Talk about a blind date: Take someone to the new Blackout restaurant and you’ll both be in the dark in more ways than one.
The subtext of Blackout, which opened recently on Valley View Boulevard a block north of Flamingo Road, is Dining in the Dark, and that’s its mission in the literal sense. Customers are greeted upon entry and asked to sign a waiver that warns that they’ll be asked to leave if they sneak in a light-emitting device, such as a phone (those get stashed in lockers) or leap up from their table and race off into the dark. They’re asked about any food allergies they may have, although food preferences don’t carry any weight. And once a server with night-vision goggles guides them, conga-line-style, through the coal-black door and into the dark abyss, they don’t know anything except that they’ll be eating and drinking during the next few hours.
Eating and drinking what? Well, that’s part of the whole mysterious experience.
“It’s different,” said Steve Onorato, who has twice dined at the 70-seat restaurant. “It’s intriguing — just thinking about what you’re going to be served. When you’re in the dark, your senses bring out the foods it might be.”
Rachel Levi, who co-owns Blackout with her husband, Avi, said that for most people, the sense of sight is being taken away for the first time in their lives.
“You rely on other senses to help you through the experience,” she said.
Maybe, maybe not. Christine Bergman, professor of food science and nutrition in the Food & Beverage and Event Management Department at UNLV, said the idea that the other senses take over when one is taken away is a hypothesis.
“I understand the hypothesis, but science would say it’s reversed,” she said.
When people were blindfolded, or food was colored all the same, the ability to discriminate between foods was reduced, according to studies, Bergman said. And while people who were born blind or who lost their sight at an early age do have an enhanced ability to differentiate between foods by smell, that goes away when the food is in their mouth.
At Blackout, particular attention is paid to flavors and textures, to provide a wide variety of both, Rachel Levi said.
Some reports have a quarter of Americans identifying themselves as foodies, Bergman says, which is why she understands the appeal of the dining in the dark experience.
“Once you think you know all about food, what’s left?” she asked. “We start doing things that are a little more challenging, more fun.”
Rachel Levi said the concept has been found mostly in Europe so far but that it seems a natural for Southern Nevada.
“What better place than Las Vegas?” she said. “It’s a new concept, it’s a fun concept. It’s a place where we have 40 million people a year come to visit.”
So far, she said, their customers have ranged across the spectrum (reservations are accepted, as are walk-ins).
“It’s really anybody,” she said. “Locals, tourists, date night, blind dates.”
“We’ve even had customers come in by themselves,” Avi Levi said.
And for the most part, it’s a social experience.
“You become yourself,” Rachel Levi said. “You’re more focused on the people you’re with.”
She said families (kids 13 and older are admitted) find they communicate more without their electronics and their sense of sight.
There is, of course, the potential for pitfalls. Ken Lau, who also has dined there twice, said he liked an appetizer so much he was disappointed when he realized he’d eaten the last piece.
“I was kind of sad,” he said. In consolation, he scraped the sauce from the plate and licked his fingers. Laughing about it, he commented to a woman at his table, who confessed she was doing the same thing.
Servers, who have fewer tables than they might at a regular restaurant, are an integral part of the Blackout equation, and for more than the usual reasons.
“Servers are their eyes in the dark,” Rachel Levi said. “It’s really about personality. They have to make sure our customers are going to feel safe and comfortable in the dark.”
One of them is Willie McClure, who said he has 10 years of serving experience. Though he was a little skeptical of the concept at first, he said it’s a nice break from the usual monotony of serving jobs.
“You can do it in your sleep,” he said. “You think you could do it in the dark. My job is to actually create an experience in the dark to make people feel comfortable.”
Onorato and Lau kept reverting to the word “fun” to describe the experience.
“I think people enjoy having a new concept,” Rachel Levi said.
Lau said one of the most fun parts for him was looking at the menu in the lobby to see what they’d eaten and if they’d guessed right.
The menu will change quarterly and will be seasonal, Levi said. She and her husband, who have a private farm-animal sanctuary in northwest Las Vegas, are ethical vegans, but she said the menu sometimes may be vegan and sometimes may contain meat. Or, then again, may not.
“It’s something that’s definitely going to be memorable for a lot of people,” she said.
Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.