Dining in the Dark Pops Up at Ace Hotel


The Ace Hotel in MidTown West

The Ace Hotel in MidTown West hosted a 3-day pop-up Dining in the Dark event. Photo: Alexa van Sickle

April Bloomfield, chef and co-owner of the Breslin, is no stranger to cooking for demanding New Yorkers, but she recently faced the unusual task of designing a meal that her diners would never see: the Ace Hotel hosted a 3-day “Dining in the Dark” event, where guests ate their dinners in total darkness.

The pop-up was managed by Opaque, an event company that focuses exclusively on dark-dining events and runs permanent locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Opaque general manager Christopher Lynch said, “We sought out the Ace Hotel and the Breslin for our event location. When approached, April and chef de cuisine Peter Cho fell in love with the idea and jumped on board. We have been waiting for the right time and opportunity to launch in New York City. We just felt that now is the time.” The pop-up, which ran for a weekend in late September, will be followed by a permanent location at Andrew’s Café at 246 West 38th Street this month, run by the French restaurant group behind the “Dans le noir” franchise in Europe.

“Dans le noir” or “in the dark” started in Switzerland in 1998, and there are permanent restaurants in Barcelona, Paris, London and Moscow, all based on the idea is that relying on other senses will enhance the dining experience. Dans le noir uses staff who are blind or have severe visual impairments, but there have been dark-dining events in New York, unrelated to this franchise, that blindfold guests instead of using blind waiters.

The Ace Hotel dinners were held in a 50-seat event room on the hotel’s lower level. “The chefs designed the menu to cater towards texture and aromas,” said Lynch, but it was more complicated than a special menu: “From permits, safety measures, logistics, and training, there are a lot more non-traditional event planning procedures that takes place. Blacking out the room can be a feat sometimes, especially if there are 20-foot windows,” said Lynch.

On opening night the guests, who paid  $149 for the experience, were mainly professionals in their twenties and thirties. Scott Rayow, 39, owns his own media production company and his wife Deb Rayow, 35, who works in education, waited in the bar area for their server to come and lead them into the dining room next door. They said they purposefully avoided any information about the event so they could be surprised: “We have no idea what we’re doing,” said Scott. “We wanted to try something unusual.”

Diners walked into the darkness through an elaborate maze of curtains designed to keep out any light. Server Courtney Mazzola, 29, who was born legally blind and is a massage therapist in San Francisco, also works at the Opaque events there. “We had to learn the layout of the room quickly. Sometimes I count steps in my head but mainly, I have a sense of how far I need to go,” she said. One staffer observes for safety’s sake: “There is one man in night-vision goggles who keeps an eye on everything and picks up stray napkins and other things.” Spills and breakages are rare.

Diners navigated their food with their fingers, and a small squeal and the sound of liquid trickling off the table onto the floor signaled a spill. Heirloom tomatoes, sweetened by their dressing, seemed for a moment like apples. Texture is key: Cucumber is cucumber not because of its flavor but because of its watery, crunchy texture. Sour cream turns out to be crème fraiche. The main course was meat on the bone—possibly pork with some kind of spicy marinade involving cayenne or paprika. On their way out, diners got copies of the menu, and some were surprised to learn that the meat course was in fact smoked lamb with mint.

Benjamin Cannon, the diner who spilled his water, said, “It was surreal. I was more concerned with figuring out how to eat the food than with what it was. But it was fun, almost primal.” Another guest, 35-year-old lawyer Zak Shusterman, said: “I wondered what it would be like to be exposed to darkness for that length of time. I was surprised to feel my eyes trying to work.”

While Opaque markets the event as a dining experience, the company has ties to charities: “We work with an organization called Foundation Fighting Blindness, producing the Dining in the Dark for fundraisers and to raise awareness. This Foundation is one of the leading organizations driving research that will provide prevention, treatments, and cures for retinitis pigmentose,” said Lynch.