We’ve all experienced a variation of it at some point or another: dining amidst foreign surroundings with a language barrier between us and the waitstaff. Unable to articulate our meal preference, an exchange of requests lost in translation ensues until finally, we communicate by way of pointing at the menu and some clumsy miming.
It can be an awkward experience for all parties involved.
But at Toronto’s new Signs Restaurant, sign language isn’t an awkward last resort, it’s the preferred — actually, the only — method of placing your order; your server is deaf.
Opening its doors later this month (an exact date is yet to be confirmed), Signs is the vision of Anjan Manikumar, previously the manager of Boston Pizza in Markham, Ontario. Manikumar himself is a student of American Sign Language (ASL), which he took upon himself to learn after a series of his own point-and-sign interactions with a regular at the pizzeria who happened to be deaf.
Encouraged by the customer’s relieved joy at their ability to communicate through signage, Manikumar was inspired to establish Signs, where he hopes that the deep integration of sign language and a mostly-deaf staff — a first for Canada’s restaurant scene — will give his clientele a glimpse into their world. The result is a product of compassion and entrepreneurialism.
Understanding that not every customer will be a well-versed signer, Manikumar The risk of common restaurant snafus — flawed pronunciations, misheard requests — might in fact be significantly minimized.provides the tools to make ordering as seamless as possible. With a clearly outlined menu and a “cheat book” providing an unambiguous, graphics-included guide to greetings and popular dining terms in ASL, the risk of common restaurant snafus — flawed pronunciations, misheard requests — might in fact be significantly minimized.
Diners can pick from a selection of both inventive international dishes and Canadian-inspired fare; the Potato-Crusted Salmon promises a unique blend of textures, while the Montego Bay Jerk Chicken is touted as a must-try item (and not just because it would be a particularly fun dish to order in sign). A comprehensive wine list rounds out the menu to provide an overall upscale yet unpretentious vibe that aims to provide a satisfying and unique experience, whether you’re there for a casual mid-week lunch or date night.
But beyond just a memorable dining event for its patrons, Signs is a valuable and much-needed addition to the meager pool of job opportunities for the deaf. Employment for deaf Canadians is already an inadequately studied field, and the few statistics available reflect dismal rates. By basing its very concept around its deaf employees, Signs is poised to make some vital contributions to an often-marginalized community, from empowerment and confidence-building to paving an avenue for their engagement with the general public.
It might seem ironic, but we suspect that a restaurant where silence is a dominant feature could just make for the most effective lesson one could have in communication.
Stay tuned for updates on Signs Restaurant’s opening dates and more by following them on Facebook.
Anisha Jhaveri is a freelance writer and film blogger, and a recent export to Singapore from New York City. Find her on Twitter @jhavanis.