Until two weeks ago, I thought that dining in the dark meant going to a restaurant where the lights were turned off. I assumed that guests would dine by candlelight and that waiters wearing night vision goggles would walk calmly from one table to the next.
So, when my friend texted me an invite to his 30th birthday party at Tenebris Restaurant in Sofia, Bulgaria, I didn't think twice before RSVPing "yes." As far as I was concerned, the scariest part of the experience would be seeing my table mates' faces lit up like Halloween jack-o'lanterns under the glow of the candles. And, I was excited to see if the darkness would give my tastebuds superpowers. However, I was in for a reality check.
When I stepped into the restaurant, a hostess with a big smile and a cheek piercing cheerfully told our group of 27 people that we would be dining in an underground space... with absolutely no light. As I mulled over this information she confiscated our phones and watches to ensure the pitch darkness of the experience. Then, she lined us up and directed us to hold onto the person in front of us so we would not get lost on our way to our table. As I nervously clung to the girl ahead of me, I began silently taking note of everything I wished I'd known before dining in the dark.
The First Few Minutes Might Be Tense
Of course, not everybody who dines in the dark goes into the experience as wistfully unprepared as I was. Several people in my dinner group had researched the trend extensively, from its origins in 1990s Paris to more modern restaurants that offer blindfolded dinner experiences. In practice, though, no amount of Google searching can completely prepare you to have one of your senses completely eliminated.
So, be prepared to be nervous.
As I entered the dining hall, I found myself clutching onto the girl in front of me for dear life. Meanwhile, the person behind me reflexively dug her nails into my shoulders. The truth was, the hostess had not exaggerated the level of darkness one bit. We could not see anything, and the general vibe was "panic." Luckily, a waitress who knew the terrain well was able to guide our chain of petrified diners from the top floor down into the basement. Once we made it to the table, she guided us one by one to our individual seats. She plopped me down on what felt like a bench, and I wasn't sure whether to feel relieved or anxious. To be honest, I probably felt both.
Dining in the dark can make you 100% dependent on other people to navigate the area around you. And, for many guests, this can be rattling. Things as simple as getting up and walking to the bathroom by yourself become impossible -- and that can be scary.
Get Comfortable Using Your Hands
If you are grossed out by the idea of eating a plate of chicken with your hands, don't worry -- you are not alone. Before I descended into Tenebris Restaurant's pitch-black dining hall, I was also a bit iffy on the concept of a fork-free feast.
However, as I settled into my place at the dinner table, I realized just how important my hands were going to be. Without them, I had no idea where my place setting was, how many cups I had, or even how long the table was. I slowly began pawing the furniture and utensils around me until I realized that I was seated right against the wall in a room with a low ceiling. And when my food arrived, I knew that I would have to eat with my hands -- otherwise, I would have no idea what I was putting into my mouth.
Unlike some dining-in-the-dark eateries, Tenebris Restaurant does not offer the option to order a specific menu item. Instead, guests are asked to choose between one of four tasting menus ahead of time, with the options being vegetarian, meat-based, fish-based, or Bulgarian. And, no, we weren't allowed to know what each menu entailed. I ordered the Bulgarian option and hoped for the best. When my first course arrived, I felt around my plate and found what I thought was a baked apple. I tasted it tentatively and was surprised that I was right.
You Might Find Yourself Depending A Lot On The Waiters
Even as you feel your way around your table, though, you will remain somewhat dependent in the dark. Within a few minutes of gaining my bearings, everything below the ground started to feel like a bizarre team-building experience. As I pawed at the wall behind me, I announced this gold nugget of information to everyone at the dinner party. "Guys, there's a wall right here!" And, to be fair, my table mates seemed interested. One by one, everyone around me started to share key facts, like "I think there are four of us sitting on this bench," or "Hey, I'm sitting at the head of the table!" Weirdly, this exchange seemed to bring the tension down, as everyone grew more aware of our environment.
Our overall awareness, though, was limited. This was especially clear when the waitresses brought our food. Plates in hand, they walked from place setting to place setting, confirming with each individual which of the four pre-selected menus we had ordered. "Bulgarian? Fish?"
We would each confirm our response verbally (of course) and then tentatively reach our hands out into the void to see if we could make contact with the server. As practiced professionals, the waitresses seemed to have zero trouble finding our grasp. They would kind of bump our hands with theirs, before placing a plate into each person's palm.
You Might Not Know What You Are Eating
Before I tried dining in the dark, I assumed that the lack of light would majorly enhance my sense of taste. I figured that tomatoes would taste extra acidic and that meat would taste extra meaty. And, I was wrong.
One of the first realities that I had to confront in the dark is that I eat with my eyes. In a normal setting, I tend to study each item on my plate and imagine what it's going to taste like before I actually bring the food to my mouth. But, when I dined in the dark, I was forced to experience my meal in a new way. This was clear as soon as the first course arrived. Yes, I could feel that there was a baked apple on my plate. But, as I poked around the fruit, I could feel a soft gooey substance where the core was supposed to be. What was that? Yogurt? Some kind of stew? Heck if I knew. I plunged my index finger into the apple's viscous center and brought it to my lips. It was kind of bland. Cream maybe?
During the next course, I was no more certain. Using my trusty hands, I determined that there were cherry tomatoes dotting my plate. However, they, too, were topped with something squishy. Cheese maybe? I tasted the combination -- and liked it -- but remained unsure of what I was eating.
Ordering Drinks Can Feel A Bit Awkward
As you test the limits of your palate, you'll want something to sip on. At Tenebris Restaurant, we were given the chance to choose our drinks before heading underground. Prior to my initial descent, I ordered a glass of raspberry wine and some sparkling water. But, due to the obvious risk of spillage, guests were not allowed to keep a whole bottle of anything on the table. Thus, we were expected to order our refills below the ground.
This was not always easy.
In a normal restaurant situation, there is a lot of eye contact involved. You might catch your server's gaze from across the room, prompting them to come over. Maybe your waiter will even gesture at you, "Give me two minutes," and you will nod in understanding. Obviously, when dining in the dark, this ritual is impossible.
To get a refill, the staff at Tenebris instructed us to vaguely call out "Can I have more wine?" into the darkness. However, I found this really hard to do. I loved my raspberry wine -- it was sweet and tangy and a bit cider-y all at once -- so I finished it relatively quickly. I wanted more but somehow felt like it would be impolite to shout out my order. In the end, I explained my plight to my Bulgarian-speaking neighbor, who offered to order for me. And, in another instance of underground teamwork, I got my coveted drink.
Be Prepared To Bond With Your Neighbors
One of the most disconcerting parts of my dining in the dark experience was that I went into it without really knowing anyone. Of course, I knew the birthday party hosts, but I hadn't met any of the other guests beforehand. At first, I was a little bit nervous about being the odd one out. But, I got to know my table mates VERY quickly.
Within a few minutes of the brief introductions that we had made above ground, my new acquaintances and I were literally clinging to each other on our way down to the basement at Tenebris Restaurant. And, once we all made it into our seats, it was clear that everyone was there to support each other in our bizarre underground adventure.
Interestingly, it felt like the conversation in the dark just kind of flowed differently. I started to ask the usual questions to the couple seated next to me. "Where are you from? What do you do for a living?" However, as I heard their answers, I found myself listening more intently. Because we were in the dark, I didn't have to worry about making a facial expression that seemed sufficiently interested. I didn't wonder if I had bobbed my head in agreement one too many times. Instead, I closed my eyes, tilted my ear towards my dining companions, and just focused on what they were saying. It was a huge lesson on the powers of listening.
Musical Experiences Will Be Way More Intense
Listening to your neighbors speak is not the only auditory experience that is heightened when you are dining in the dark. Any kind of lights-free musical performance can also be quite intense. During my meal at Tenebris Restaurant, a quartet of violinists descended into the basement to serenade us with a classical music performance. I honestly cannot articulate just how magical the sound was to my ears. Hearing these musicians play made me feel like I was floating in the clouds and diving into the sea all at once.
Fascinatingly, there is a scientific explanation for why that performance sounded so surreal. According to at least one study, spending time in the darkness might be able to improve our hearing. In fact, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland (via Science Daily) placed some mice in a pitch-black setting for a week. During this time, the rodents' brains adapted in such a way that their hearing actually improved.
Of course, it is unlikely that your whole brain will rewire during your dining in the dark experience. However, there is a chance that you will start paying extra close attention to the sounds around you. In the light, you might watch a string quartet perform and accidentally zero in on visual factors -- like how quickly the musicians move the bows over their instruments. Without these distractions, the auditory experience is incredible.
Try To Keep Your Voice Down
Music in the dark might sound like the stuff of fairy tales, but not all noises will likely sound so pleasant. While I enjoyed my meal below ground, there was one table that lost control of their volume. At one point during the meal, a high-pitched voice shouted out a joke from across the room, and the remainder of their table mates burst into what felt like an avalanche of laughter.
I remember feeling a little bit disoriented among the noise, but a few of my table mates had much more severe reactions. One of the girls at the table explained that the loud noise was physically painful for her. "It feels like a knife stabbing my ear drum," she described. Another confessed that the loud noise had sent her into a panic.
Luckily, the servers at Tenebris Restaurant recognized the problem before anyone could even complain. They swooped in, cut the jazz playing in the background, and stopped serving dishes. As soon as they had everyone's attention, these professionals told the loud guests that they would need to keep their volume down for the remainder of the meal. And, the rest of the night was a success. However, this episode really showed me that different people perceive noise in the dark with different levels of intensity. Even if you aren't particularly sensitive to sound, try to keep your voice down while dining in the dark. Your neighbors will thank you.
Seeing Light Again Can Be Overwhelming
While I didn't have too much difficulty dealing with noise in the dark, there was one thing that I majorly struggled with -- coming back up to the surface. A few minutes after my fellow guests and I polished off our last course, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. Our waitress was ready to guide us out of the basement and back to reality.
Nothing could have prepared me for how overwhelming this process would be. When we finally broke the surface, I felt surprised to see... well, anything, again. I noticed that we were in a small room that was purposefully dimly-lit with super soft lighting. The idea must have been to help us transition smoothly back to the world beyond the restaurant. Even with this precautions in place, however, a searing pain hit my eyes. Within a minute of leaving the dark, I found myself squeezing my eyes closed and burying my face in my palms.
Slowly but surely, I opened and closed my eyes, in an attempt to adjust to the new reality. Most of the other people from my table went through some sort of transition phase, although mine seemed particularly intense. Once everyone was able to deal with the lowest level of light, we were allowed to go to the restaurant's entrance. I peered out the window. It was nighttime. I remember blinking at what seemed like the powerful beams coming from the streetlights.
You Might Be Surprised To Learn What You Ate
Naturally, food is a key part of any dining experience, and dinner in the dark is no exception. Since Tenebris Restaurant didn't let us see the menu leading up to the meal, they did a whole unveiling process in which they showed us exactly what we had eaten. As it turns out, the baked apple from my first course was not stuffed with yogurt but with a creamy chicken stew. And, the tomatoes from my next course weren't topped with cheese. They contained bean paste!
For me, this revelation was an incredibly humbling experience. I had really assumed that my tongue would be able to pull any flavor from any possible combination of ingredients and instantly recognize whatever I was eating. In reality, there were a few elements that I had completely mixed up.
During dinnertime, there was one dish that I swore contained fish. My neighbor, however, insisted that she was eating sausage. We went back and forth throughout the course, debating whether the texture of the flesh seemed like it came from the sea or from a meat grinder. Well, low and behold, we were both wrong. The mystery ingredient was escargot -- something that I never would have imagined.
Time Flies When You Are Underground
As my new friends and I were headed out of the restaurant, one of the girls looked down at her watch and gasped. "How much time do you think has passed," she asked us. I guessed two hours. Another table mate of ours said three. The girl with the watch shook her head and informed us that we had been beneath the ground for a whopping four hours.
For whatever reason, I found that time truly does fly when you are dining in the dark. The lack of light made it difficult to evaluate how time is progressing. In the light, many of us notice things like the sun's position in the sky, or whether the moon has risen yet, or the shadows. Dining in the dark meant that everything was always pitch black, so it felt a little like time was at a standstill.
I Would 100% Do It Again
Overall, my experience at Tenebris Restaurant was nothing like what I had expected, but it was everything that I had hoped for. Dining in the dark, ultimately, pushed me out of my comfort zone. It forced me to depend on senses like touch and taste in order to understand what I was eating. It showed me how to listen to my table mates, absolutely and completely. And, it taught me how to rely on the people around me -- my table mates and the servers alike -- to navigate the darkness below ground.
All in all, I would recommend dining in the dark to anyone, but don't go in unprepared. Choose your restaurant wisely because, in my experience, the incredible staff at Tenebris made all the difference. Understand that this unique dining experience will challenge you in new ways -- and know that that's the beauty of the experience.
Read the original article on Daily Meal.