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Restaurant Review - Darkside, Melbourne

by  pastytraveller

Posted: Monday, December 13, 2004
Word Count: 968
Summary: Just joined the site today and have been sitting with a cup of tea thinking about what to write. Have never written anything before but thought I'd give it a bash. To my mind, battering out a few articles in a variety of categories would be a useful exercise. This is my first submission. Be gentle. Cheers.

Restaurant Review: Darkside, 604 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Vic, Australia

I used to own a pair of black pants with a print of Star Wars' Darth Maul and the slogan "Welcome to the Dark Side" emblazoned across the crotch. The slogan was particularly apt. There was a comfortable familiarity about the pants that led me to wear them at least twice a week - occasions that were not necessarily punctuated by visits to the washing machine. It really was a dark, dank, airless place down there.

Cradling my crown jewels for nearly three years, it eventually became apparent that nothing short of prolonged immersion in neat sodium hydroxide would be sufficient to stop them crawling around of their own accord. Torn off me, they were incinerated on a gas fire during an evening of drunken revelrie at a friend's house. As the cloud of toxic smoke drifted quietly in the still Scottish air and squadrons of dead birds fell from the sky, I felt a tinge of sadness at my pants' rather undignified passing.

While visiting Australia recently, imagine my delight when our hosts casually mentioned that there is a Melbourne restaurant called "Darkside". It too is a dark, mysterious place. So dark in fact, the waiters wear night vision goggles. Any light emitting device is banned, including mobile phones and luminous watches. What's more, the food is reputed to be excellent moderately priced fare. How better to remember my dear old pants with the reverence they deserve than with a nice meal and a couple of bottles of wine? With any luck, they might even sell souvenir pants welcoming me back to the Darkside again! Pausing only to instruct my girlfriend to make a reservation, we made a reservation.

The restaurant itself sits on the ground floor of a glass-fronted block of serviced apartments on St Kilda Road, just south of the CBD. The concept was dreamed up in 1999 by a blind Zurich man who, in an attempt to educate his friends and colleagues on his disability, hosted dinner parties in the dark. They were so successful that he quickly opened a restaurant. Shortly after that, the novelty quickly spread to Germany and beyond. The theory is that deprivation of one's sight enhances the senses of taste and smell.

Diners are greeted in the neighbouring "Lightside" bar where over a beer we were encouraged to read over the menu and submit our orders. I opted for Lamb Shanks while our hosts went for Eye Fillets on a bed of Gnocchi. My ever-adventurous girlfriend stuck with Chicken Breast stuffed with Mushroom and Cheese, served with winter vegetables and turned potatoes. The food was accompanied by two bottles of reasonably priced local Shiraz. As is the fashion these days in most half-decent restaurants, sauces were described as "jus" but that's where any pretentions with Darkside end. The emphasis is definitely on relaxed, fun, uninhibited dining.

A short briefing by a friendly ginger haired man (no relation) followed during which we were advised to stay seated at all times for obvious safety reasons. If we required assistance, we were told to raise our hands and one of the waiters would attend to us. We were then swiftly led through a door and two sets of heavy curtains into the restaurant itself to table eighty-eight.

The busy dining area was as dark as the deep goldmines that riddle the northern part of Victoria around Ballarat and Bendigo. There was absolutely no ambient light whatsoever, although after a while we were just able to pick out the faint green glow escaping from the waiters' goggles. On being seated, each one of us immediately started gingerly tracing the outline of the table, then its surface, to get our bearings. Almost as a warning, a dull thump and a muttered expletive from another table indicated that a casually waved hand had caught an unseen glass of wine. From the safety of dark anonymity, a chorus of cheers and abuse echoed from other tables.

The food itself was good, without being extraordinary. If the founder's theory is correct, then it must be fairly bland when eaten under lights. By all accounts, the dishes are well presented but we'll just have to take the chef's word for that. The immediate difficulty was of course locating the food on the plate with the cutlery then locating the mouth with the fork. Having played the culinary equivalent of "pin the tail on the donkey" for ten minutes during which time we had done little more than cram hot food into our nasal cavities, all of us abandoned knives and forks and ate with our hands. Given that we normally dine in the vicinity of a well known set of brightly-lit golden arches, this wasn't too much of an inhibition to overcome.

I cannot overstate the comic value of eating in the dark. Tenderly caressing the hand of someone other than your partner, moving people's drinks, hiding the plate of garlic bread, emitting strange animal noises, frisbee-ing cream crackers into the blackness, or simply joining in other tables' conversations uninvited are just some of the entertaining, if immature, by-products of the experience.

And "experience" is the key word here. Darkside is more than simply dining out. It is different. It is also different things to different people. To the majority of diners it is a fun night out. To others it offers good food in a unique setting. Relatives of the blind regularly attend in order to gain an insight into the condition. My girlfriend uncharitably suggested that it would be an ideal first-date venue for the aesthetically challenged. Personally, I thought it performed admirably as a fitting place to remember and pay homage to my dear old Dark Side pants. God rest their holes.

13th Dec 2004