The Perils Of Dining Out When You Can’t See by Trevor Plumbly

Making a meal of it – the difficulties of dining out when you’re blind

What used to be an event or celebration has become the subject of debate within my family. ‘Let’s eat out!’ was a popular proposition; so it was into the car and cruise the local eateries until a decision was reached on which particular food most of us would be happy with. From memory, there was never a unanimous vote, so it was quite common for one of us to sit at a table yearning for Chinese whilst the others plundered the pasta: family democracy in working order. Sadly though, seriously failing eyesight has now placed me in sole charge and the venue is selected to suit my limitations.

Restaurants and bars are now chosen for two distinct qualities: access and lighting. Generally speaking, street access isn’t too much of a worry, but steps and stairs should be given a bit of  respect, treating the ‘up’ steps as ‘downs’ isn’t a big deal but treating the ‘downs’ as ‘ups’ can be painful and reduce your culinary adventures to semi-cold takeaway pizzas at home.

How can I find the toilet?

Once inside, seating decisions must be made. Do we A sit near the front door, or B towards the rear? Option A seems quite logical: it’s lighter and usually less crowded near the front door, but what about the toilet? A fair few of us slid past the age of consent some time ago and trips to the loo are a part of the dining experience. Others might regard this function in a somewhat casual light, but those of us with a white cane find that ready access to the facilities is essential and at times crucial. So A (the front door option) has its problems. Do you tackle the toilet trip solo or take guidance? Going solo isn’t for the faint-hearted and can be quite eventful. Someone much wiser than me once said ‘always treat obstacles as opportunities’. (He should try going for a pee in a crowded Chinese restaurant with his eyes shut.) Your destination, as indicated by the waiter, is ‘over there and down the hall’.  Scary but reachable; with the help of the fellow diners you haven’t upset en-route, you make it! But some places offer ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gents’ options as a sort of extra handicap, so I tend to go for the first one I come to; thus far this hasn’t resulted in any major gender confrontations, but doubtless they will occur. I return to the table, mission accomplished, flushed with new-found confidence and totally convinced that option A was the only way to go.
Option B is close to the toilet and the kitchen, dark to the extent of ‘vampire chic’ and where what little vision you had is reduced to nothing. A steady stream of waiters and toileting diners makes conversation somewhat stilted; it’s tough enough when you can’t see who you’re dining with, but when you can’t hear them either, the semi-cold takeaway pizza doesn’t seem such a bad choice.

Menu selection

Menu selection is an important part of the ritual of dining out. Whilst I like to have some input, I find it’s a good thing not to get too ambitious. The days of merrily twirling spaghetti in tune to Dean Martin or wielding chopsticks with surgical skill are gone, to the extent that I now believe plastic tablecloths and outsized serviettes should be compulsory in all Asian and Italian restaurants. At Asian restaurants everybody gaily agrees to get ‘lots of little things so we can all pick’. Great! I’ve got enough trouble finding what’s on my plate, now I’m supposed to navigate a table-top full of the bloody stuff. The goodies are delivered by servers who glide away as if they know that drama is about to unfold. What follows is a strange form of culinary chess. The rice dishes, being the most common and least valued, become the pawns whilst the most prized i.e. the sweet and sour pork and garlic prawns represent the kings and queens. I rarely capture too many major pieces, but nevertheless compete to the extent that the meal starts to resemble an unsupervised boarding school lunch. If fellow diners end up with the odd oriental morsel in their laps or wine glasses, then so-be-it! Who cares? Dining out with me is an adventure and fellow diners should accept the risk.

Italian food, whilst not as elusive as Asian, still can be quite tricky. I tend to stick to ravioli, it’s usually compact and easy to handle. I like spaghetti but, until some kind soul invents a non-slip variety, the laundry bill wins over personal desires. My other problem with Italian restaurants comes from the waiters: Italian waiters don’t comport themselves quite like the rest of their counterparts. In my experience Italian waiters are dangerous, they don’t walk like normal people; they glide, silently and, more importantly, at breakneck speed whilst carrying on a raucous conversation over their shoulder. They seem to thrive on high-decibel, verbal combat, reducing innocent diners to war zone civilians. This adds to what most people call ‘atmosphere’, but does nothing for those of us short of sight and desperate for the loo, but terrified of being hit by one of these human cannonballs in full flight. For the half-blind, with weak bladders, takeaways are easier, safer and toilet friendly.

‘Bon appetit tout le monde!’

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