It’s so dark. So very dark. We can’t see our hands, we can’t see the table. We can’t see the size of the room or how many other people are sharing this darkness with us. We can’t see the exit.
Wind back an hour and we’re sitting in blazing sunshine, outside The Green pub on the corner of Farringdon Lane and Clerkenwell. We’re booked for dinner at Dans Le Noir? and excited about it. Weirdly so, considering how little we know what to be excited about.
After a pint’s-worth of trying to guess what the evening has in store for us, we come to this consensus. It’ll be strange, compellingly strange, and we’re prepared for that.
We prove to be right about the first part, and wildly wrong about the second.
Here’s how it works. You book, and arrive in the low lighting of the pre-noir bar. You choose from one of three menus, no more than a name – Chef’s Surprise, Meat Lovers and Vegetarian – though you can tell the barstaff any allergies or hatreds. You leave your coats, phones and all worldly possessions other than your clothes in a locker in the bar, and go find your waiter.
We trail behind Fabio, my hand on his shoulder, Joseph’s hand on mine, through the blackout doors of the main restaurant. This is where the Dans Le Noir? experience really starts, as we push through a series of heavy curtains and they fall back into place behind us. And where you realise that the rogue question mark in the name is a serious red herring. There is no ? about this Noir. The noir is total. The noir is unquestionable.
Like all of the waiters in the main restaurant, Fabio is blind. He manages the cramped choreography of sliding us into our seats with enough nonchalance to make up for our baby-deer-learning-to-walk awkwardness.
There’s Forties-ish background music sounding faintly crackly, like it’s coming from a gramophone. We brush the table with our hands, clinking against glassware and cutlery, trying to learn the geography of our space.
My eyes keep trying to adjust, expecting shapes to bloom out of the darkness the way they do when you go to bed at night, or walk into the cinema. That doesn’t happen, not even a little bit.
There’s a couple to my left, much closer than you’d be in an ordinary restaurant, but for some reason the closeness of strangers feels more comforting than the empty, featureless space to my right. Fabio could be at my shoulder, or he could be a world away.
We start with burgers – definitely a game meat, we can’t agree on what and find out later it was venison – and a sweet, coleslaw-like heap.
The food, to be honest, is the least exciting part of the dinner. Not that it’s bad: the burgers are excellent, the main course a decent but bewildering mix of Wagyu beef – somehow convincing both of us it’s lamb, till the post-dinner big menu reveal – turkey in a sticky, sweet sauce, potatoes that taste like gratin but with the consistency of stew. All of it nice, none of it really competing for your attention with the towering unfamiliarity of where you’re eating it, and how.
Most of it I eat with my hands. Not the potatoes, those I eat with the fork in a series of actual wild stabs in the actual dark. Everybody survives.
Something slippery and cold that you need a spoon for arrives for dessert, and gets pushed aside in favour of the wine – chosen for us as part of the three-course dinner – and more hammering out the really important Qs that the FAQs on the restaurant’s site don’t cover.
– Who should you go with?
It’s not for everybody. I know a couple who walked out of dinner here halfway through, disappointed by the lack of special-occasion feel. Joseph says it’s not for his mother. Mine would find it claustrophobic. We both agree it’s not for a first date, which I think is what’s playing out next to us in a polite, slightly panicked hour of small talk.
We refine the rules down to: people you trust. A date if you’ve already spent hours talking to them under cover of darkness. Family and friends if you’d sprawl comatose on the sofa with them after Christmas lunch or a night out. Those are the minimum qualifications.
– How much food do you have on yourself when you leave?
We have no food on us. None. Nobody could be more shocked than I am. I credit my success to not using cutlery.
We ask Bart Kosinski, the General Manager, how many people usually come back into the bar with substantial staining. He says ‘about half’, which should be reassuring. You might cover yourself in coleslaw and pannacotta, but you’ll be in good company.
– Do people take advantage of the darkness to mess with social boundaries?
The question all my friends have asked. To wit: any flashers in the house?
A divisive one, this. Joseph’s convinced sometime, somewhere in this room, people have violated all kinds of social mores and most definitely the one that says ‘keep your pants on in public’.
I don’t know. On paper I’d say, yeah, human nature, City-banker crowd, there’ll be pants off like a shot. In reality it already feels so alien, I find it hard to imagine somebody coming in here and thinking they need to ratchet the weirdness up another rung with some added steamroom vibes.
Finishing our drinks, I’m starting to get the cognitive dissonance of not wanting this to be over and, at the same time, longing for the light. Joseph says he’s spent the last few minutes in the dark making faces and flailing his arms around randomly, so with his dreams for the night all achieved there’s nothing keeping us. We call for Fabio and it’s hands on shoulders again, and pushing aside curtains again, and a whole extra sense hitting you with a wash of technicolour as you step through the doors.
This has been, if it’s not obvious, a brilliant evening. Disconcerting but brilliant. We surface out of darkness by degrees, into the low lighting of the bar, which feels powerfully bright now. And eventually out onto the street, where with the almost-full moon and the warmth from pub windows, even the nighttime feels radiant.
The Degustation Package is £72 per person for a three course meal – choose from one of three surprise menus – with two glasses of wine, a cocktail and tea or coffee.
Dans Le Noir, 31, Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0DU. 0207 2531100. Website.