When I first saw a story that Beijing was opening up its first "dark" restaurant, I thought it was interesting that this phenomenon had made its way to Beijing, having originated in Europe and moving over to the United States. Here you can find a China Daily article on this restaurant. For those that are unaware of this new "trend" in restaurants is that it was started in Switzerland by an organization for the blind. The majority of them (if not all of them) are staffed by blind or partially sighted waiters, which, if you're going to have people navigating a space in darkness, makes perfect sense. The dining experience gives sighted people a taste (pardon, the pun) of what being blind is like (though I personally don't think these briefest of brief simulations do much to enlighten the sighted, again, bad pun), forces them to experience a meal through their other senses and focus on the taste of the food more than anything, and gives them the chance to interact with friends and strangers at their table in a new way. It also, of course, gives the diners the chance to interact with blind people, which is probably not something they do on a daily basis.
Then the Beijing version opened up just last month and instead of having blind waiters it had:
Yep, instead of having blind waiters, the restaurant spent who-knows-how-much on night vision goggles for all the servers. In a country where the blind, as well as other disabled people, face unbelievable discrimination in their daily life, education, and jobs, this would be the perfect opportunity to give the blind a chance, especially considering there are plans to open 9 more of these restaurants in China. Why didn't the CDPF get in on this? It's a win-win situation, no? The blind, who are otherwise given the choice between jobs as masseurs or piano tuners, if they can find work at all, could be employed. The restaurant would save money on those silly night vision goggles. The diners would have the chance to interact with blind people and hopefully come away with a better understanding of blind people.
I'm not sure about the US versions of the restaurant, but I know the London, Paris, and Switzerland version are all closely connected to local organizations for the blind and some of the money goes to the organization. In China, there is no connection between the restaurant and any disabled charities. However, to the restaurants advantage, I will say that they stated that they are considering hiring blind people to work at the restaurant, though they are concerned about the time it will take to train them. What? Let them walk through the restaurants a few times, carry a tray and plates, and there you go, how hard can this be?
Beyond that, for those I know who've experienced these restaurants in Paris and London, they talk about how the loss of inhibition is one of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of going to one of these restaurants. In Beijing, you can't really have that, because the waiters are wearing their night vision goggles. This is from an earlier China Daily article on the restaurant (sorry, can't find the link), "Eating this dish requires each sightless couple to place a deep-fried apple ring on a deep-fried apple stick before feeding the rings to each other, much to the amusement of the servers who watch the spectacle using night-vision goggles." Kind of hard to get into the experience when you know the waiters are watching and laughing at you the whole time, that whole idea seems kind of creepy to me, sort of a peep show.
Once again its sad that an opportunity to connect blind and sighted people was passed up. It's just a tiny drop in the bucket in a country and society where the disabled are ignored to the point of becoming invisible. Out of curiosity, has anyone out there eaten at the Beijing restaurant? How was the experience?
UPDATE: 黑眼睛 posted an interesting discussion on these restaurants that came from a QQ Group called "盲友之家" which can be found here(sorry, its inChinese only though I may translate some of the relevant parts). Also, hereis Shanghaiist on the restaurant, including some news footage.