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Restaurant Feature | Boston’s Dining in the Dark re-stimulates food experience

Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 02:02

 

Though a blackout is bad news for, say, a major sporting event, it’s also a dining trend on the rise with a Boston-area presence. 

Dark dining dates back to 1999, when concept restaurant, or “blind cow” in German, opened in Zurich. There, blind and visually impaired employees serve patrons in the pitch-black dark. Boston’s incarnation of the dark-dining experience, aptly dubbed Dining in the Dark, pulls the wool over its diners’ eyes almost literally: The event series relies on blindfolds that block out light completely.

If sensory deprivation sounds counterintuitive to the dining experience as we know it, that’s because it is. If a quality meal ranks first in importance during a night out, then the presentation of that meal and the restaurant’s atmosphere tie for a close second. Social media advents like Instagram and, most recently, the video-sharing app Vine, elevate prettily plated root vegetables and carefully drizzled sauces to an art form. In a way, seeing, snapping and sharing is the new way to consume meals.

Dark dining, then, might be the perfect remedy to this obsessive new way of eating with our eyes. Intrepid diners, or even less-intrepid diners weary of viewing food through Earlybird and Kelvin filters, might find Dining in the Dark an exciting expedition for a small group, a not-too-tired plan for Valentine’s Day or even an adventurous blind — ahem, blindfolded — date.

“The blindfolds were actually a result of the challenges we faced during the planning phase,” said David Goldstein, who founded Dining in the Dark in 2010. Goldstein had visited other dark-dining restaurants, which have sprung up in major cities from London to Tel Aviv, but was finding the traditional dark-room model incompatible with the first venue he selected, Beacon Hill’s swank Hampshire House.

But Goldstein, who plays pivotal roles in the Boston Chocolate Tours, the dinner theater Mystery and the team-building company TeamBonding, was no novice in the Boston event industry. Conceptual flexibility was a necessity for this endeavor, as was a muse. He found the latter in a New York dark-dining restaurant, which not only used blindfolds but also made a point of interacting with its guests.

Though Goldstein drew inspiration from the Manhattan location, among others, Dining in the Dark is no act of plagiarism.

“I picked what I liked, I got rid of what I didn’t like and I created my own vision,” he said. 

His rendition of the fad includes scheduled events, gourmet food and “a story we create for the audience, to bring them on a journey.”

That journey varies depending on the location, according to Caitlin Tierney, the events manager for TeamBonding.

“The one you attended,” she said, when I asked her about the script recited between each course, “brought you on a journey to Vermont in your minds because it’s wintertime. But one at the Hampshire House took its audience to a tropical island.” Live music and wafted scents are two other ways Dining in the Dark engages with its audiences, and those, too, vary between its Beacon Hill, Back Bay and Harvard Square venues.

The theatricality and kitsch pair well with the meal, given the nature of the event. But, perhaps because these dinners rely so heavily on their novelty factor, Goldstein made a point to emphasize that, at the end of the day, “It’s really all about the food.” Full disclosure: as a member of the press, I did not have to pay the none-too-cheap $75 price tag for my meal. That said, I found the menu a little tame, but the food itself expertly executed.

Crafting a menu for several blindfolded diners is no small task, especially when many aren’t sure what to expect from the experience.

“We had someone call in once and ask if we would give them liver and strange things,” Tierney said, “which isn’t what we want.” 

Instead, she said, the goal is to serve “something guests would normally have on a big night out, but experienced differently.”

Convenience and safety are other major considerations for the Dining in the Dark chefs and staffers. To that end, butter knives replace steak knives, soup comes in manageable mugs and servers direct patrons’ hands to their utensils.

And not to worry — as your waiters scurry around, ensuring that you don’t accidentally grab stranger’s hand, they’re much too busy to notice how goofy you look groping around your plate. Well, almost. 

“It’s great when diners want pictures of themselves, and they’re all looking in different directions,” said Tierney, laughing. “But it’s the best when people think they have something on their forks, and it gets to their mouth and there’s nothing there.”

Tickets for Dining in the Dark can be purchased online at dininginthedark.com.

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