Standing outside the American Legion, watching the sun set against a showy peach sky, I am equal parts hungry and excited. I have arrived with fifty other Austinites for a multi-sensory pop-up dinner at The Blind Cafe.
I have to admit I’m just a bit nervous, though. I eye my plus one, Lisa, secretly praying she’s excited and not about to bail before we head in. Our chef-prepared vegetarian feast, complete with an after-dinner concert and discussion is going to be amazing, but it will be enjoyed in utter, complete darkness.
The Blind Cafe facilitates unique, pop-up dinner events across the United States that promote positive social change and host legally blind keynote speakers. What that means is that dinner guests are guided by blind waitstaff into a pitch dark dining room where tables of six to eight people sit together. There they enjoy dinner, listen to gorgeously curated live music, ask questions about what it’s like to be blind and listen to the experiences of the blind facilitators hosting the event. All of this in the dark without a single glimmer of light or distraction.
In a culture addicted to multi-tasking, with images and stimuli flashing in our faces non-stop, this one-of-a-kind sensory experience forces attendees to be fully present. They’re forced to connect with those around them, despite the darkness, in an unfamiliar, emotionally powerful way.
Dinner in the Dark
I laugh nervously, gripping my patient waiter’s hand as he guides me to a chair somewhere in the dining room. I hear Lisa’s voice in front of me and calm a little, knowing she will be close by. Clumsily, I sit down, clutching my wine as if my life depends on it.
I take a deep breath in to relax, and the first thing that hits me are the scents of rosemary and cornbread. My hands slowly trace the outline of my plate, where I find stuffed mushrooms, a savory casserole, hummus and a tidy pile of roasted vegetables. I also find a spoon.
I am hungry, and therefore motivated. I gather morsels onto my spoon and cautiously take small bites of delicious, mysterious foods. I remind myself that it’s all gluten-free and vegan, guaranteeing nothing on my plate can be too scary. What I experience is a delicious, tactile meal with the decadence of each item heightened.
The bread basket forces my table to act as a team. We laugh together, bonding over how much trust it takes to pass a few slices of bread around a big table in the dark. By the time the dark chocolate mousse is handed out for dessert, we are gushing, comparing notes on our experience so far, the entire table composed of uninhibited friends.
Q & A in the Dark
Bellies full, first challenge conquered, we sit back. We’re a little proud of ourselves and ready for the next part of our evening. Perhaps this is the portion of the night I’m most excited about. The legally blind keynote speakers take questions from the audience and speak about their experience with blindness.
As I’ve never dealt with visual impairment, my mind races with questions, curiosities and wonder. Five gracious and open individuals answer all of our questions, big and small, in total darkness, uninhibited and cloaked in anonymity. The discussion that results is an open, intimate and heart-felt dialogue wherein my empathy, respect and understanding of what it is to live in the dark is expanded.
Concert in the Dark
To top off the evening, Austin band, The Constellation Prize, unpacks their guitars and strums hauntingly beautiful acoustic melodies for us to appreciate without distraction. I can’t help but notice that the richness of sound is intensified in total blackness. After all I’ve experienced this evening, I can’t help but feel emotional listening to such heart-felt lyrics. Following the final song and encore, our facilitator warns us that they’re going to turn on the lights. As a dim light illuminates the dining room, I can’t help but feel disappointed that the night is over.
Experiencing community, food and live music in this completely unique way, while becoming better educated about what it’s like to live with visual impairment, was an awe-inspiring experience. To call this a pop-up dinner doesn’t do the event justice. The Blind Cafe will make you see the world in a totally different light.
Check out one of The Blind Cafe’s next pop-up dinner in Austin on Feb. 2-4, 2016.
@kristinmleigh wants to know:
What unique Austin experiences have made a profound impact on you?