William Skidelsky can't see dinner
There's no getting away from it: a meal in the dark makes you feel very alone
The dunkel, or "dark", restaurant is situated on a side street in east Berlin. Once you've entered, you sit in a sort of antechamber where you decide what you want to eat. Rather than selecting individual dishes, you choose between menus: vegetarian, fish, lamb, poultry, game. The dishes are described in a code that reveals little about them: "the fairest creature of the forest wearing a crown of cheese"; "a dessert with 12 edges". We make our choices - I order the lamb menu - and our waiter comes over and introduces himself. Like all the other waiters at the Dunkelrestaurant, Haidi is blind.
He asks us to form a chain, and then leads us through a double door into a space of total darkness. I have no idea how big the room is, but from the way the conversation of the other diners echoes I guess it is fairly large. Haidi leads us to our table and guides us individually to our seats. My first task is to establish my bearings. I reach out with trepidation, getting a sense of the objects around me: knife, fork and spoon, wine glass, water glass. Then I stray further, reaching across the table to touch my girlfriend's face. The voices of the people we're with (there are five of us) are reassuring, but there is no getting away from it: in the dark, you feel very much alone.
The sound of a trolley approaches, and Haidi hands out first courses. Mine is some sort of salad. I taste leaves, small balls of mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, croutons, a delicious dressing. So far, so simple. I have no idea how big the salad is; I simply go on eating until there is none left. The next course comes: some sort of soup. I taste crispy morsels of meat, oddly reminiscent of pork scratchings. But what is the flavour of the liquid? It is irritatingly familiar, yet I cannot pinpoint it. This is to be a theme throughout the meal. Nothing tastes wholly alien, but without the aid of sight it is remarkably hard to know what you're eating. You come to realise how lazy your sense of taste is, how much it is propped up by other senses.
At first the dark is scary, overwhelming, but as the meal progresses we relax into it. The three bottles of wine brought by Haidi help. As the alcohol works its way through our systems, a spirit of mischief takes over. We sing songs, hide each other's cutlery, go on foraging expeditions (though these are invariably stopped by Haidi, who has an extraordinary ability to appear out of nowhere and, with a firm but gentle hand, guide us back to our seats). After three hours in the dark, I feel entirely comfortable, and the thought of returning to the light is unwelcome. Emerging through the double door is like waking from a dream. We blink at each other, as if not quite sure what happened. Then we venture out into a Berlin night which, after our experience in the restaurant, seems imperfectly dark.