★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Retsif Ha’Aliya Ha’Shniya, Yafo Port
Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday
(6:30pm – Vegetarian Meal 90 NIS OR Fish Meal 110 NIS)
(8:30pm – Vegetarian Dinner 140 NIS OR Fish Dinner 160 NIS)
I recently enjoyed one of the most romantic dinners of my life. Think whispered conversations, stolen kisses, quiet giggles, and completely worriless enjoyment… What do you imagine? Sharing bites of churros con chocolate in a quiet café in Europe? A beachside meal eaten while a gentle Mediterranean sea breeze playfully ruffles your hair? A small table for two at an intimate, candlelit restaurant? Outdoor seating in a quaint garden under twinkling stars?
I doubt any of you instantly thought of a restaurant where you can see nothing, where you have to be led to your table in a human train and eat your meal in the absolutely pitch black darkness while sharing your table with people you’ve never met. But believe it or not, despite not being able to make eye contact or even see the people you’re eating with, the experience is incredibly intimate.
Na’LaGaat is a center in Yafo for the deaf and blind. They have a café, a theatre, and a restaurant. After many attempts to make a reservation and many cancellations due to a number of scheduling conflicts, we finally made it to the restaurant, Blackout.
Blackout has two seatings on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays—one at 6:30pm and one at 8:30pm. The 8:30pm seating is longer and includes more food, but trust me when I say that the amount of food you get at the 6:30pm seating is plenty.
Before you enter, the staff provides you with a menu and explains how it all works. You order your meal before entering, but you can order drinks from your waiter/waitress once inside. The wait staff is comprised of those who are blind or severely visually impaired. You are seated next to your dining partner, as it is far easier to interact with them this way, although you may be seated with other diners. If you need anything during the meal, you simply call for your waiter, as they are always nearby. Bibs are provided for those who want to avoid making a mess of themselves during the meal (we’d recommend taking one to wear as a bib and another to supplement your napkin).
We giddily awaited to be seated, watching as couple after couple entered the restaurant with their bibs on. We ended up being the last couple led in. Before entering the restaurant, you enter a small “holding” area of sorts where you meet your waiter/waitress in a dimly lit environment. After the introductions, our waitress explained that we’ll “human train” our way to our table. A waitress-Taly-Doug train proceeded into the void of darkness that was the restaurant.
Our waitress helped us feel our way into our seats, told us that our napkin and silverware were to our right, and suggested that Doug try to pour water into our glasses from the jug on the table. He cautiously did so, successfully filling both of our glasses without spilling (as far as we could feel, anyways, since we couldn’t actually see of course).
I spent the first few minutes convinced that my eyes would adjust to the dark and that at any moment I would turn my head and see shadows, at least. I just couldn’t understand how they managed to make the restaurant so dark! I couldn’t help but put my hand directly in front of my face just to see if I would see something. I didn’t. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was in the complete, utter darkness. There were no windows, clocks, watches, phones, or cameras inside – just blackness.
We managed to get through our breadbasket without incident, but our meals required a little more effort. I had ordered the pistachio gnocchi in creamy poppy-seed and almond sauce while Doug, being more adventurous, ordered the surprise meal.
Our waitress put our meals in front of us. Thinking it couldn’t be that hard to eat without seeing, I found my fork and stabbed it into the middle of my plate. Only when I put my fork in my mouth did I realize that it was empty. It took several such instances before I became more attuned to and focused on the slight pressure difference in using my fork when I actually pierced a piece of gnocchi and the tiny weight at the end of my fork when it had something on it. As the meal went on and my plate emptied, it also became increasingly difficult to find pieces of gnocchi. I had to use my silverware to simply push things towards the center of my plate so I wouldn’t miss anything. I couldn’t help but wonder how many meals went back to the kitchen only partly eaten, since people couldn’t find their food in the dark.
Doug, meanwhile, had an entirely different dilemma when he got his meal. He had ordered the “Surprise Meal” and had no idea how to approach it—what silverware to use, if it needed cutting, if it would be warm or cold. Luckily, it turned out to be a rather simple dish: spinach ravioli.
As if eating our own meals wasn’t enough of a challenge, we both wanted to try the other’s dish. We wound up having to feel for each other’s hands in order to find the fork.
Getting past the enjoyment of the actual experience, I thought the food was rather tasty too. Nothing out of this world, but definitely good.
Throughout the meal, we chatted with the couple we shared a table with. According to the waitress, the restaurant tried to avoid having parties sit together but ultimately couldn’t help it (why is beyond me as I obviously couldn’t see the layout, size, or shape of the restaurant). While at first they were worried that people wouldn’t enjoy sharing tables, they found it was a blessing in the end. It doesn’t surprise me at all, considering we thoroughly enjoyed talking to our faceless tablemates. We talked to them about the experience at the restaurant, our meals (our neighbor got fish—I couldn’t imagine trying to eat that without seeing anything!), where we were from, where we lived, what we did, etc… all without knowing what the others looked like. We joked that the restaurant would be an excellent location for a blind date, as the people would really get to know each other without any physical or visual influences.
We spoke a little more as we waited for our desserts. When they arrived, we and the couple across from us found that our waitress had brought us each an extra treat. She told us that they brought us the extra treat as an apology for having made us wait so long. Our tablemates received an extra dessert because it was the guy’s birthday. And with that, the waitress started singing happy birthday… or rather, the entire restaurant started singing happy birthday with more gusto than I had ever witnessed in a restaurant birthday song. As everyone clapped and sang, I couldn’t help but laugh. It was as if everyone, with the knowledge that they couldn’t be seen in the darkness, lost their inhibitions. Afterwards, our tablemate was quite pleased that, despite the fact that everyone in the restaurant just sang to him, he could soon walk out as an anonymous young man.
Our desserts were good. Doug got a chocolate mousse with almond crumble that proved to be very rich. Meanwhile, I got the white chocolate mousse with butter cookie crumble and fresh fruit. Our extra treat was a cheesecake. Our neighbors, who were kind enough to share, received a dish with marzipan in it. While none of the desserts was incredibly memorable, they were all tasty enough. But my favorite part about the dessert wasn’t the flavor… it was listening to our tablemates as they shared.
“OW!” screamed the birthday boy.
“What? What happened? I was just trying to give you a taste of the mousse…” His girlfriend replied, confused.
“I was just drinking! You hit me in the eye with your spoon!”
With that, I lost it. The hilarity of it overwhelmed me. While I couldn’t see anything, I imagined I could. The guy, one eye covered in mousse and squinting slightly after getting hit in the eye with a spoon, the girl confusedly holding a spoon only half-full of mousse.
I regained my composure just in time for our waitress’s visit. She sat down with us and started chatting with us. We talked about the layout of the restaurant, how she managed to navigate it, and how she managed to serve patrons’ food without knocking things over. On a more serious note, she explained that as a young girl, she attended normal school as her mother insisted that there was nothing wrong with her. Our waitress explained that she was blind in one eye and severely visually impaired in the other, so it was very difficult for her to attend a normal school. But, as she talked about her children and grandchildren, she made it clear that her visual impairment did not preclude her living the life she wanted. I couldn’t help but be awed by her strength and courage. As she told us that she worked at the restaurant since its opening in 2007 and how the restaurant never did well financially, I couldn’t help but wish I could somehow help out.
Shortly after, our waitress led our tablemates to the exit (again, human train style). More and more parties were leaving, so the restaurant became gradually quieter. Awed by the experience, we sat for a short time holding hands, waiting for our waitress to fetch us (we had to wait for a few minutes as a traffic jam had developed by the exit, it appeared). Eventually, our waitress led us back out the way we entered, where we paid and picked up a cup of hot tea. Tea in hand, we made our way to one of the outdoor café tables, where we finally saw our tablemates in person and put faces to the voices we heard over dinner.
I was surprised to see that the people were less attractive than I imagined. Not that they were unattractive, but for some reason I thought they would be rather good looking (based solely on our good conversation with them during the meal). It’s truly amazing… the basic outline we create of people we interact with without seeing (like the person you speak with on the phone every day at work whose appearance surprises you when you finally meet them, or the book character whose image in your mind is shattered when you see the movie presentation of him).
Thinking back, it’s amazing how the night has become a blacked out area of my memory. With no frame of reference whatsoever (silverware, plates, tables, food, waitress…), it has turned so easily into a memory of blank, dark nothingness. Yet the blank, dark nothingness is accompanied by memories of scents, sounds, thoughts, and touches that are all the more amplified and memorable given that they are not linked with a particular site or image. It’s hard to explain, but in a nutshell, it’s an eye-opening experience absolutely worth having.