Travis and I were sitting in San Francisco’s Opaque restaurant, a dining-in-the-dark concept modeled after similar eateries in Europe. The servers are blind or vision-impaired, and the patrons, who are mostly sighted, dine there for the novelty of eating without seeing.
Travis lost all his vision after being injured while serving in Iraq, and, especially at first, he wanted friends to appreciate how hard it was for him to eat. Going on a “blind date” during my West Coast visit seemed like a good way to experience the world through Travis’s eyes, so to speak. So I prepared myself to surrender my most reliable sense. What I didn’t expect was the biggest seated adventure of my life.
Opaque is on an unassuming block in the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, in the basement of another restaurant. At the top of the stairs, we checked in with the hostess, and she handed us prix-fixe menus. Travis, his guide dog, Fess, and I walked downstairs, sat on a bench and selected our appetizers, entrees and desserts.
Our server, Courtney, arrived and we made a train — hands on shoulders — to follow her into the black. She steered us around poles and door jambs and into our U-shaped booth. I asked her about the extent of her vision. “It deteriorates over time,” she told us. “I describe it as looking through a shower door — the frosted kind — and it’s pretty damn frosted at this point.” She told us to call out if we needed anything.
Travis and I felt around our booth. We decided that the back cushion might have been a retired gym mat. The white tablecloth I imagined could have been purple. Even Fess seemed disoriented: When Travis leaned over to give him a treat, it took him longer to find it, having to depend on his sniffer.
“We ready to get started?” I heard Courtney’s voice on my right. “The way it’s going to work is, when I hand you something or you hand me something, our hands will meet on the corner of the table,” she said. “So now I’m going to hand you each a glass of ice water. Go ahead and place it wherever is convenient for you.”
Then she handed us second glasses and an amuse-bouche — a cucumber slice with smoked salmon and wasabi aioli, compliments of the fully sighted chef. Then came the bread basket and the butter ramekin, which I held in my lap so I wouldn’t lose it. By the time Courtney was finished delivering and describing all these items, I felt completely lost, and my short-term memory had failed me: I had to ask her to repeat what was on the amuse-bouche plate. Half-listening, I realized, wouldn’t get me very far at Opaque.