By Natalie Pompilio, contributing writer
Most people like to see what they’re eating, especially in today’s world of fantastical plate presentation. But that’s not an option at Berlin’s Unsicht-Bar, where diners sit in complete darkness, are served by blind or visually impaired wait staff, and the three or four course meal being presented is largely a surprise.
Of course, this isn’t the only restaurant of its type. The trend started in Zurich in 1999 and spread around the world. New York has hosted several “dark dining events, and Dans Le Noir recently opened in the Garment District. When my Berlin friend Mary Beth suggested we try Berlin’s version, I was eager for the new experience.
(We apologize for the lack of photos with this piece. It’s hard to take good shots when, you know, it’s dark).
The restaurant’s promotional materials brag that stars like Natalie Portman and John Malkovich have eaten there. The appeal for celebrities is clear: They can enjoy a meal without anyone staring at them or asking for autographs.
On a recent Sunday, we arrived for our 7:30 reservation with minutes to spare. Unsicht-Bar’s hostess directed us to the bar/lounge area, where we were given a menu and asked to choose our beverages, our number of courses, and our “genre” of meal– beef, poultry, seafood or “surprise,” where the chef decides what you get.
The menus carry poetic descriptions of what you’ll be served. For example, the poultry appetizer was described as, ” In a bed of French greens/ The young Asian girl/With the fine long hair shows/Her delicate skin and a tender breast.” (That later turned out to be Asian-style noodle salad with papaya and strips of turkey breasts on a bed of field salad and chervil vinegrette.)
After making our choices, we were introduced to Sandi, our very friendly waitress, who referred to us as “my ladies.” Then I put my hands on Sandi’s shoulders, Mary Beth put her hands on my shoulders, and Sandi led us into the darkness.
It was completely black. Any source of light – including watches with glowing displays and mobile phones – are prohibited. As we wove our way around unseen tables filled with chatty diners, I must have stepped on Sandi’s heels at least 5 times. She said that was normal, as was having people feel slightly panicked on the walk in. Some people, she said, can’t take the no-sight experience and leave the restaurant soon after arriving. One child she waited on cried at first, but then settled down and loved the meal so much that she announced she wanted to stay in the dark with Sandi. (Minimum age is 8.)
Once we were seated, Sandi joined my hand with Mary Beth’s across the table so we could gauge how far apart we were. By total darkness, I mean you can’t see a thing. Mary Beth told me this story: When her 9-year-old son came to the restaurant, he spilled something on his pants after the appetizer and was uncomfortable wearing them. He balked at taking them off at the table, until his college-aged cousin agreed to do the same. Both enjoyed the rest of their meal in their underwear.
So we weren’t shy about tucking napkins into our collars to create bibs. (Spillage is easy to come by.) Sandi came by with an ice bucket and our bottle of wine, then set the empty glasses so we could serve ourselves. On my first attempt at filling our glasses, I filled one nearly to the rim and left the other almost empty. (Ironically, I got better the more I drank. Didn’t spill a drop.)
The four courses were nicely paced: Salad, soup, entrée then dessert. I was surprised at how good the food was. Although I initially stumbled and tried to eat my salad with a spoon, I soon got the hang of eating without seeing. Our conversation flowed easily. I’d read Internet reviews of dark restaurants where people said the lack of visual stimulation allowed them to focus more on their dining companions, leading to a more intimate experience.
It’s been said that your other senses heighten when your sight is denied. At one point, I asked Mary Beth if I was talking louder than usual. The sweet and sour of my dessert also seemed amplified.
Without vision, without watches, time seemed to speed by. We left the restaurant after sitting for 2 ½ hours, but it barely seemed as if an hour had passed. Mary Beth, who is claustrophobic, said she was tense for about the first 10 minutes of our meal, but then she found herself feeling incredibly relaxed. I, too, soon lost my feeling of apprehension and really enjoyed the meal.
Our total cost, with two four-course poultry meals, a bottle of white wine and a bottle of water, was 134,50 Euro. Tip was extra. While it was an expensive meal, particularly in Berlin where the cost is living is often cheaper than many European cities, the experience was worth it.
Natalie | Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her goal is to visit all 7 continents before she turns 65. Watch out, Australia and Antarctica.