Dining in the dark

A new restaurant in Jaffa offers visitors a chance to see what being blind is really like.

waitress 224 (photo credit: Aviv Meshulam)
waitress 224
(photo credit: Aviv Meshulam)
"You are about to enter a different type of darkness, complete darkness. In this darkness, you cannot see a thing... Please leave anything that might create any sort of light outside the restaurant, in our specially provided lockers. This includes cellular phones, watches that light in the dark, etc.... The waiter or waitress who will join you shortly will accompany you throughout the meal. We ask you not to get up, not to walk around, so as not to interrupt the waiters' work. If you want salt or pepper, or a soft drink or wine, or feel scared, or need to use the toilet, please ask your waiter or waitress..." -Ofri, the hostess at Jaffa's Blackout Restaurant Blackout is the only restaurant in Israel in which the waiters are blind or sight-impaired. It is part of the new Na Lagaat ("Please Do Touch") center located in the old Jaffa port. The restaurant is kosher, serves dairy food and fish, and operates in complete darkness. The hostess takes patrons' food orders in the lighted bar area outside the restaurant, and transmits the orders to the kitchen. The blind waiters and waitresses then greet the visitors in the dimly-lit restaurant vestibule, and lead them into the pitch-dark restaurant. The visitors are seated, and dine in complete darkness. The center was founded by the non-profit organization Na Lagaat, and opened in early December 2007, focusing on the Na Lagaat Theater Company, a 12-member troupe of actors and actresses who are all both deaf and blind. The theater company had been performing in Israel and around the world for several years when the group felt it needed a home for its activities. The idea grew to encompass not only a home for the troupe, but also a restaurant staffed by blind waiters and a café employing deaf waiters. The Jaffa building was leased from the Armenian Church for a 10-year period, and renovations began in December 2006. The cost of creating the Na Lagaat center ran to some $1.5 million, which was provided by various corporate and private donors, including Bank Hapoalim, the IDB Group, Swiss Friends of Na Lagaat, Isaac Black and Allen Brill. The National Insurance Institute of Israel provided preliminary funding to establish the center, and committed to provide funding for its first two years of operation. Blackout is one of several "dine-in-the-dark" restaurants around the world. The first such restaurant was Blindekuh ("The Blind Cow"), founded in 1999 in Geneva by a blind clergyman and several blind and partially-sighted colleagues. A second Blindekuh branch opened in Basel, Switzerland in 2005. The Unsicht-Bar that opened in Cologne, Germany in 2001, also opened a branch in Berlin in 2002 and another in Hamburg in 2006. Berlin is also home to the Nocti Vagus, which also opened in 2002. A restaurant named Dans le Noir ("In the Dark") opened in Paris in 2004, and has two additional branches that opened in 2006, one in London and one in Moscow. "Welcome, I'm Vered. What are your names? Inside, it's completely dark, therefore we will now enter [the restaurant] in 'train' form, hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. If I walk too quickly, please tell me. I'm opening the last curtain you can still see... I'm opening another curtain on your left, you can feel it... I have a bell in my hand, with it I signal to the other waiters that I'm passing by... I'm seating you now, this is the back of the chair, are you seated all right?..." - Vered, waitress at Blackout, with a degree in Social Work from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a deteriorating sight impairment. Rarely are any of us exposed to complete darkness, for a prolonged period of time, when we are in an intentionally wakeful state. It is somewhat of a shock to the system of a sighted person to suddenly be in such complete darkness. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that a restaurant can actually function in total darkness, with blind waiters handling the entire service in perfect order. And yet, from a technical point of view, the Blackout staff seem very adept at their task. The service is professional, quick and accurate, and at the same time friendly and attentive. Apart from the overwhelming darkness, the place operates like any other quiet, classy restaurant: There is the clanking of silverware, the sound of diners speaking and laughing, and the occasional visit of a waiter or waitress making sure everything's all right. The waiters' work seems to run so smoothly, that when a patron has to wait more than three minutes for a drink, it feels like a relief - more like an ordinary restaurant experience. The restaurant's menu was designed by the well-known chef Nir Zuk. The in-house chef is Arik Lupu, who says working at Blackout is no different than other kitchens. "It's not as complicated as it seems. When everyone wants [something to work], it works wonderfully... We don't walk around on eggshells, in terms of being sensitive to people not hearing or not seeing... it's like any place, occasionally someone feels insulted or angry..." The kitchen staff do make it a point to serve the dishes in an aesthetically pleasing manner, despite the fact that the food is eaten in the dark. "Wow!" - Happy-go-lucky, confident restaurant visitor, who instantly fell in love with the dark "This is so not the right place for people with anxiety attacks." - Fearful restaurant visitor, who later fell in love with the dark When the waiters bring new visitors into the dark, there is occasionally a fleeting moment during which the heavy curtain does not touch the ground, and the slightest hint of light lingers on. The ray of light is at ground level, so it provides no illumination whatsoever. However, it does give a brief reassurance that there is still light out there. This seems especially meaningful in the early stages of the meal, and specifically for people who feel uncomfortable or fearful in the pitch-dark restaurant. As the meal progresses and there are no new diners, even that small ray of light no longer appears. One fearful diner said she felt "as though [she was] asleep," and wanted to open her eyes. "Except they are open, so in fact there's just no way to escape the dark." Scared by the experience, she actually went against the rules and left her mobile phone on, buried deep in her purse, "just in case." Of course, she later assured dining companions, she had had no intention of pulling it out. She just needed to know it was there, in case of a very real emergency. Surprisingly, our waitress, Vered, said she thought the entire table had behaved quite bravely in the dark. She said sometimes people are too scared to enter the restaurant, or leave immediately. Of course, she was unaware of the mobile phone quietly lurking in the customer's purse. Either way, her comments calmed the fearful diner. Encouraged by Vered's words, she subsequently turned off her mobile phone, conquering her fear of the dark (at least for that evening). Dining in the dark requires more careful attention, both verbal and physical, than a regular meal. The waiters explain exactly what they're doing, where they're placing the plates, glasses and bottles. Yes, it's actually possible to pour drinks in the dark. Nothing was spilled, despite a few close calls. Also, anyone used to sharing food with fellow diners should prepare for some serious planning and communications to accompany your every move - if you want to make sure the food passed around winds up where it is intended to. In fact, this is probably a place patrons should visit with someone they feel very comfortable with. It is an intimate experience, though one table hosted a rather large group of eight friends, and they all seemed quite pleased (they, too, had one diner who was very scared of the dark). Café Signes in Paris The Garden Café in the Philippines Lac Thien Restaurant in Hue, Vietnam KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) branch in Pakistan - Cafes and restaurants listed online as operated by deaf waiters Located just a few steps away from Blackout, also in the Na Lagaat center, Café Kapish is a regular coffeehouse, featuring a kosher dairy menu. It serves salads, soups, sandwiches, hot and cold beverages, and desserts. Unlike most cafes, the waiters at Kapish are all deaf. The prices are similar to most Tel Aviv cafes. It should be noted that in the "pre-show" time period, ranging from approximately 7 to 8 p.m., lovely and very low-priced finger foods are available at the bar. Two things would likely capture the visitor's attention upon entering the café area: The first is the attractive, clean décor. Regular tables are usually available by reservation only, and several tall round bar-tables can be used for pre-show snacking. The second is the comfortable, joyous atmosphere that is almost tangible in this place. At a table near the bar, several waiters are busy polishing silverware, in preparation for the café's opening. It is particularly striking to notice how ordinary it all looks: The waiters and waitresses work and cajole, with sounds of laughter mingling with the background music. If it were not a known fact that the staff are deaf, this scene could easily be taking place at any other café in Israel or elsewhere in the world. Arieh Rosen, the center's PR and marketing manager, agrees: "At its base, it's important to note that it's a café like any other: it's in a great location, in a wonderfully designed space, with a unique dining experience. It's unique in that the spoken language here is sign language. The communications in taking orders and between the waiters are made in sign language." To facilitate communication, the sign-language alphabet is printed on the menus. In addition, every table has a small easy-erase writing board. Customers can write requests or comments for the deaf waiters. To order drinks, there is a special page in the menu that features many "style" options: small, large, milk, weak, strong etc. Customers can point their finger at their various preferences, again making for easy communications. Nissrin Daka is a 29-year-old waitress, deaf from birth. In addition to her work at the café, she also assists deaf schoolchildren. She says she loves her job at the café, especially because she usually must struggle to fit into the "hearing" world. She enjoys switching roles, and helping the guests in the center in their efforts to communicate with the deaf staff. Shoval is a vivacious 40-year-old waiter at the Kapish Café, who reads lips, and communicates clearly. He is a designer by profession, and used to work for one of the large Israeli bookstore chains, designing its showcase windows. However, he says, work in his field is hard to come by, and so he joined the staff of Café Kapish. From the moment one walks out of Blackout, hands resting trustingly on the waiter's shoulders, one misses that comforting, all-engulfing, velvety darkness that can be enjoyed in the restaurant. The dark can seem like a giant, soft blanket, gently covering the eyes and mind, providing a meditation-like calm. The stark contrast between how frightened one may feel for the first 10 or 15 minutes in the restaurant and and how wonderfully relaxed one feels after an hour in complete darkness can be amazing. While this writer, of course, greatly appreciates the gift of sight, dining at Blackout gives one a new perspective on how each and every one of us experiences life. How necessary is the constant barrage of information on all our senses, especially on our ears and eyes, and what effect does it have? Is it only in the modern world that our senses are under constant attack, and do people who live in the countryside suffer less of an assault? Do blind or deaf people enjoy a greater sense of peacefulness, as they are exposed to less external stimuli? Or do they suffer more stress, as they must function in a world set up for people who do hear and see? If facing modern urban life sometimes feels overwhelming, how must it feel for someone who cannot see at all? Or hear? Someone who must get around using a cane, or with the help of a seeing-eye dog? Or someone who must rely on people's patience and intelligence as s/he tries to communicate without speaking? How much do we, as a society, do to help blind or deaf people integrate into society, find employment and get around in their day-to-day life? The Na Lagaat center does not solve these problems. Employing 40 deaf and blind people cannot possibly provide a solution for all the sight- or hearing-impaired in Israel. The center does, however, point the way toward integration, and give us all much food for thought.