Closing your eyes will open your mind

Improving your senses has never been so entertaining and delicious

Transcription and photos by Istvan Bus, edited by Mila Boshnakova

Have you heard about the sport known as showdown? Do you know what dark restaurants are?

Raina Zhelyazkova is familiar with both: she competes in the above discipline and works in the only such restaurant in the Balkans. Come with us on this journey in the world of sports and culinary adventures!

First of all, showdown is a tabletop game for two competing participants; it is often compared to ping-pong because we need similar rackets and a ball. Nonetheless, this is where the similarities end. The aim is to hit the ball into the pocket at the opposite end of the table. However, the ball is heavy, and it rolls on the table as fast as lightning – to stop it from falling, there are fences around the table. Also, the players wear goalkeeper gloves to protect their hands.

“It hurts a lot if it hits your hand,” Raina warns us about the safety regulations of showdown. “Also, blindfolds cover the competitors’ eyes so they cannot see anything.”

The game consists of two or three sets, each of them is played until 11 points, and one of the players needs to lead by two goals to win the set. Showdown requires excellent reflexes and concentration – and it is super exciting.

But why are the players blindfolded? Because this game was invented for the visually impaired.

“I was born with an eye disorder and went completely blind when I was 18 years old,” explains Raina. “The sports club where I work bought a showdown table. Before that, our fellow members tried the game in Belgium, and they were pretty impressed and enthusiastic about it, so they were eager to introduce the game in Bulgaria.”

They all love showdown at Sport Club for Integration (S.C.I.) ‘Vitosha,’ for which Raina competes. She is a 2-time national champion, and also a host at the region’s only dark restaurant, called ‘Tenebris’ in Sofia.

Tenebris is a boutique restaurant comprising of five dining halls. There is complete darkness inside, thus the guests can fully indulge in the taste of the dishes by excluding vision. The hosts are visually impaired and make sure the clients are satisfied.

“We work with reservations made in advance. Therefore, the host is greeting you in front of the restaurant. They explain what to expect inside: it is pitch dark without any light or shadows,” says Raina. Before entering, however, the guests need to form a conga line by holding one another’s shoulders to avoid collisions or falling over. The host leads this line of people and explains what is on the table when the guests are seated.

“We offer four types of menus that change each season: with fish, meat, vegetarian, and Bulgarian cuisine. Interestingly enough, the guests know only the menu titles but not the exact ingredients, so they try to guess what they are eating. A lot of them do manage to find out almost everything correctly, even the spices.”

Apart from offering exceptional culinary experiences, dark restaurants have the mission to bring people closer - to bridge the gap between mainstream society and the visually impaired. Although no one can see anything in the dining halls, the host takes care of their guests, and this experience may form a bond of trust between them. Therefore, the visitors can taste some delicious meals and adopt a different perception of life.

Are you intrigued by how birthday candles are lit in a dark restaurant but still maintain its unique atmosphere? Or what other sports can be played by excluding vision? Raina answers these questions in the complete conversation in Bulgarian, episode “Дрънченето на упоритостта” in the podcast “Тайни познати.”

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