Dining in the Dark: An Insider Scoop

Dining in the Dark is a unique blind dining experience where patrons eat a meal, usually dinner, in a pitch dark restaurant. There are no lights, all phones are turned off. You use your senses, minus sight, to enjoy your meal. But while you are eating, what is going on around you?

Today, the monotony of me will be broken by a surprise guest writer! We have collaborated to bring you an insider’s peek into working at one of these restaurants. I start things off with part one, and she’ll grace this blog with part two.

This following post is based off personal experiences and does not represent the views of Dark Table or any other dining in the dark restaurant. If you would like to visit Dark Table’s official website, click here.

Insider scoop, part uno.

A Server’s Perspective

I had the pleasure of dining at Dark Table in Vancouver, and Dark View in Parksville. I have worked as a server at the one in Vancouver for nearly three years.

Picture a busy, crowded restaurant. Now picture that restaurant with no light. Now wind your way through that restaurant. Now do that while carrying a few hot plates of food. Are you scared? Don’t worry, that’s my job, not yours. All you have to do is sit still in a dark restaurant and get food into your mouth.

How It Works

Most of the staff at these dark restaurants are sighted. The servers, the only staff members on the restaurant floor walking around in pitch darkness, are the only ones who are blind or low vision. We perform most of the usual restaurant duties average servers do, in addition to acting as a guide to our customers. We escort people from outside to their tables, from their table to the washroom and back again, and from their table to the pay area, and from the pay area back outside. We are also the sounding board for all the questions the general public can dream up on the restaurant, the food, and our eye conditions. Most people are lovely and understand I have other duties to get to, a few are much more needy.

What People Say

Many customers marvel at how well blind people function on the daily. It’s important to remember that this is the first experience of being blind these people have ever had. I have had twenty plus years to adapt without sight. They have essentially lost their sight minutes ago. The longer one lives with no vision, the more skilled that person grows at living without vision.

A classic question servers get asked is: “How do I eat this?” Hm, I don’t know, stick it in your mouth and chew? I think what most people mean is what do I use to eat this. A fork, a spoon, what? I usually manage to keep a straight face and advise them on which utensil to dive in with.

Tons of people speculate as to where everything in the restaurant is. Some are correct, most are not. Still others wind up hunching over the food in an effort to keep track of it. Oh yeah, food runs away in the dark. You get people stealing each other’s dessert, or some poor unfortunate soul scooping and scooping until all their food has accidentally been pushed onto the table and floor.

Things spill and break all the time. The servers working the sections near the smash investigate which table it was, and that table’s server assists in the clean up. I always tell my patrons not to worry, and that it happens all the time. It will most likely happen to someone else before the night is up.

Every once in a while, someone will get the bright idea to stand up and wander around. If you are ever dining at one of these restaurants do not do this! I repeat, do. NOT. do it! I don’t care if you’re feet from the washroom and you know exactly where it is. As soon as you leave your seat, the servers will not know where you are. Yes, the blind servers, carrying hot drinks and plates of food to and froe at an alarming speed, who assume no one would be stupid enough to do what you’re doing! We have a system to communicate and go around each other. We have no such system with you. Keep your butt in your seat unless you are being escorted by your server. (Sorry, I feel very passionately about this).

And now, without further ado, I will hand the post over to our exclusive guest writer. Everyone, meet Krystal! She also worked at Dark Table in Vancouver. She was one of our best bartenders.

The insider scoop, part two!

A Bartender’s Perspective

Thank you Jenna for the warm welcome to your blog! I’m excited to shed some light (haha, good one!) on what goes on behind the curtain as a bartender at Dark Table.

Like Jenna, I, too, had the pleasure of dining in the dark on several occasions before working at Dark Table, so I was quite familiar with the concept. As someone who is sighted, I found it to be a wonderfully mind-opening experience, as well as an opportunity to put my phone away for a few hours and connect with the people I was sitting with. Not having any visual distractions forces you to focus on your other senses, allowing you to live in the moment. Noticing the empty space between each item on the table all of a sudden becomes important, trying to gauge how many tables are in the room based off of the amount of conversations happening, the smell of food all of a sudden becomes more prominent, making you feel like a truffle pig hunting for fruit. It’s an experience that I’ve raved about to all my friends, even years after going.

I was scrolling through job listings one rainy afternoon when I saw the posting for a bartending position at Dark Table. I jumped at the opportunity, mostly out of curiosity to see what happens behind-the-scenes. I went in for an interview and promptly started my first shift the same night. I walked into the bar and was immediately serenaded by the sound of a boisterous group of diners singing “Happy Birthday” followed by some loud whistling and cheering. “Does this happen every night?” I asked a server. “Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet,” she replied with a half smirk, her tone half-joking. This would set the tone for my nine month stint as a bartender at Dark Table. Though I didn’t work there as long as Jenna has, I like to think I acquired some valuable insight during my time there. 

Let’s start off with some of the remarks/most frequently asked questions I received: 

“How do you pour drinks if it’s dark? Do you have night vision goggles?”

We have lights, don’t worry! The bar is kept separate from the pitch-black dining room, and for good reason. Can you imagine a sighted person measuring out a double shot by feel, 30 times a night? There goes half the bottle! Big yikes.

“Awh it must be so nice to feel like you’re making a difference to their lives! (Referring to my co-workers, who happen to be blind).”

I hear this one the most from guests. I realize that most people are just saying this to make conversation, but I have never seen my co-workers as less abled or “in need of my help.” At the end of the day, it really is just like working in any other restaurant, with some quirks and adjustments.

“Are you sure I had (insert food ingredient) in my meal? I’m pretty sure it was (insert their version here).”

This one is pretty funny, I gotta admit. Unless they get indignant about it, which rarely happens. One of my jobs was to inform guests what their mystery dishes consisted of, at the end of their dinner. One of my other jobs is to know every ingredient in every dish and to check that the correct plates are being sent to the correct table. Being a visual creature myself, I do understand how much we rely on our sight to perceive what we’re tasting, based off of colour, texture, and shape. 

*In a hushed tone* “How do the servers get around the city? How does (server’s name) do this or that?”

Bruh. You can ask them. No need to be hush about it. They’re happy to answer any respectful questions you may have! 

“Do you know your way around the dark too?”

Actually, yes! It’s not part of our job as bartenders, but in my never-ending quest to experience other people’s perspectives, I can say that I can maneuver around the dark fairly well (at a snail’s pace). Don’t expect me to carry around any hot plates though!  

So, what does it take to be a bartender at Dark Table? Here, lean in, I’ll whisper you the secret…

You have to be LOUD.

Really, if you’re shy, it’s probably not a good fit for you. Unlike a traditional restaurant where the front of house staff can rely on eye contact and visual cues to communicate from afar, you can probably understand why this isn’t an effective system in the dark. Our only mode of communication with servers is through sound. Luckily for me, I have been told that I can project my voice (a.k.a. a fancy way of saying I have no volume control). I know it might feel rude and unnatural at first, yelling a server’s name from across the room to get their attention. After all, you would never do that in any other restaurant without appearing like some uncivilized bird.

But imagine this: It’s a Friday night and the dining room is packed with 50+ patrons, the volume being higher than normal because everyone is compensating for their lack of sight and being able to gauge each other’s body language. The kitchen dings the bell, signaling that food is ready to be run. You check that the food matches the ticket and that any special requests or allergies are accommodated correctly. You carry the food into the bar, and the server that you need to hand the food to is on the other side of the dining room, partially separated from you by a wall and a curtain. So what do you do? You open the passthrough window connecting the dining room to the bar, and you try to keep your message as concise as possible. The formula usually works like this: Server’s Name + Thing you have for them (In this case, it would be “mains”, referring to the main entrée). Some of the more vocal servers will shout right back, letting you know they heard you and they’ll be right there. Others don’t, and that’s fine too! You can always call again if you think they didn’t hear you, or if they were busy talking to a table. When they arrive at the window, you let them know which table they’re delivering the food to, what the plates are, and if there are any special plates with allergies or modifications. It’s important that you don’t rush through this and hand over one thing at a time! Your job is to make sure the server has all the pertinent information they need to serve their tables. Which leads me to my second point:

Clear Communication is KEY.

Being a bartender, there is so much more than just making drinks. The best way I like to describe the job is this: you are the central hub, the liaison between the hosts up front taking orders, the servers, and the kitchen. Of course, like in any restaurant, it takes a team effort to keep the machine running. By virtue of the serving staff not being able to see, we take on some of the tasks that sighted servers normally would have. For example, we are responsible for sending servers outside to take their tables, ringing in orders, running food from the kitchen into the server’s hands, taking payments, keeping an open ear if a busy server asks for anything before disappearing back into the dark to tend to their tables, all the while making drinks.

Sound stressful yet?

Often a message goes through multiple points of contact before reaching its intended destination, which is why it’s crucial that we communicate clearly and effectively. I’ll give you an example: 

  • A guest decides they want to order a surprise cocktail (meaning they’ll be receiving a surprise creation by the bartender) but they have an allergy to pineapple. 
  • The host writes down their drink and food order with the allergy noted down. The host calls out a server via walkie talkie, the bartender receives the message via walkie talkie, and sends the server outside. 
  • The host hands the ticket with the order to the server, the server guides their guests to the table then hands over the ticket for the bartender to ring in. 
  • Have I lost you yet? Not so fast. If it’s a busy night, there will be two bartenders working side by side, one responsible for ringing in orders, the other making drinks. 
  • A bartender will ring in the order, making note of the allergy on the drink and kitchen order. The other bartender will see the allergy noted on the drink ticket and make the drink without any pineapple. Because drinks are made at such a high volume on a busy night, usually the bartender will have a system of visually differentiating the special request drink with an extra garnish or using different glassware. 
  • The server will come up to pick up the drinks, the bartender hands them over one at a time, making sure they know which is the special request drink, the server goes to the table, confirming that the person with the allergy receives the correct drink.

TLDR; It’s important to keep an open ear and know what’s going on at all times outside, in the dining room, and in the kitchen. It’s a part of our responsibility to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Tedious logistics aside, my time at Dark Table has taught me many other things other than being good at multitasking. It has taught me how to be a better ally to people in the blind and low-vision community. Things like learning how to show a blindie where something is, either through verbal instructions or guiding their arm if we are more comfortable. Learning how assistive technology works, like screen readers and Voiceover on iPhone (knowing how to use Voiceover came in handy when I had cataracts for the better part of a year and couldn’t read my screen). It reminded me that no matter what walks of life we come from, we will always have more things in common than not. Most importantly, I cherish the wonderful souls and friendships that I made during my time working there. 

As Jenna says,

Be kind, and be aware.

Have questions? Got a topic in mind you’d like me to write about? Please feel free to contact me

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