Where beer is the New Black
The restaurant that my wife Helena took me to for my birthday on the weekend was completely dark.
Dark like a photographer’s darkroom without the little light on.
I’m talking your-hand-may-or-may-not-be-in-front-of-face-you-can’t-see-it-anyway dark.
And even though we sat there for about 90 minutes, our eyes didn’t adjust.
We were out with two of our closest and longtime friends (you would not want to be there with enemies) and had a marvelous time.
The restaurant’s called O. Noir; it’s in downtown Toronto and the food was great. The price? A dinner for four with drinks set us back $200.
Part of the deal is, some of the staff is blind, so patrons learn what it’s like to be sightless, but also, eating in the dark heightens one’s sense of taste.
You place your orders in the lobby and then a waiter literally leads you by the hand to your chairs. As we sat, our waiter—Elias—said, “there’s a napkin on a plate in front of you; there’s a fork on the right; a knife on the left and a little container of butter for your bun on the plate in front of you.”
We knew there were other people in the place; we could hear them laughing and clinking their cutlery but we have no idea how many or what the food looked like. I can’t tell you if there was paint on the walls or if the plates matched.
When Elias delivered the food, which was already cut up for us, he did it slowly and deliberately and described every action; for instance, he said “I’m standing beside you holding your plate in my right and I'm going to lean over and put it in front of you.” Or, “I have a glass of wine in my left hand I’m going to hand it to you now.”
Try O Noir. There’s one in Montreal, too. It’s as much fun as the Medieval Times. It’d be a great date.
But I’m not here as a restaurant critic. I’m a trucking magazine editor. So here come five things I learned about my job from our odd little outing.
Thing One: You can get used to anything. When we were first guided to our tables by the waiter I hesitated to place my hands on the table for fear of knocking something over. After 10 minutes or so, I had a reasonably accurate sense of where the glasses were and how much wriggle room we had.
Every two days it seems some young guy is showing me some new computer app or gizmo that I have to work into my daily work life. And at first, I think I won’t be able to handle it but after a few tries, it’s second nature.
Thing Two: Even the oldest joke is new the first time somebody hears it. At one point during our supper, I very loudly kissed the back of my hand and then slapped my wrist. It sounded to my tablemates that somebody got kissed against their will and hit back. They laughed. I first heard about somebody doing that when I was about six.
Just because something’s old hat to you doesn’t mean it is to anyone else.
Thing Three: Close calls don’t count. My tablemate knocked a beer bottle over. Fortunately, it was almost empty so nothing got too wet or too wasted. (Except us. Just kidding. Ha ha.)
Had he spilled the beer when it was full, our evening and perhaps even my wife’s pretty dress might have been ruined. But nope. We just all got a laugh out of it and that was that.
Life is one close call after another. Best not be too hard on those guys who do happen to spill the full beer. There but for pounded-back pints go all of us.
Thing Four: People LOVE sharing experiences. One of the best things about going to O Noir was that on Monday morning, when people asked me that usually ungainly question, “How was your weekend?” I whipped this cool story on them. After many decades in journalism, I am reminded once again how much fun it is to tell people stuff they don’t already know. There’s something downright biologically satisfying about sharing a scoop.
And people like you more if you ask them about their experiences. Yes, even though eating at O Noir is about learning what it’s like to be blind, it also taught me a thing or two about listening.
Thing Five and the one thing that never gets old: I’m pretty sure we live in the richest and most comfortable circumstances of any culture in the history of the world.
I’ve read a lot. I’ve been to a few parts of this planet, including Cuba, India and parts of Honduras.
This past summer my daughter Ewa worked on a Southern Ontario vegetable operation with Mexican migrant workers. In those five and a half months, Ewa probably worked harder than her entire extended family added up together. I get a bit sweaty just thinking about her and her co-workers slogging up and down those corn rows in the mud in the blistering sun. Those Mexican workers will return home with money to put their kids through school so, they hope, the next generation won’t have to sweat it out like that.
Meantime, back home, a family like ours can drop $200 in a restaurant and not fret about it.
The meal included filet mignon, very nicely spiced veal, fresh vegetables, wine, beer, fried octopus, and was brought to us by the friendly and quick-witted Ethiopian-born waiter Elias. (Of course, before it was brought by Elias, it got to where it was needed by truck, thank you very much.)
But my point isn’t that. My point is, I am fairly certain Elias did not migrate to Canada to be a waiter in a restaurant with no lights.
He came because he could see — darkness notwithstanding — that Canada is probably the hands-down best place on the planet to be.
Not perfect? Maybe. But as far as I can see, Canadians own Thanksgiving.