A restaurant in Germany is booking up months in advance by offering diners the ultimate blind date - the unique experience of eating in complete darkness. With visually impaired waiters serving food prepared by sighted chefs, owner and restaurant manager Axl Rudolph is finding his blacked-out Unsicht-Bar theme restaurant a hit with the people of Cologne.
Diners who enter the Unsicht-Bar restaurant (unsichtbar is the German word for invisible) are plunged into total blackness - pupils become so dilated that even the glow of a cigarette creates too much light, so smoking is prohibited. Denied the preconceptions that come with sight, diners are left with the challenge of experiencing their meal with the remaining senses of taste, smell, touch and hearing.
"I wanted to create a theme restaurant where the theme is yourself," Rudolph says. "You experience yourself in a new way, and people find it very exciting. Young people looking for a thrill come here in the same way they might go bungy jumping."
The restaurant, which opened in June 2001, has seating for 50 people, who are met in a half-lit chamber before being led to their seats by one of the three visually impaired waiters. The four four-course set menus cost €25 (£16) and are themed to one of four taste realms - vegetarian, lamb, poultry or fish. Average spend is €45 (£29) with wine. Rudolph describes the food as "not gourmet" but straightforward German food, deliberately kept simple to give the disorientated diners something they recognise.
"Diners choose one realm so they learn the whole taste world of that particular type of food," Rudolph says. "The food is fresh food, cooked simply. When they eat a potato they are experiencing simply a great potato taste. Shape is as important as taste, so we always make sure there is a big thing and a small thing on the plate."
Head chef Dieter Voigt and his brigade of three sighted assistants work with the lights on, serving about 200 covers a week. The restaurant is open from 6pm until midnight from Tuesday to Saturday and is booked up eight weeks in advance.
The kitchen communicates with the waiters through intercoms, and the passage of the food from light to dark involves passing it through a cinema-style double door. Waiters guide themselves to the correct tables with the assistance of Braille-like signs on the floor and they know when a course has finished by the absence of the clatter of cutlery on china.
Rudolph has not run a restaurant before and is by profession a sound consultant who has managed background music and sound ambience for banks and public spaces. He developed the restaurant concept from an installation he set up at an art exhibition in Zurich in 1998.
"The Zurich Dialogue in the Dark installation was a sound and touch experience in total darkness to give people some idea what it must be like to be visually impaired," Rudolph says. "Part of the installation was a snack bar that proved so popular that people wanted to keep the idea going."
Following the exhibition a local church foundation, with funding from the Swiss Blind Foundation, set up the Blinde Kuh (Blind Cow) restaurant in Zurich as a way to give employment to visually impaired people as waiters while offering sighted people an opportunity to learn about living without sight (see panel).
While the Blinde Kuh is run on a philanthropic basis and keeps its prices low to make it accessible to students and people on low incomes, Rudolph is running Unsicht-Bar as a business. Rudolph shrugs off any suggestions that he is exploiting blindness for profit and points out that Unsicht-Bar has the support of the German national organisation for the blind, which appreciates the operation's employment of visually impaired people.
"I am not running this as a charity," says Rudolph. "The national organisation for the blind have no problem that I am making a profit out of visually impaired people. They like it because it gives those people jobs and they appreciate it must make money for them to get jobs."
Rudolph, who owns the restaurant outright, is making a profit with his Cologne offering and is on target to cover his initial investment within two years of opening. He is now planning to open a 180-seat restaurant in Berlin later this year, which will more than triple his capacity at only double the cost of his Cologne operation. He is also looking at franchising his idea in other cities.
The concept has been a hit with the people of Cologne, who enjoy both the uniquely challenging experience and the anonymity of being unseen. Customers report that in the Unsicht-Bar nobody is judged because of the way they look, but rather by what they say; and the relaxed atmosphere encourages people to talk to people they do not know.
"Most of our customers are under 40, and we allow children over the age of eight. Our customers include lots of artists interested in the unique experience and young people looking for a thrill," says Rudolph. "Some people who have met at the Unsicht-Bar arrange to meet again by e-mail. They conduct relationships where they leave at different times and never see each other. Other people come out and say, ‘I didn't think you would look like that.'"
Dining at the Blinde Kuh
Having chosen from the menu before going into the darkness, I was met by my visually impaired waitress, Christine. She told me she enjoys working at the Blinde Kuh because it is a place where unsighted people are in control and sighted people are reliant on their help.
I was asked to put my hands on Christine's shoulders and I followed her through a dark curtain and into a half-lit chamber where diners' eyes are accustomed to the absence of light. Passing a second curtain, I was led into total blackness and guided to my seat.
With my hands I worked out the extent of my table and found my cutlery while listening in to conversations around me. I was soon chatting to a group of Zurich students who come for lunch every month because they enjoy the relaxation of the sensory deprivation.
Coming to terms with how to deal with my pan-fried trout with mashed potato and spinach was like eating for the first time. The food didn't taste any different - it was more of a tactile experience than a gastronomic one.
I prodded my fork around the plate. To my sense of touch the mashed potato seemed enormous, the fish felt like a floppy piece of rubber and the boiled spinach had the consistency of a swamp. The potato was easy enough to eat, but I was soon using my fingers for the fish. Unable to see the steam coming off the spinach, I was taken totally unawares by how hot it was.
Muhlebachstrasse 148, Zurich, Switzerland
Tel: 00 41 1 421 5050
Covers: 700 per week
Average spend: €40 (£25.50) for three courses with wine
Founder: Reverend Jorge Spielmann
Restaurant manager: Adrian Schaffner
Turnover: The Blinde Kuh is not making a profit because of its policy of keeping prices low to keep it accessible to young people, students and those on low incomes. It is kept afloat by funding from Swiss charities for the blind
Im Stavenhof 5-7, 50668 Cologne, Germany
Tel: 00 49 0221 200 5910
Owner and restaurant manager: Axl Rudolph
Covers: 200 per week
Average spend: €45 (£29) with wine