PARIS – People go primarily for fun, or for the experience.  They're curious, sometimes a bit tense. In couples, groups, or families, they enter the room, single file. Like the broken faces of the Great War, each one walks carefully with a hand on the shoulder of the person ahead of them. After crossing several awkward barriers of heavy black curtains, they sit down to dine “in the dark,” in the eponymous restaurant Dans le Noir ? located in the heart of Les Halles in central Paris.

The darkness is complete, total, impenetrable. Without even the glimmer of a light from a cell phone to guide them – those are left at the entrance – 18 diners sit elbow-to-elbow, blind for the duration of their meal. 

For two hours, they test their senses. For one diner, the smell of his neighbor's beer is overwhelming. Others mistake duck for beef. Strangers must introduce themselves in the dark, and everyone speaks louder than they normally would. Diners use their fingers to fiddle with their food, much to the amusement of those watching over the restaurant with infrared cameras. And conversations open up as guests lose their inhibitions - “my god! I would have never said that in the light.”

Then there are Yamen and Rada, the restaurants blind servers, guides in the dark. They are considerate, caring, and forgiving of the diners' clumsiness. On subway platforms, guests would rush to help them. Here, they call for their help, shouting their names across the crowded room. “The roles have been reversed here – we are the ones with disabilities,” says one guest, surprised to suddenly find herself so helpless.

This strange restaurant, Dans le Noir ?, has been quite successful, and has opened locations in London, Barcelona, and this month in New York's Times Square. It's planning to expand to St. Petersburg and Kiev.

Not just an extreme foodie experience

And this is not, like some chic dark dining locales that have opened in recent years, just about getting guests to appreciate the flavors of the food more. The restaurant belongs to Ethik Investment, created by Edouard de Broglie, a 49-year-old former sailing champion who earned his fortune in the tech industry. Half of his employees are disabled.

"I wanted to show that the company can benefit from the qualities of the disabled. For example, the blind have excellent memories and adaptation skills,” he says. 

Broglie believes that these strengths are especially suited to the wellness industry. Not far from the restaurant, the group's spa offers ultra-relaxing massages in total darkness, led by a team of seven blind beauticians. All have had to face enormous difficulties in the job market. “Nobody ever wanted to hire me, despite my psychology degree,” says Christine, a mother of two.   

The director, Didier Roche, 40, is an entrepreneur who himself is blind. He has also found a school willing to prepare his future employees for a career in aesthetics – the Thalgo International Beauty Salon. “We're proving that the disabled have their place in ordinary businesses, and not just in sheltered environments,” he says.

For Edouard de Broglie, the restaurants and spa serve as a showcase for the group. Ethik Investment also advises companies on how to integrate disabled employees in the workplace. It offers all kinds of programs, including experiments in total darkness with employees, “silent cafeterias” that require only non-verbal communication, and even ping-pong tournaments between employees who can’t walk and other young professionals -- who find themselves having to cope with being beaten by someone in a wheelchair.

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Photo - dans le noir ?