Giga bites

Computerized menus and wine lists are popping up around the city. Are they worth the trouble? Our writer takes them for a test drive.

Illustration: George Coghill

Technology and I are sort of like friends with benefits: I’m happy enough to have the occasional company, but I’m not looking for anything serious. So the idea of a digital menu, the sort that would conceivably allow customers to order food and booze free of the cumbersome intervention of an actual human being, perplexed me. In recent months three restaurants have proudly publicized their adoption of the new technology, which prompted me to wallow in both nostalgia and indignation. With technology altering—or simply negating—so many of our social interactions, aren’t restaurants one of the few remaining arenas where person-to-person communication is a necessity?

In an attempt to settle my grudging curiosity, I embarked on a digital dining crawl. I took along my friend Stephen, a neurologist with an unabashed affection for anything with a touch screen. Our first stop was Alain Ducasse’s haute haunt, Adour. The four-seat bar offers a digital wine and bar-food menu designed by Potion, a company specializing in interactive installations. The menu, which is projected onto the bar’s surface, is activated by waving your hand over an icon that reminded Stephen of an undulating sea anemone. Once summoned, it displays tasting notes, origin and producer information—which, as Phillip Tiongson, one of Potion’s partners, explained to me, “is designed to increase interaction between the patron and sommelier, not to replace it.” In other words, I could learn all about the wine I wanted to drink before asking wine director Thomas Combescot a single question, a useful option when he’s busy helping other patrons order one of Adour’s 600-plus bottles. Stephen and I amused ourselves for the better part of an hour, our fingers tapping their way from Burgundy to Alsace. It was helpful—though not nearly as much fun as chatting with our bartender, who remarked that while many diners had fun with the menu, their difficulty in navigating it increased in proportion to their blood alcohol levels. “They can get pretty frustrated,” he said with a wry grin.

We decided that the motion-triggered menu’s only drawback was its tendency to appear at random, projecting tasting notes across our plates. It erased my neo-Luddite skepticism; while the idea of a digital menu, as Tiongson acknowledged, “conjures a vision of a robot waiter speaking in a monotonic voice,” Adour’s felt more like a friendly encyclopedia. But it was hardly integral to the quality of my experience. Given the choice between the menu and a wiseass bartender, I’d take the bartender any day.

On to South Gate, where sommelier Troy Weissmann greeted us, and explained that the digital wine menu—designed by Vinio, the firm that introduced the technology at Aureole in Las Vegas six years ago—is still in the process of being installed.

But he did let us preview the menu, which, like the one at Adour, is more of a wine encyclopedia, allowing diners to learn about the restaurant’s some 700 wines before ordering them. It comes in the form of a leather-bound tablet that breaks down the wine list into categories like red and white, region and type of grape. It is easy enough to use—Stephen and I made our selections by tapping its screen with an electronic pointer—but slow, and lacks the futuristic fairy-dust effect of Adour’s menu. If anything, it reminded me of the screen I sign every time the UPS guy delivers a package. “Didn’t the whole ‘tablet computer’ thing die out with the PalmPilot?” Stephen asked, adding that the contraption “accomplishes nothing more than a simple wine menu, but takes six times as long and makes you feel like you’re browsing the Internet with AOL, on a dial-up connection, in 1995.”

While South Gate’s wine menu left us less than impressed, it looks like the Hubble telescope compared with the food menu at Sakae Sushi. Yes, it’s a digital menu—if by digital menu you mean a computer screen with a mouse trailing out of it. Each table in the restaurant is outfitted with a screen, which Stephen described as “very Windows 98.” We could order anything with it, but between the sushi rolling by us on a conveyer belt and the actual paper menu given to us by our server, there didn’t seem to be a point. Which led me to the conclusion that just because any restaurateur can plug in a computer and proclaim it a digital menu doesn’t mean that they should. Ultimately, the novelty of a touch screen is just that—a somewhat intriguing but largely unnecessary addition to the dining experience. And anyway, as Tiongson points out, with the prevalence of laser printers, “every menu is generated digitally anyway.”