Restaurants Are Ditching Paper Menus, and That's Not Good News

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My iPhone and I are currently not on speaking terms. While I couldn't begin to guess what I have done to damage our relationship, my laundry list of grievances is growing more quickly than my backlog of software updates. My home button works with such irregularity I'm convinced it's being passive aggressive. Basic functions I once took for granted now require excruciating amounts of time to complete. My frustrations have built to the point that my phone has taken a hasty trip through the air in my apartment more than once.

I have become an iPhone-beater.

So NPR's recent story on the possible end of paper menus at restaurants is very troubling. Throwing iPads inside restaurants is definitely frowned upon. And besides, I've never met a paper menu that even began to aggravate me.

Despite my technophopia, a growing number of restaurants are turning to tablets to enhance the experiences of their customers, according to NPR. The story mentions José Andrés' Think Food Group among others, and reports the advantages of technology over paper menus include the large amount of data you can store on a device, as well as its ability to update new menu information in real-time.

Certainly the ability to instantly remove unavailable items from a menu might prevent a few disappointed customers, but an endless amount of data seems more like a hindrance than a help to indecisive customers. The author of the story reported that having access to so much information about every bottle was initially overwhelming, and that his waiter had to stop by three times before he was ready to order.

Technology isn't just taking over menus, either. Wait staff are increasingly relying on digital devices to process customer orders. I've watched countless employees bumble with menu screens on tiny phones (maybe it's the home button) while relaying a customer's requests to the kitchen.

There's an issue with perception surrounding table-side technology, too. While I ordered dinner at Mot Hai Ba recently, a waitress apologized for her device. "I promise I'm not texting," she said. And while her quip was meant to be humorous it illuminates the effect our digital devices can have on the people in our immediate surroundings. The meaning of a down-turned face bathed in blue-gray light and a swiping finger is universally understood: I'm ignoring you.

John Tesar's Spoon makes use of iPad wine menus and I found the devices to be overwhelming and odd in a formal dining setting. In the dim light of the restaurant the screen felt obtrusive and a tutorial from my waiter was required. I'm sure just like any app on my iPhone I could quickly master the interface and learn to flick my way through an expansive wine selection, but I just didn't want to. I wanted a cool glass of Sancerre to enjoy with my oysters and get back to enjoying my surroundings.

That's what a meal with friends is supposed to be about, isn't it?

For some, time away from technology is becoming a luxury. A phone stacking game that encourages friends at a table to ignore their devices till dinner is over, and cell-phone free times at home are gaining popularity. So why would restaurateurs think flashing screens would enhance our dining experience, even if we were initially hypnotized by it?

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