The dark is good for all kinds of things, like love, trysts or even murder. Now, however, another nocturnal activity can be added to the list: fine dining. In Cologne's trendy Unsicht-Bar (in German, an untranslatable pun on the words invisible and bar), light is absolutely verboten, and patrons gather to wine and dine in utter darkness.
With the complete loss of vision and the resulting heightening of the other four senses an evening at Germany's first-ever dark restaurant is an extraordinary culinary adventure. "You smell better, you are more receptive to differences in texture, consistency and temperature," says Unsicht-Bar manager and founder Axel Rudolph, 46, who opened the eatery in May 2001. "It's a holistic experience." As taste buds work overtime to discover fresh nuances in well-known flavors, even simple, everyday foods like potatoes or plain yogurt morph into nouvelle cuisine.
Before descending into the Stygian darkness of the dining room proper, where flashlights and even luminous watches and mobile phones are prohibited, customers choose their fare in the restaurant's brightly lit, cheerfully decorated entrance hall. To add to the spirit of mystery, individual dishes are not clearly identified as, say, goat cheese on a tomato beignet. Instead, enigmatic descriptions such as "a flying visit to an Alpine cheese factory" make the diners even more curious about what's soon to hit their palettes. It's all very reminiscent of the exotic dinner parties planned by the Futurists, the early 20th century avant-garde group, who concocted multi-sensory meals such as the "tactile dinner party" during which guests might feast in the dark on Polyrhythmic Salad (undressed lettuce leaves, dates and grapes) and Magic Food (small bowls filled with balls of caramel-coated items such as candied fruits, bits of raw meat, mashed banana, chocolate or pepper).
The Unsicht-Bar's waiters play a particularly important role all of them are either visually handicapped or completely blind, and they not only serve the meals but also act as guides to the stumbling diners. Once they have shepherded the clientele through a "light lock" to their table in the pitch black dining room, the specially trained staff offer reassurance to the nervous some guests are so uncomfortable in the dark that they ask to leave at once and instruction on how to best to tackle the food and drink. "It's a very interesting and satisfying job," says Majsar Saliov, 39, who has been employed in the Cologne restaurant for three months. "It's really more like a hobby than work."
Cooking for the temporarily sightless is also a challenge. "We try to preserve the original flavor of the ingredients we use," explains Unsicht-Bar chef Dieter Voigt, 49. "We would never smother meat or vegetables in complicated sauces or use convenience products that mix flavors." The only spices the cook uses he, it is important to note, works in a well-lit kitchen are salt, pepper, garlic, onions and herbs.
Since dining in the dark is not without its pitfalls knives and forks tend to miss their invisible targets certain dishes and foods are absolutely taboo. Peas, prawns and spaghetti, for instance, would just be too hard to eat and are therefore absent from the menu. Finger-food, however, and soup served in double-handled mugs are great favorites with the clients and the chef alike. Whenever possible, the food is precisely arranged so that customers can locate it using directions such as "celery at 3 o'clock" or "feta cheese at 9 o'clock."
Because the dark restaurant has been doing a roaring trade since it opened, others are now copying Rudolph's idea. In September, the local Association of the Blind and Visually Handicapped will open an Unsicht-Bar in Berlin. This restaurant will also have a "dark stage" on which it will host audio book premieres, readings and concerts. It will even present blind- date events that truly merit the name.
But Cologne's Unsicht-Bar does more than just fire the imagination and stimulate the senses. After one or two hours in complete darkness, patrons come to appreciate the skills of the blind waiters, who move around the room with perfect ease. A trip to Unsicht-Bar thus sheds light on a strange sensual world in which the sighted people are the ones who are blind.