance, bravely decided to dive head first into the dining in the dark experience and opted for a surprise starter and main. He even opted for a surprise beer! Though I was curious to go in for the surprise as well, the grilled Portobello mushroom with Parmigiano and balsamic vinegar on a mixed green salad paired with the fillet mignon served with classic potatoes and vegetables seemed too delectable to miss.
O.Noir has multiple dark dining rooms, each with at least one member of the wait staff on hand in order to serve and aid patrons in the dark. If anything is required of the server, such as an extra fork if one gets lost, or the need to use the restroom, guests simply call their server by name to be assisted.
We were escorted to the entrance of one dining room and asked to stand to the left, while another party of two was asked to stand to the right. At that point, our hostess introduced us to Nasim, our blind server for the evening, and informed him of where everyone was positioned. We were led into the dark dining room in single file, my left hand on his left shoulder, Vance following suit behind me, enabling us to keep our right hand free to prop the door opened. Once inside, we switched hands, right hand on the shoulder to hold the second door on the left. These little facts become very important when navigating in the dark.
And yes, it is indeed completely dark. Absolutely zero visibility. It is important for this to remain as such so anything that could possibly light up – like a phone or a watch – must be turned off and put away. Any kind of light, no matter how minimal, could and would disrupt the whole experience.
In single file, we were lead to our table, Nasim kindly informing us of what was immediately around us – another table, a chair. I, of course, bumped into both along the way. At our table, we awkwardly sat down with Nasim instructing us how to situate our chairs, ourselves, and our belongings. He told us where everything was on our table – plate directly in front, napkin on top along with a container of butter, knife and fork to the right. When Nasim brought our drinks, he instructed us to reach out to him on our left, feel and take the glass or the bottle, then to place our drinks to the right. Vance took one sip of his surprise beer and declared it to be an American IPA based on its distinct hoppiness. My ginger ale tasted just like… ginger ale.
Being told specifically to keep our drinks and cutlery on the right of the plate was a great way to make sure we didn’t lose anything along the way. It does give insight on how those living their lives without sight manage in their day to day – those with sight may just call it meticulousness or a case of OCD, while the blind or the visually impaired would consider keeping everything in the same place at all times a life necessity.
This is the perfect dining experience to ensure no one decides to check their phone in the middle of dinner. Without sight, patrons are left with their sense of taste, touch, smell, and hearing and all of those come into play. Conversations become easy in this situation from discussing everyday things to the situation at hand – are your eyes playing tricks on you, too? Does this darkness feel heavy to you? Can you hear what everyone else is talking about? I wonder who’s listening in on us?
As for the food – it was not only fun to eat but both our meals were delicious as well. At first, the whole experience of eating was difficult, stabbing randomly at the plate with my fork hoping something would stick, bringing it to my mouth only to realize the food had fallen off or I didn’t actually get anything. It took a few tries before I managed to get the hang of it. Here’s the brilliant thing – since it is completely dark, no one will know if you forego basic table manners! My biggest worry going into this meal was dropping or dripping food all over my clothes, so I was more than happy to fashion my napkin into a bib, no one can see! I’ll also happily admit to using my fingers to make sure I had picked up every delicious morsel on the plate, or whenever using my fork was becoming too challenging.
My Portobello mushroom starter was remarkably good – the mushroom tender and succulent, the balsamic vinegar giving the right amount of sweetness and zing to the earthy robustness of the mushroom, the Parmigiano adding crispiness and a wonderful, rounded saltiness. The greens were slightly wilted from the heat of the mushroom. My fillet mignon was precut for me, which I found to be delightful as the idea of wielding a steak knife in the dark did not seem like the best idea. It was rich and juicy, the perfect medium rare. The potatoes were a rough mash, with texture and potato skin, a tad dry but still good. The vegetables were buttery string beans. Vance detected that his surprise starter was a salad of crispy greens and goat cheese, delicious but he had hoped for something a bit more substantial. When he first described his main, it sounded a lot like what mine was – sliced meat with potatoes and string beans. Initially, he felt disappointed as the surprise courses were supposed to be none of the ones listed. We later learned that his surprise meal was pork and not beef, and though at first Vance said he thought it was pork, my discussing of my meal tricked his mind into believing he was eating beef. All in the fun of eating without sight and such is the experience.
For any ‘new concept’ restaurant, there’s always that risk that the concept may get in the way of the food which should always come first. In the case of O.Noir, both are perfectly balanced – the dining experience is unique and none like you’ve likely had before, it’s quite ingenious. At the same time, the food is incredibly well done and delightful.
We would certainly go again. The price for either a two-course or a three-course meal is very reasonable, they only ask that you kindly tip on the higher end to support the blind serving staff who otherwise would have trouble finding sustainable work. For a great dining adventure that was a spill-free success with a gracious and generous server, we were more than happy to do so.
Review and select photos by Samantha Wu