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Celebrate Valentine's Day ... in the Dark

It's Valentine's Day. How about celebrating it in the dark? No, not that kind of celebrating...

Dark dining, which literally consists of eating a meal you can't see, makes its Valentine’s Day debut this Tuesday at downtown New York City's CamaJe Bistro.

“Our special plan is to show diners romantic new ways of communicating and connecting with their lovers using senses most of us are barely aware of," said CamaJe's dark dining director Dana Salisbury.

At the dinner table, no less? In fact, it's the inclusion of senses other than simply taste that sets New York City’s program apart. Dark dining at CamaJe involves wearing a blindfold and listening to a variety of performances — and eating, of course.

Dining in the dark itself is not a new concept. It has been available in Europe for the last decade, where the servers also happen to be blind. One of the most popular European restaurants that does this is the Blind Cow in Zurich, Switzerland.

In America, the phenomenon came to Los Angeles in July 2005 at an event called Opaque, which takes place at venues such as hotels on an almost weekly basis. At Opaque, most of the servers are also blind or visually impaired, and dinner takes place in total darkness. (Opaque won’t be holding an event on Valentine’s Day, because dark dining is limited to Saturday engagements.)

While Salisbury has never dined at Opaque, she did visit some other European restaurants that offer dark dining — and was disappointed.

“They weren’t much fun; the meals were dull and the ambiance nonexistent,” she said. “They simply turned off the lights and one ate in the dark.”

Salisbury says she was not even aware of Europe's dark dining restaurants when she conceived of her idea. It came to her one morning when she was intoxicated by eating an orange with her eyes closed.

“I was nearly sated by a single slice,” she said. “The world seemed bigger and more intimate at the same time.”

A self-described “multi-disciplinary artist,” Salisbury decided that most people are unaware of how sharp their senses can be.

“I wondered how to offer this intensely pleasurable expanded vision to others, and came up with dark dining,” she said. “Because we all love to eat, and it is our first conscious sensory delight.”

Thinking CamaJe Bistro's small, intimate nature would do well for the dark dining experience, Salisbury approached the restaurant's owner and head chef, Abbie Hitchcock. The idea to add auditory and other sensory components to dark dining events appealed to her.

"[It's] a great opportunity to do something different," Hitchcock said. "To offer our regulars as well as new customers a new and exciting experience."

So far New Yorkers have been very receptive to dark dining at CamaJe since its inception in September 2005. All 2005 dates were sold out well in advance, and the Valentine’s Day event was selling quickly, even at $250 a couple.

However, diners are typically apprehensive at first, Salisbury said. They are afraid of looking goofy or of the difficulty of eating without seeing, but they needn’t worry.

“We all know where our mouths are and have held utensils in our hands without thinking for years,” she said.

Indeed, it takes surprisingly little time to get accustomed to eating without the use of sight. At first, I picked up my utensils slowly, making sure I was grabbing the correct utensil at the correct end. I moved carefully for the water and the bread.

It took some nerve to finally try to butter the bread, but soothed by the pleasant aroma of the mystery meal that was presumably in front of me, I was sitting back, relaxed.

According to Salisbury, this is a typical experience for most diners. In addition to the heightened sense of smell, diners experience an array of performance and experimental art ranging from tap dancers to body percussionists to theatrical performances with assistance from the taped sounds of a thunderstorm.

Salisbury herself is having a ball running the project.

"These events are a gas," she said. "They are like throwing a great party without having to shop or wash up afterward."

The diner, however, might have to. Dark dining can be a bit messy, as I learned when I saw the bread crumbs and stains all over my table. My clothes, though, were clean, because I tucked my napkin into my collar. Salisbury was surprised; only a handful of patrons have done that. Most, she said, are probably too embarrassed.

But there will really be a lot of cleaning up to do should this experiment be tried at home — an otherwise great stay-at-home Valentine's Day idea (and a lot less expensive).

Either way, peeking at the food is ill-advised. Salisbury said one couple agreed to take off their blindfolds simultaneously, but a waiter overheard and when they counted down, she was there to gently stop them. “They laughed,” she said.

Salisbury does, however, give one warning.

“If you are genuinely afraid of darkness, it just isn’t fun,” she said. “Some people are traumatized by the dark. These events are not for them.”