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Eating Blind

High-Tech Holy Land

Morton Landowne
December 16, 2010
(Morton Landowne/Len Small/Tablet Magazine)
(Morton Landowne/Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

The word “Blackout” conjures many images, but until visiting the Nalaga’at Theater in Tel Aviv, I had never associated it with fine dining.

Black Out is a “pitch-black restaurant” (Google it: you’ll find examples of them all over the world) where up to 40 diners, stripped of their cell phones and watches, are escorted to their seats by specially trained, blind and visually impaired waiters, in a room totally devoid of any light. (I was in the midst of attending a four-day “Israel Innovation Summit,” sponsored by Beit Issie Shapiro, an Israeli non-profit that provides innovative services for children with special needs.)

The reason? The non-profit Nalaga’at (“Please Touch”) Theater company is a deaf-blind acting ensemble which performs in Tel Aviv and tours internationally. As part of its theater complex in a converted warehouse at the Jaffa port, Nalaga’at operates two restaurants, Black Out, and Cafe Kapish (all its waiters are deaf—get it?). Both provide job opportunities for the disabled and enable patrons to confront the role that sight and hearing play in the way we relate to others. But I don’t want to leave the impression that a meal at Black Out feels like a chore; when you go with even a small group (we were five), it becomes an entertaining, enjoyable, and unforgettable experience.

Arriving for the 9 pm seating, we were greeted with a cocktail and a menu. The dairy meal is served in three courses, and our order was taken before we entered the blacked-out room, which we proceeded to do via a small conga line (no other way to describe it). As a life-long city dweller, I had trouble remembering the last time I was completely unable to see even the proverbial “hand in front of my face.” Our waitress, Hilla, 35 years old and blind from birth, possessed a warm, reassuring voice and patiently explained what awaited us.

It took some getting used to. When I exclaimed that I had found my napkin, my dinner companion quipped: “That isn’t your napkin, that’s my shirt.” Dishes are designed to be consumed either with cutlery or with one’s hands, and, since no one could see, I opted for the latter. My entrée came on what the menu claimed was a “bed of colorful vegetables,” which I had to take on faith, but the food was uniformly delicious, and we all had an intense awareness of the food’s texture and taste. One of the menu options is a “chef’s surprise” for each course: You literally have to figure out what it is that you are eating (the waitress will tell you if you ask, but why spoil the fun?). Similarly, I had never given thought to the effort involved in a blind pouring of a glass of water (hint: Stick your finger at the inner edge of the glass). On the other hand, my friend was thrilled that his wife was unable to see that he had consumed the entire contents of the bread basket!

Hilla learned each of our names, and, every few minutes, her luxurious voice would suddenly appear in my ear to say that she was about to place the next course in front of me, or to ask if I needed anything. The meal flew by in what felt like a matter of minutes, and, as we prepared to leave, Hilla reassembled the conga line and led us to the exit. Once outside, as our eyes, thankfully, adjusted to sight, we were handed a cup of tea (no soups or hot beverages are served in the blackened room), collected our watches and cell phones, and reflected on the remarkable two hours we had just experienced. What I wouldn’t have given for a mere second of light in the dining room, to have been able to view its parameters and to see how close I was seated to my fellow diners! But it never came.

Morton Landowne is the executive director of Nextbook Inc.