Situated in the heart of downtown at Church Street and Charles St. (just south of Bloor Street), O'Noir has been keeping people in the dark for the past 8 years in Toronto and a decade at it's Montreal location. Not in any malevolent way, of course, it's just that patrons sit in the establishment eating their meal in the pitch black darkness of their dining room.
The Blinde Kuh (Blind Cow) in Zurich started the trend of dining in the dark many years back courtesy of blind pastor Jorge Spielmann. This became a catalyst for a whole new dining experience, and similar restaurants opened up around the world, O' Noir among them. There are also locations in Montreal and Vancouver. The Toronto location's first owner was Moe Alameddine, while a chemical engineer turned entrepreneur by the name of Dr. J.R. Feng acquired ownership in 2011. Feng recalls:
I was looking for a unique business opportunity that provided fast productivity and O'Noir fit very well.
It has since partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and other community organizations to give the visually impaired mainstream employment skills. In any given week, 1,000 to 1,500 guests come through the door.
O'Noir is located in the basement of the Town Inn Suites hotel. Descending a bank of a couple of dozen stairs, one enters the restaurant through large wooden doors that pass through a foyer and a long hallway to the back where there is a large bar/waiting area for patrons to order their food and drinks prior to entering the 85 seat dining room.
Since the dining room is in complete darkness, ordering there would be quite impossible. In the foyer, soft lighting accentuates the wood surfaces of the bar and the tables and chairs, while a large bookcase holds a plethora of old volumes. The bar curves around two walls and large tiles on the floor add to the ambiance. A large display on the wall shows the braille alphabet, while on the opposite wall, the phrase "It's better in the dark" is displayed prominently.
After placing my order for my food, I was led into the pitch darkness by my server, Tracey, who like all the servers at O'Noir, is visually impaired. She is also quite personable, helpful and quick with a joke, lightening the mood considerably. Upon reaching my table, and being guided where to sit, I realized that I had forgotten to my chagrin, my watch glowed in the dark! I quickly took it off and put it in my pocket before anyone was the wiser.
Soon after, I got my Coke and sipped on it whilst familiarizing myself with the items on the table that Tracey had pointed out verbally in detail upon helping me to my seat. Plate with knife and fork in front of me, a glass of water to my right, also my Coke next to that. I even managed not to knock over the water or the Coke which I'll admit I was nervous about doing all through the meal.
Tracey brought along a warm crispy roll, which was excellent. I even got some of the butter in packets already on the table opened up and actually on the roll (the rest ended up on my hand and the nearest available napkin). Being in total darkness is a bit disorienting at first, but it really does enhance your other senses, as cliched as that may sound. From the gentle hubbub of other patrons' conversations to the smell of the food and its taste, all seem to be magnified even after being in the dark for only a short time.
O'Noir offers up a package deal for their food menu options, also known as prix fixe. For a three course meal (starter, main course, and dessert) it costs $39.95, while a two-course meal (starter and main course or main course and dessert) will set you back $32.95.
I ordered the surprise appetizer, which came with a choice of meat, fish or vegetable. I chose the meat, and it was quite tasty. I'm guessing it was sliced pork atop some seasoned risotto. Feng emphasizes that the surprise dishes are quite popular with customers looking to add even more mystery and adventure to their dining in the dark experience.
The main course I chose was the Filet mignon, with green beans and mashed potatoes. This is the most popular main course choice according to Dr. Feng. Thankfully any meat course you order, they pre-cut the meat for you so my steak was already sliced into manageable pieces, forgoing the questionable feasibility of trying to use a sharp knife in the dark. The steak was quite good, cooked to my specifications (medium) by Chef Ashrafi and his team, and the potatoes and green beans were also tasty and well done, in my palette's humble opinion. The only annoying thing was trying to spear some meat, potato or vegetable and occasionally coming up to my mouth with an empty fork. A small price to pay however for such an unusual and interesting dining experience.
In addition to the filet mignon, they also have Pesto Chicken breast with potatoes and vegetables, Cajun fish with white rice and vegetables, shrimp risotto with mushroom and garlic, Penne pasta with light tomato sauce or cream sauce and vegetables, Vegetable stir fry with rice and on this day, a Surprise main course labelled as vegetarian.
I initially ordered the Chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream but was told they were out of ice cream and the fruit sorbet. While a little disappointing, I was still able to satiate the chocoholic in me by having the dark chocolate mousse with cocoa powder which was quite exceptional and did much to take away the disappointment of them not having any ice cream to go along with my first choice. They also offer up a surprise dessert option, in addition to the fruit sorbet, the chocolate cake with ice cream and the chocolate mousse.
O'Noir has a fairly good drinks list, featuring wine, beer, cocktails and harder liquors.
White wines from Italy, Australia, Ontario, and France will run you $6.50 to $7.50 a glass, or $30 to $57 a bottle. Reds from Argentina, Australia, Ontario, Italy, France, and California will set you back $7 to $7.50 or $33 to $58 a bottle. Their sole sparkling wine from France costs $57.
Beers, spirits, cocktails, digestives, and liqueurs run the gamut from $5 to $12 per glass. The wines and cocktails offer a surprise option as well. Their non-alcoholic options include soda pop (coke, diet coke, sprite, ginger ale, club soda, tonic water and iced tea), bottled water (Evian and Perrier), and juice (orange, apple, cranberry, pineapple, and Clamato), and cost from $3 to $3.75. I ordered from the latter, a Coca-Cola for $3, as I was driving. There are no free refills with the pops, water, and juices, so my drinks (2 Cokes) came to a grand total of $6.
The service is very good, from the helpful hostess who confirms the reservation and provides us with menus, to the server Tracey, who does a great job from leading us into the complete darkness of the dining area, to bringing us food and drinks, and answering any and all questions I had over the course of the meal.
From O'Noir website
From the food, I felt satiated and not overly full and bloated which is always a good sign. Getting up to leave, I am once again helped along by Tracey back out into the waiting area, which is a bit of a rude shock to my eyes after having been in the dark for the past ninety plus minutes. However, after they adjust, I thank Tracey and the hostess and depart the premises. Overall, it was a good experience; an interesting and unusual way to enjoy a meal in the heart of downtown Toronto. Although there are no plans to expand to other cities at the moment, Feng asserts that they would do so if an opportunity presents itself. Until then:
We intend to make O'Noir a long lasting identity in a special way in Toronto.
Seatings for dinner are at 5:45 pm and at 9 pm, and reservations are recommended. O'Noir also offers their premises for group functions like birthday parties, business meetings, wedding receptions, etc. You can reserve by emailing or calling them. If you're looking for a gift idea, gift cards (in $50 denominations) are available by visiting the restaurant directly or by calling them with your credit card information.