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When iPads replace restaurant servers, something is lost

Guests at Carmel Café study the menu on an iPad and place their orders electronically.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Guests at Carmel Café study the menu on an iPad and place their orders electronically.

Look around a restaurant now and you're likely to see a kid staring at his magic tablet, catching up on the latest Dora the Explorer or Phineas and Ferb. I am troubled by the idea that these children will grow to be iPad-addicted teens and adults who have "tuned in and dropped out" of dinner conversations.

But now, the iPad threatens to gum up even more dinner conversations: those with our waiter.

Sure, a diner-waiter relationship is fleeting, based on a long-standing script. But isn't it part of why we go out to eat? To have a stranger treat us with regard, making sure our needs are met and ensuring we're having a good time? We dine out not only so we don't have to do the dishes; we go out to dinner for a little bit of love and human kindness.

Food ferriers

"At this point, the number of restaurants using iPads or other tablets is relatively small," says Annika Stensson of the National Restaurant Association. "But 4 in 10 table-service restaurant operators say they think it will become more prevalent in the future, according to our research."

Stensson says iPad ordering is more common in technology-focused concepts and in high-end restaurants for their wine lists, but, she says, studies show that 39 percent of consumers say they would be likely to use electronic ordering options if available.

I would like to suggest that in adopting this new technology, Carmel Café in Tampa and other restaurants, such as those of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, have expressed an underlying conviction that should gall professional waiters everywhere: Servers are mere food ferriers.

The idea is that diners can get all they need electronically. They can pace their meal, order more drinks, even pay the bill without the aid of a server. The idea is that this is progress.

Truth is, great waiters are the air-traffic controller of our desires and whims. They know which table wants to linger, which one needs to get out ASAP. They know which diner really wants to be talked into dessert, which table is all business and wants to be left alone.

In the absence of rapport with customers, a server has only the clues on the table as guideposts. And it's easy to get the story wrong. That woman isn't merely eating slowly, she hates the dish. This guy doesn't know what quinoa is or whether he'll like it. You can't read a table's needs if you haven't built rapport.

iPad pitfalls

At most restaurants, you consult the menu at the meal's outset and then it goes away until dessert. In a techy spot like Carmel Café, the tablet remains, a constant distraction from conversation: The impulse to scroll through screens is powerful.

An iPad menu system also presumes everyone knows how to use these things. Not everyone does, and to have your face rubbed in for a price is more than uncomfortable.

A lack of tech skills isn't the only pitfall diners could be up against. Do you know enough about how a commercial kitchen works to know when you should put in a dessert order? If not, you might be waiting a long time — or be confronted with a luscious lava cake before you've finished your entree. A great server has mastered a meal's timing: It's part of a craft that can take years to hone. With iPad ordering, the diner is thrust into the role of orchestrating the meal (a fact that may cause some diners to wonder: Am I still tipping 18 percent to the person just for schlepping the plates?).

A masterful server is an educator, expanding your gastronomic horizons and explicating the vision of the person or people in the kitchen. In the best meals they function like museum docents, enriching your understanding of what is on a plate and providing ideas for complementary dishes or beverages.

Tablet technology has been a boon to small restaurants, in many cases replacing a restaurant's expensive electronic ordering and/or purchasing tools. And as a wine list supplement, tablets can been a boon to the serious oenophile. But for restaurant service, I prefer an operating system with two legs and a smile.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

When iPads replace restaurant servers, something is lost 10/16/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 5:30am]
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