July 07, 2005.
Diners rub their eyes as they emerge from behind a curtain after eating at France's only pitch black restaurant.
For nearly two hours they have relied on blind guides who helped them reach their table, pour wine and find their way to the lavatory.
Some of them are not even sure what they had for dinner as they pay the bill after leaving the darkened restaurant.
Dans Le Noir (In the dark) is one of three such "blind" restaurants in Europe. The others are in Berlin and Zurich, and its owners are opening a fourth in London with the help of charity association Action for Blind People.
"Finishing your meal when not much is left on the plate is the most difficult part," said 30-year-old student Alessia Milani. She came from Milan with her husband Giorgio Beltrami, 37, after she had heard about the restaurant on the radio.
They had chosen the surprise menu, a full meal including starters and dessert from a wide range of French and Italian dishes clients can ask for, spending an average of 40 to 50 euros ($48 to $60) per person.
"I think the second dish was chicken with vegetables. Dessert was difficult to guess, but I tasted ice cream, jam and fruit," Milani said.
"It felt as if time was standing still," Beltrami added.
The restaurant's owner, 42-year-old Frenchman Edouard de Broglie, said working in the dark had not led to accidents in the year since the restaurant opened in central Paris.
"We haven't had any accidents in the past year. And we're much more experienced than when we started," he said.
KISSING THE WAITER GOODBYE
De Broglie said he was not an entrepreneur before he opened the restaurant with a team of experienced collaborators from the Paul Guinot foundation, an organization for the blind.
"I was simply interested in corporate social responsibility," he said.
He says the restaurant is the first permanent one of its kind in Paris, although there had been several such eating places in the capital in the past few years which did not last.
De Broglie said diners learn something of what it is like to be blind and develop a special relationship with the waiters.
"It's the only restaurant where diners kiss their waiter goodbye," he said.
Blind waitress Susanna de Brito, 32, said clients were often curious about how blind people get by. "They start asking questions about the food and end up asking about us," she said.
Customers realize "blind people can be very good for some jobs. We want to be an example that can be also followed for other handicaps. We've had a lot of important politicians eating here, people who have the power to change things," de Broglie said.
The restaurant had to go undergo tight safety checks before it could open, as did the two "blind" restaurants in Berlin and Zurich. Securing a loan was a big problem.
Ten blind guides assist diners, but de Broglie's policy is based on profit. Other members of staff can see.
"I don't hire people because they're blind but because they're better in their job than people who are not blind. I wouldn't put them in the kitchen, because it's a dangerous place for them," he said.
ENTER HOLDING HANDS
A lounge with tables and chairs is the only dark section of the restaurant.
Clients enter holding hands and accompanied by their guides and have to follow rules such as not moving around by themselves and being extremely careful with cutlery, plates and glasses.
Politeness is required. The most common breaches of the code of conduct clients are asked to read before entering the dark room are speaking too loudly and not being sensitive to other diners' need to talk to their neighbors in the dark.
Families with children are among the about 100 people that eat in the restaurant each day. Ten-year-old Beryl Chevalle Reau said she had some trouble cutting her meat, but she enjoyed her dinner, even though she wouldn't come back.
"Once you've tried why should you do it again?," she said.
Aude Neveu, 26, came with her husband to celebrate their wedding anniversary but said she couldn't have put up with the darkness any longer.
"One-and-a-half hours is enough. After that it becomes oppressive," she said after making sure her white shirt was still clean.
Customers are asked to put comments in a book as they leave.
"It was a bright experience," Paola from Rome wrote.
Not all the guests were satisfied.
"Darkness kills any prejudice on food and taste. So sometimes people suddenly realize that much of the food they usually eat is not that tasty," de Broglie said. ($1=.8276 Euros)
Source URL: http://today.reuters.co.uk/news/newsarticle.aspx?type=featuresNews&storyid=2005-07-07T161018Z_01_L22600527_RTRIDST_0_LIFESTYLE-PARIS-BLIND-DC.XML.
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