Blind and bumbling through NYC

What would it be like to navigate New York if you were blind? And how would your food taste if you couldn’t see it? The answers to these questions and more are at two of the city’s newest (and darkest) attractions—the participatory exhibit “Dialog in the Dark” and the restaurant Dans le Noir.

Dialog in the DarkAt “Dialog in the Dark,” which opened last summer at the South Street Seaport, visually impaired guides lead visitors through a pitch-black space designed to recreate scenes of city life. And it really is the blind leading the blind—there isn’t a stray flicker of light to be found in the exhibit until it’s all over.

I embarked on this aimless journey with five others. After depositing any light-producing possessions in lockers, we met in a dim room with illuminated white cubes to sit on. There we were armed with long walking sticks and met our guide Frank Senior, who had a rich, smooth voice that would become a sort of audible beacon in the dark. As we sat the lights slowly dimmed, a few nervous glances shot across the room. When the darkness was complete, Frank informed us we were ready to begin.

Together we ventured through the exhibit like a clumsy octopus, hovering together with our arms flailing in front or to the side. Our first task was to cross a wobbly bridge, which we gingerly shuffled over in order to reach the larger space beyond where we could split up and explore. But no one could venture terribly far without bumping into someone or something, and a blend of stifled giggles and hushed apologies came from every direction.

In those first few minutes, simply standing in the darkness was nauseating. It felt like floating in a vacuum with nothing to hold onto except the swirl of unknown voices and whatever my hand might touch next. I realized that everything we know about our environment changes when we can no longer see it. Without visual cues we can’t have expectations about the experience, forcing us to live purely in the moment. A grocery store becomes a maze of smells and textures—only the graininess of a pear helps us distinguish it from an apple. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of isolation and uneasiness—we were unable to define ourselves in relation to others and were instead waiting for the world to bump into us.

Luckily we had our charismatic guide to lead us through Central Park, where I bumped my knee on a fountain, and on to Times Square, where I felt up a hotdog stand without realizing what it was until Frank offered a clue. We stumbled around like toddlers testing out their legs, while Frank naturally moved along, answering questions and guiding each of us in turn.

And we certainly needed the assistance. I almost walked into a car while crossing the makeshift street, which proved more nerve-wracking than I could have imagined. From there we moved on to a subway car that rattled and shook, simultaneously assaulting our noses with the smell of fuel and exhaust. We finally ended up in a model restaurant, where the lights slowly came up and we were able to see our friendly guide.

The anxiety of navigating through the dark in a city makes for a moving experience, one that forces you to confront the realities of existence without your eyesight. The exhibit never really feels like a walk through the city, but it’s both familiar and alien enough that you get the point.

Dans le NoirThe same vague uneasiness arises at Dans le Noir, a pitch-black restaurant that opened at the end of February in midtown, but this time the only serious consequence of your temporary blindness may be a spilled drink. Yes, just as in “Dialog in the Dark,” the lights are off through the entire time. You’ll also be guided by a blind server, who is your only method of coming and going from your seat.

My table had 12 seats, but only half of them filled up in the first seating on the restaurant’s opening night. It seemed to be a large room with loud voices travelling far, but it proved impossible to estimate the distance. The dark certainly changed the social aspects of communal dining—conversation became the only way to get to know the others at the table, and even then the void made everyone else seem like an illusion. I never even caught a glimpse of my dinner companions on the way out the door, but we did play a guessing game before the night was over.

If you’re intrigued by dinner in the dark, show up to Dans le Noir with an adventurous spirit, because the more practical aspects of dining in the dark are messy at best. My dinner companions and I had to feel our way around the table for everything, including scraps of food that stubbornly resisted my fork. Pouring water proved challenging (and I spilled on more than one occasion), as did finding lost silverware that had mysteriously made its way to the other side of the table. Thankfully all of this occurred in the dark, so no one could see my embarrassingly bad manners.

Despite the gimmick that gets you in the door, the food is surprisingly better than it has to be. Before dinner, our waiter gave us the choice of a meat, seafood, vegetarian or surprise menu. Eager to put my culinary fate in their hands for the evening, I went for the surprise.

During my first course I could taste the crab in my crab salad, but woefully confused “egg brunoise” with cottage cheese in both taste and texture. I did manage to recognize the duck confit on my plate, only to puzzle over the biscuit-like shell holding it. For the main course, I identified the soft buttery quality of a white fish but could not tell it was char. In the dark, the texture of each dish became an essential clue, and it was necessary to savor each flavor––a task made easier without the visual distractions of a restaurant.

The chef’s surprise menu rotates frequently, but the other menus are seasonal, so I won’t give it all away. There are both exotic and familiar flavors in each of the three courses offered. At the end you’ll have the satisfaction of reading about what you just ate and discovering for yourself how sensitive your palate actually is.

This isn’t the restaurant for a casual evening out, nor is it ideal for those squeamish about sitting in the dark (dinner can last more than two hours). But if you’re looking for an original date idea, Dans le Noir is the perfect complement to a walk through “Dialog in the Dark.”

Dialog in the Dark
South Street Seaport Exhibition Center
11 Fulton St., Lower Manhattan

Dans le Noir
246 West 38th St., Manhattan