Dining in the dark at Opaque leaves something to be desired

| April 04, 2013
This is how a meal looks at Opaque, a Civic Center-area eatery where diners eat in a pitch-black room.
  • This is how a meal looks at Opaque, a Civic Center-area eatery where diners eat in a pitch-black room.

Last week, I was publicly accused of hunting out The City’s weirdest places to eat. This gave me pause.

I never thought of myself as an odd-hunter, on a quest to uncover bizarre arcana for its own sake. I just went to places that were less noticed, where I wouldn’t have to scrum with 30 other food writers.

But whatever my intent, the facts speak for themselves. In 12 short months, I reviewed a Japanese
maid cafe, a pornographic brunch spot, a museum cafe, a fish trailer, Nespresso, a Russian spa, a Champagne bar, “bro meals” and Tu Lan.  

And now, for my last review, I visited what is arguably San Francisco’s most gimmicky restaurant. It’s Opaque, where you eat in the pitch-black dark. Groan.

I suspected it would be the worst. First off, the conceit sounds weak: removing visual cues heightens your sense of taste. And Opaque’s menu, which seemed like food you might get on a Caribbean cruise in 1993, didn’t build confidence.

But I had to know! Was there something to the claims of sensory enhancement? Would I freak out? Would I have some fun?

Opaque is squirreled away underneath Indigo, a restaurant I’ve heard nothing about. They share a kitchen, chef and most of a menu.

Prior to entering the dining area, the hostess tells you to choose your meal in an awkward, not-dark stairwell. Once inside, making decisions would distract from the immersive experience.

The interior is completely, 100 percent, no-kidding, I-swear-I’m-not-scared black. Walking to your table, you put your hands on your server’s shoulders, then your dining companions hold on to you. It’s an awkward, shuffling conga line.

Our cheery server told us that at other, inferior “dark dining” restaurants, you’re just blindfolded. Opaque considers this cheating.

Once seated, we heard indistinct chatter from somewhere afar. I suspected we were actually alone in the restaurant, and the voices were prerecorded.

This was a paranoid, abnormal suspicion to have, but cut me some slack — you quickly start to lose your grip in the total dark. Have you seen any prison movies about solitary confinement?

My friend Kelly spent the entire meal threatening to leave.

“I’m enjoying your company, I truly am, but I am miserable.”

Cue nervous laughter.

I could rate the food like a normal review, but that’s rather beside the point. Nothing was lousy, nor was it spectacular. But my attentions were mostly occupied figuring out what I was eating and how to shuttle it into my mouth.

I ordered the “surprise me” menu, allowing me no advance warning for what I’d be served. This procured me a mixed greens and citrus salad, pork tenderloin with polenta cakes and Swiss chard, and warm banana bread with ice cream for dessert.

I made some embarrassing miscalculations.  

“Is this sauteed spinach?”

“It’s Swiss chard.”

“Toasted sunflower seeds?” (on the salad)

“Slivered almonds.”

“I love the maple ice cream!”

“That’s dulce de leche.”

One could argue that anybody might make these mistakes, but I’m not so sure. The Opaque experience was humbling to my palate. (But, hey, it’s not like I’ll get my critic card revoked.)

Overall, logistics dominated the experience.

If you’re dining with several people, you have to create a food-passing chain. The table is a minefield of messy disasters (yes, my hand went into the butter).

Some diners will maintain decorum, neatly cutting their chicken breast into polite, bite-sized portions. Others get feral, dispensing with silverware and tearing into their tenderloin like a jackal.

I, of course, maintained all propriety in the dark, and CERTAINLY didn’t eat salad with my hands. Do I look like an animal?

All told, you pay a high price for the loss of sight at Opaque. The three-course prix fixe runs $99 on weekends, pretty steep considering the midgrade food.  

But it certainly makes a good yarn to tell your friends later. Reactions typically range from shock that Opaque exists, to shock anyone would eat there.

What can I say? I paid a hundred bucks for the fine-dining equivalent of sticking my hand into a bag of wet spaghetti or peeled grapes.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s to not equate the novel with the truly compelling. In a city like San Francisco, where there’s no shortage of zany dining oddities, it pays to stay choosy.

And with that ... fade to black.

Opaque

  • Location: 689 McAllister St. (at Gough Street), S.F.
  • Contact: (800) 710-1270, sf.darkdining.com
  • Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Wednesdays-Saturdays
  • Price range: $80 to $99
  • Credit cards: All major
  • Reservations: Accepted

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