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Eating dinner in the dark at the Blind Café

This story originally aired on November 7, 2013 and it aired again most recently in the November 9, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

The Blind Cafe is hosting dinners in San Francisco again this weekend.

The weekend is a time for relaxing or maybe going to dinner and a show with friends. One typical scenario is you meet up with them, get dinner. Now, imagine you walk into a restaurant and it’s dark. Pitch dark. It’s not a power outage; this is darkness by design. Welcome to Blind Café.

The brainchild of Brian Rosheleau, who goes by just “Rosh”, Blind Café is a pop up dinner, with a live concert – and for dessert,  a discussion about what it’s like to live without sight. All the while, the lights are off, the wait staff is blind, and the food is delicious… if you can find it in the dark.

After hearing about Blind Café, I went to try it out. It’s in a basement cafe in San Francisco’s Fillmore district.

Into the Blind Café

When I get there, about 50 people are standing in a lounge, chatting and laughing, waiting to enter the Blind Cafe. Heather Gaddonniex and her friends came over from Oakland. She says, she thought it would be interesting to dine in the dark and be devoid of all senses. She’s then called in for her turn to enter the event.

Heather and her friends seem pretty relaxed, excited. I don’t know how to feel, to be honest. I’m a bit worried… about the dark, getting elbowed in the eye or spilling water on the ground and someone slipping on it or… just being scared.

Organizer Rosh says, these concerns are part of the deal.

“I think what it does is it interrupts people’s habitual patterns,” Rosh says. “They’re not thinking about the future or the past anymore, suddenly they’re in the present and you have to relearn how to relate with your world in the dark.”

Rosh says this is supposed to be empowering. I keep that in mind as my turn to go into the café comes. Rosh tells everyone to stand in a line, single file, and to hold on the person in front of us.

We walk slowly into a dark tunnel that twists and darkens the further I go. I hear other people making their way through.

Ar the end of the tunnel, it’s pitch black and I start to panic a bit. Still, I am hanging on and walking in. It’s loud. I can’t see a thing. I can’t see the people. I can’t see the recorder in my hand.

I hear a voice of a man close to me saying, “M’aam? let’s seat you right here.” “Here where?” I think. I feel around for a chair. Aha! Here it is. I sit down and stay put.

Time to eat

Then, it’s chow time. I hear people clamoring to find their food and water, and I realize everyone’s food is already on the tables. The utensils are compostable, so nobody stabs themself. I feel around. There are round plates, a water bottle. I feel something that feels like bread, with some kind of spread on it. Trusting it will taste good, I take a bite, and am pleasantly surprised with a delicious olive pesto.

Trying to eat in the dark is not an easy task. I feel my senses of touch and smell heightening. I touch something small and round, like a potato, but I’m not sure. So I end up doing what I tell my kids never to do: I smell the food to figure it out. It smells like potatoes. As I taste, I realize it’s probably eggplant. As my confidence in the dark increases, I reach out further on the table and feel something cold: a bowl with a liquid I just dipped my hand in. Olive oil.

People are enjoying themselves- laughing and chatting, their hands bumping into each other, trying to find their water bottles, stealing other people’s quiche. In the chaos, the chef finally tells us what we’ve been eating: rainbow kale salad, brown rice, cheese, butternut squash (which I thought was eggplant).

Living with blindness

Part of the program is a question and answer session with the blind wait staff. Our waiter for today is Rick Hammond. He invites anyone to shout their name to be called on, and then ask him anything about living with blindness.

They ask questions about work, about how he uses computers and cell phones. One woman asks about Hammond’s biggest challenge.

“My biggest challenge is the public perception about blindness,” Hammond says. “People saying you can’t do this, or you can’t do that.”

After a candid talk with Rick about feeling color and teaching and love, I start to feel like it’s been way too long in the dark. We’re in our second hour now, and I’m starting to feel restless. I understand why one woman, just can’t handle it any longer, and asks to be led back out.

It’s not just the dark, it’s the loneliness you feel despite being in a loud room full of people. You miss your loved ones. You feel abandoned, vulnerable. Not seeing for that long, being in a state where- it’s the same whether you close your eyes or open them, creates this sense of loss. Your mind is searching for something it can’t find, a connection.

So when event founder Rosh and his band take to the stage, it’s a welcome distraction. I have no idea how many people are in the band, or what they look like. And it doesn’t matter.

A break from the darkness

The music is calming. You can feel the cello strings vibrate through your body. Rosh says, he wants people to re-learn how to listen to music. Just listening with no other distractions. And in the spirit of sharing, we sing together a song he teaches us on the spot with the chorus: “And the light that shines through everyone, someday it will be gone, so make me yours, I’ll make you mine.”

The room is vibrating with the dozens of voices singing in unison, in the dark, singing about light. That’s a cue for someone to hand Rosh the lighter that would end the evening. He strikes it up.

It’s so good to see again. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I see my table is a mess, and it makes me think about those who still can’t see despite the light. About our blind waiter, Rick Hammond, and his world.

“My hope,” Hammond says, “is that it will open the door for people to explore that world of disabilities, and less scared to approach people with a disability and to treat them as equals, and they feel they can be more open with people, and open with themselves.”

As for me, I feel small and humbled. Losing one sense had me so uneasy. But, on the other hand, through patience and calm, my mind eventually accepted the dark and it was okay. We are built to be able to adjust. So I guess Rosh is right: realizing that is empowering.


This story was meant to be heard, click the play button above to listen

Crosscurrents Crosscurrents
Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.