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Why novelty dining experiences are just another way of getting high

Diners at the Modern Toilet restaurant in Taiwan.

03 August 2016

Restaurants can open the 'Doors of Perception' too, says James Cronin.

In today’s ever expanding world of gastro-tourism, the discussion of meals, restaurant venues and menu items has become something of a hobby for many people – with Trip Advisor, Yelp and Zomato filled with dining tales from both near and afar.

The rise of dedicated food blogs, gastronomic YouTube channels, and Instagram pages, along with the dramatic increase in new eateries across major cities and the suburbs has meant “foodie-ism” is now something that many people can buy into. And to appease consumers' appetite for “photo worthy” meals, the restaurant industry has stepped up to the mark, offering novelty dining environments, innovative menus and culinary curiosities.

These “experience” based restaurants include the latest one to the UK table, London’s Bunyadi – where all is naked, from the food and the decor, to the diners themselves. Also in London, there is Dans le Noir, an exclusive eating in the dark experience. Or Bel Canto, where servers sing opera to patrons.

Further north, there is Edinburgh’s Maison de Moggy, a “cat cafe” where you can drink tea and pet resident cats. And on the other side of the world, you can even eat curry out of a toilet bowl in Taiwan’s Modern Toilet – a lavatory themed eatery – or dine among warring “battlebots”, psychedelic strobe neon lights, video screens and gyrating bikini-clad techno punkettes at Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant.

A new reality

These types of restaurants give diners the chance to see beyond the predictability of their everyday lives – and the chance to encounter something seemingly unique. But the search for such profound and “transcendental” experiences is nothing new, and is something humankind has been seeking for thousands of years. This is because, as the late British philosopher Aldous Huxley explained in his seminal book The Doors of Perception, drugs and other types of highs can often help users to separate themselves from the crushing tedium of everyday life and appreciate complexities of the world previously hidden to them.

By transcending the familiar – or at least the facade of the familiar – and encountering things beyond their everyday nature people can encounter what Huxley calls the “suchness” of reality. Otherwise known as the experience of reality as it really is. This is a reality that is unburdened, natural, and free of everyday rules, judgements and worries.

Huxley argues that “the urge to transcend self-conscious selfhood … is a principle appetite of the soul”. With this thinking, humans are forever seeking mind-altering states to escape what, for them, is normal.

So whether you are in the grips of a drug induced moment of clarity, or you are sitting unclothed in a room full of equally naked strangers – dining on a “salted serpent of cucumber” at nudey Bunyadi – the effects are similar: you are removing yourself from the confines of your everyday existence.

Equally, if you are sharing a pot of Lapsang Souchong tea with a “Norwegian Forest Cat” at Maison de Moggy or find yourself entirely in the dark while you navigate around a surprise menu at Dans le Noir, the norms and rules of everyday life appear to have been suspended – in favour of a world that is separated from logic and rationality and is free to enjoy just as it is.

Novelty nosh

There is no doubt that there is a great demand for “transcendental eating”, with punters hungry to get a taste of the “suchness” of reality. Over 46,000 customers signed on the waiting list for tickets to strip off and feast at Bunyadi. The UK’s cat cafes are a social media favourite, while Dans Le Noir certainly seems to be pegged as a otherworldly break from monotony and a treat for the senses. As Ed Malyon wrote in a review for the Mirror back in 2014:

Sensory deprivation of this sort is supposed to enhance the other senses, and I’m sure it does, but it’s magic is that it also simultaneously both takes the focus away from the food and places the microscope on it.

However, it goes without saying that there is a big difference between dining out and taking mind altering drugs. Food is an essential part of our day-to-day consumption and many of our routine encounters with it are by their nature, mundane. So to really achieve the transformative and otherworldly experience diners are craving, restaurateurs need to truly deliver something special, authentic and eyeopening.

And of course, just like encounters with drugs, there can also be “bad trips” customers may wish to avoid. A transcendental eating experience should open a diner’s mind in a pleasant, positive and enriching way – not send them gagging and running from their tables in horror and confusion.

So, if restaurateurs do intend to offer a novelty dining experience, they must be aware that they might also be opening the doors of perception, if only a crack – and that in itself comes with a level of responsibility worth pausing over.

The Conversation

 

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Disclosure statement

James Cronin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.