It’s Better in the Dark: An Urban Adventure
(Note: This article was written in 2019, pre-COVID-19).
O.NOIR is something I had wanted to do for a long time, but I just kept putting it off. I would walk past at Church and Isabella in Toronto and think, “I want to do that”, but by the next block, it was already a distant memory. If you are not familiar, O.NOIR is a “dine in the dark” experience and is probably the most unique meal you will ever have. Sometimes it takes someone being a tourist in your city to remind you that you too need to be a tourist in your city. A few weeks ago, a kindred spirit from England stopped by for a night. (Sidenote, one night is not nearly enough to ‘see’ Toronto. You get even less than a snapshot of what this city has to offer). Mary was telling me about the Canadian/U.S. tour she was on with Intrepid, and that their time spent in Montréal, the next destination after Toronto, would include a dinner at O.NOIR. I instantly felt ashamed that someone who was literally breezing through Canada was going to have an experience that I hadn’t had, an experience that has literally been sitting in my backyard for the past ten years. This was going to change.
There are two O.NOIR restaurants in Canada, one in Montréal (est. 2006), and one in Toronto (est. 2009). As my experience comes from Toronto, it is that location I can speak to. My partner Sean made the reservation on a Friday night for 8:15pm. They have two sittings, one at 5:30pm and one at 8:15pm. It was a Friday, so woot, woot, we were letting our hair down! The location itself is quite unique. After heading down a long staircase from street level into the building, you enter a spacious and artsy lounge where a big braille alphabet greets you on the wall. The sighted bartender provides you with a menu so that you can make your selections in advance, or you can order the surprise option for an appetizer, main and dessert. You must order at least two courses. If you come early enough, you can have a pre-dinner drink. When it is time, a sighted staff member takes you to meet your visually impaired server, who then brings you into a completely dark room.
“Sometimes it takes someone being a tourist in your city to remind you that you too need to be a tourist in your city.”
Our server was Robert, of whom we were instantly a fan. Robert asked Sean to put his left hand on Robert’s left shoulder and my right hand on Sean’s right shoulder, creating a chain as we filed into the dining room. As I am known for my brutal honesty, I will not hesitate to share with you that I had a moment of sheer terror; I was not entirely sure I could do this. It is very, very, very, very, very, very dark and if you have any inklings of claustrophobia, panic or anxiety, it may surface here. It is a bit of a shock to go from all-seeing to instant darkness in a room that is reverberating with talking and laughing, and in which you are now powerless. If ever there was an exercise in fight or flight, this was it. I took 30 seconds to get my head together and proceeded forward – I am a Sagittarian, afterall. Robert lead us to our table with Sean and I admittedly bumping into a few other diners, but everyone was in the same boat, so no harm, no foul. Finding the chair and getting seated was a slight challenge, but soon we were sitting comfortably and adapting to our surroundings. My first observation was the volume. The sound is quite overwhelming when you are in total darkness and have no idea where people are, how close they may be, and what exactly is so funny. It sounded quite crowded, but we learned later that there were much fewer people than it seemed.
“If ever there was an exercise in fight or flight, this was it.”
It didn’t take long for us to start settling into this experience and really, really enjoying it. Robert would arrive and bring us water, rolls, glasses of wine, appetizers, and mains. We loved it so much that we stayed for dessert. When Robert arrived at the table, he would talk us through where he was placing things so that any catastrophes were averted. It is amazing how quickly you can familiarize yourself spatially. We even managed a gentle cheers with our wine glasses. Of course we were not executing any grand physical gestures and felt confined to an imaginary square place setting, but you do adapt. Not to say that it was flawless. My hand discovered a big glob of butter that I had dropped on the table, thinking I had put it on my roll. About a dozen times, I was taking big bites of air off my fork, believing it was loaded up. Sean had ordered the surprise appetizer, only to discover it was mushrooms, something he cannot eat. He also dropped his cutlery on the floor at about the same time. Because you are in total darkness and Robert has other customers to serve, you are at the whim of when he comes by next. Sean called into the air, “Robert? Robert? Robert?”, not knowing if Robert was even in the room. When he did materialize, sometimes we didn’t know when he was gone again, and would still be talking to him. Robert had left our table three sentences ago.
We live in a time in which we are more distracted than ever. The fact that there are mindfulness workshops on every corner could not make this more apparent. When you are sitting in a completely dark room surrounded by strangers and reliant on someone you have just met who is completely blind, you have no choice but to be fully in the moment. You are dialed in to every sense you have. Sean’s voice became a life raft for me. Ongoing conversation was soothing, just to ensure I was not alone in this surreal environment. It makes you realize how much you trust and are connected to someone when their voice is the only thing that is familiar. With no digital interruptions, visual distractions or rushing to get to the next item on our to-do list, it was the best conversation and biggest laugh we have had in a very long time. It felt like others were also enjoying their dinner companions as the room was full of laughter. How novel to hear people really engaging with one other. I would much rather eat in the dark to this sound than to see people sitting across from each other in silence as they stare at their phones.
“My hand discovered a big glob of butter that I had dropped on the table, thinking I had put it on my roll.”
When you can’t see what you are eating, flavours, smells and even your memory become heightened. If you have ordered a surprise, taste buds really kick in to help you identify what it is happening. I noticed that I stopped eating once I was full. As a child born in the 70s who was forced to eat everything on her plate, I still typically do that regardless of how full I feel; if I can see it, I eat it. During this experience, it didn’t matter to me if there was anything left, I was full. If I could not see it, I did not have to eat it. Sean, on the other hand, made sure to completely investigate every inch of his plate until the last morsel was ingested. Not always easy when you keep thinking your knife is a fork. Oh to have had night vision goggles to witness that.
The night had to end, although if we could have stayed longer, I would have. I really got into it, and as someone with too much going on at all times, it was refreshing to simply ‘be’. I loved my connection with Sean and I felt very safe. We had a great talk with Robert who told us what his first few shifts were like, and what he likes about his job. (By the way, he loves his job and if you go to Toronto’s O.NOIR, I recommend you ask for him specifically). We take for granted how easy it is for most of us to function on a daily basis, not realizing the depths of navigation required by others. And the trust! The faith that anyone with visual impairment must put into society is astounding. I needed reassurance several times to make sure Sean was still there, not wanting to be vulnerable in the dark in the company of strangers.
If you are a tourist in Toronto or Montréal, or if you already live in these cities, put O.NOIR at the top of your list. Walk in someone else’s shoes for a few hours. Support a service that provides employment for those who may have a harder time finding work. Do not keep saying that you want to go do something, but don’t. No matter how big or small, just go. Do it. Maybe just don’t get your hair done beforehand like I did. No one will see it.
Have any great urban dining adventures of your own? Let me know!
“I’m a frequent guest on the forward thinking travel show, FLY, hosted by the incomparable, the witty, the always hilarious Melissa Rodway. Melissa asks questions of the travel industry that others are too nervous to ask. She covers destinations and stories that others aren’t covering. Women travelling solo in Nepal. Volunteer groups in Guatemala. People taking sabbaticals in Eastern Europe. She covers smaller destinations in Canada. She covers day trips from Toronto that others aren’t covering. And she’s telling these stories through a lens that is candid and unique. Melissa doesn’t produce 3 minute clips about resort vacations in Cancun. She covers destinations that people want to know about, and she covers them from angles that people would like to hear about.”Doug O’Neill, Travel Writer/Marketing Communicator