Dining in Someone Else’s Shoes — Toronto, Canada

You’ve heard the phrase that you can’t really understand someone until you’ve ‘walked a mile in their shoes’? Two Toronto restaurants are helping people understand disability by asking their patrons to ‘dine in someone else’s shoes’.

Those of us with all of our five senses intact can go to a restaurant and enjoy the multiplicity of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures for ourselves. But what about someone who is blind? What is their dining experience like? Is it different? Could it even be better in some ways? If you could trick your brain into thinking you were blind, would your senses of taste and smell be enhanced, thus improving your dining experience?

Just so, say the owners of O.Noir. This unique restaurant — with a sister location in Montreal — proposes to diners to have their dinner in total darkness, experiencing their meal as a blind person would, all the while be served by visually impaired staff.

  • How do you order?

You do it before you go in. You peruse the menu, make your choices and then your server meets you at the entrance and takes you to your table.

  • How can the servers see anything?

They don’t. All are visually impaired, so the lack of light has no impact on their ability to perform their duties.

  • What’s the atmosphere like?

It’s pitch black. So there is no visual atmosphere whatsoever. You’re hyper aware of your dining companions, sounds around you, smells. This creates an acute awareness of your other senses, a new experience for most people.

  • How is the food?

It’s delicious, gourmet quality dining, which isn’t something that is a given with themed restaurants. Many times, the focus of a ‘novelty’ restaurant is placed too heavily on the theme and not at all on the food.lunchtogether

  • Where did the idea for this restaurant experience come from?

A blind pastor in Zurich, Jürg Spielmann, used to blindfold his dinner guests so that they could have a shared dining experience in every way. In 1999, Spielmann opened a similar establishment in Zurich (called Blindekuh or “Blind Cow”), with the goal of teaching sighted people about the world visually impaired people live in. The idea for O.Noir came from these fascinating beginnings.

If dining in the dark isn’t quite your speed, perhaps dining in silence might be an interesting experience instead. Not total silence, of course, but Signs Restaurant is all about experiencing life as a hearing impaired person. No, they don’t provide ear plugs with every meal, but the staff themselves are hearing impaired so if you want to eat at their establishment, you’ll have to order using American Sign Language!

Don’t worry though: you aren’t left to your own devices. The menu shows you how to order your meal. Patrons are also provided with a cheat book and wall images, in case you forget a sign. It’s a fascinating way to expose people to a new way of communicating, or if you already know ASL, a great way to brush up on your skills. For people who are themselves hearing impaired, Signs provides a restaurant where they can comfortably order and eat in a restaurant that ‘speaks their language’.

In addition to promoting the use of ASL amongst the hearing community, Signs is a solid source of career opportunities in the hospitality industry for individuals who are hearing impaired. It showcases to all who visit how a deaf person can function perfectly even in the hustle and bustle of a busy restaurant. It’s a unique concept, combined with a lovely decor and outstanding food, from which you’ll emerge all the richer for the experience.

  • How do you order?

Using the tips on the menu and in the ‘cheat book’ provided, you order your meal using ASL – American Sign Language. Many patrons are not familiar with ASL the first time they dine at Signs, and the staff are there to guide you through.

  • Are all the staff deaf?

Yes! The wait staff, bartenders, kitchen staff and hosting staff are all deaf.

  • How is the food?

With options for vegan and gluten free dining, a little spice or not and even something for the kids, the whole family can enjoy this experience.

  • Where did the idea for this restaurant experience come from?

The owner, Anjan Manikumar, wanted to create a place where deaf people could work in what is typically a speech-focused area of the hospitality industry. Having had repeat deaf customers in a previous restaurant management role, Manikumar learned ASL to help his customers. They were overjoyed by the effort made and Manikumar realized there was an opportunity. He took it.

The sensory dining experience is a new frontier for restaurants, opting away from kitsch and fluff, and bringing diners something that they will talk about for days, if not weeks later. Something they can experience again and again, each time with the knowledge that they won’t be disappointed.

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