Which would you rather be: deaf or blind?
The age-old “this or that” question that I still can never answer without seriously doubting myself seconds later.
Fortunately, most of us will never have to experience either – unless you opt to Dine in the Dark, which you totally should because it’s a completely new way to experience a meal. Dine in the Dark is a restaurant that opened in 2013 in Phnom Penh near the riverside. If you’ve seen the film, About Time (which is another thing you should totally do), you’ll know that this is a place where you eat in a pitch-black environment and possibly meet the love of your life (whoops, spoiler alert. And PS – more spoilers about Dine in the Dark ahead. I won’t give away too much, though, so you’ll still be able to enjoy the experience to its fullest). Or, more likely, it’ll be a place where you’ll try something new and come out of it a little wiser and appreciative of your ability to see.
Entering Dine in the Dark Phnom Penh
We entered the unassuming restaurant, awash in purple light. After choosing which “Surprise Menu” we wanted to order (Signature International, Signature Khmer, Signature Vegetarian, or Chef’s Selection), a blind server led us upstairs. We walked single-file, each of us with our hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us.
We stepped gingerly through several curtain doorways and into complete darkness until we reached our table. Our server led us each to our chairs and explained where our cutlery and waters were located. After receiving our beverages, we tried to feel out the table and our surroundings. The pitch-blackness played tricks on my eyes as they desperately tried to create shapes and shadows out of the darkness. Clinking silverware, light chatter, and music surrounded me as my eyes failed to make out any figures in front of me.
Eating at Dine in the Dark Phnom Penh
Our first course arrived and I timidly poked at my food, unsure of how to attack my appetizer. Should I stab it? Scoop it? Cut it first? I took my first bite, which was of course a heaping pile of air with a bit of balsamic dressing. After a few more tries, I was able to successfully feed myself, surprised that my hand-eye coordination was still on point and I didn’t accidentally jab an eyeball.
Surprisingly, I got used to the darkness rather quickly. Beyond the challenges of being pseudo-blind, we realized that one major difference of this dinner was the lack of technology. The hostess takes your phone (and locks it away) to avoid having any light intrude on the experience. So not only could we not see our food, but we were left wondering what that film was called with Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis, or the relationship status of that girl from home. Oh, life without immediate Google and Facebook access.
(Btw, obvs the answer is Armageddon. Would never forget the greatest film of all time.)
But in all seriousness, it was refreshing being disconnected from technology. Not to get all self-righteous, we all know I was immediately back on my phone as soon as I got my old friend back in my palm. But every now and then, a meal without Googling is quite pleasant. Instead, we talked at length about our meal – commenting on the texture, speculating what it was (I’m terrible at this even when I can see) and discussing how much we thought remained on our plates (I found a good portion of mine on the table because I apparently have no manners when I’m blind.)
The most challenging part for me, personally, was the inability to ration out my food. I always like to make sure I have the same amount of rice/meat/vegetables throughout the meal and I save the best bite for last (stop judging me, I can’t be the only one), but that’s obviously impossible to do when you can’t see your food. Sorry, fellow OCD-ers.
We finished our meal and were led back downstairs the same way we came up. The hostess then showed us photos of our meal and explained what we had just eaten. After a few I-knew-its and told-you-sos, we left Dine in the Dark, happy to have our sight back, but grateful for the experience.
Why You Should Dine in the Dark:
Dine in the Dark promotes equal opportunities for people with disabilities by employing visually-impaired guides/servers. All of them have attended a local NGO and school for the blind and deaf, called “Krousar Thmey”, or “New Family”. The “surprise menus” of Dine in the Dark were designed by Michelin-starred chef, Nick Medhurst. Not only does this unique culinary setting give people the chance to experience being blind, but it shows how other senses are heightened when one is eliminated.
If you want to Dine in the Dark in Phnom Penh:
More Dine in the Dark Restaurants
If you’re not in Phnom Penh but want to experience dining in the dark, check out these articles about other restaurants with similar concepts:
Bangkok, Thailand: A Sensory Experience: Dark Dining at ‘Dine in the Dark’ (DID) of Bangkok, Thailand by Aileen Adalid from I Am Aileen
London, England: Dans le Noir, London: A Review by Sarah Edwards from Not Another Travel Blog
Singapore: Nox Dine in the Dark: Our Experience by Emily Seow from City Nomads
Tokyo, Japan: Mystery on the ‘Dark Dinner’ Menu by Tomoko Otake from The Japan Times
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Dining in the Dark – The Honest Review from KL Expat Malaysia