As the news regarding vaccine cards no longer being necessary to dine indoors in New York made the rounds, I couldn't help but think of another vestige of the pre-COVID-19 restaurant going experience: the paper menu.
In addition to upgraded air filtration systems, outdoor/indoor dining huts, glass separators and hand sanitizer dispensers, when restaurants re-opened in the midst of the pandemic, they also all replaced their menus with scannable QR codes that allow patrons to access a roster of culinary offerings through their phones.
Although admired by many as an ingenious way to eliminate paper waste and limit physical contact in light of a global virus that spread through touch and surfaces, QR codes as access points to menus have always seemed to me to be counterintuitive. If you are comfortable enough to eat in an establishment where the food is cooked out of sight, where your plate is touched by plenty of people—just as your food is—could the avoidance of a physical menu be that essential?
Alternatives, I’ve told myself, are aplenty: disposable paper menus, perhaps? Making sure to wipe down the menu after every use, maybe?
It isn’t just about the illogicality of it all but also about the displeasure involved in having to use your phone at dinner. For years, we’ve been told that focusing on the act of eating while doing so is essential to health. We’ve even concocted games to convince dining companions to stay away from their tech devices ("everyone put your phones in the middle of the table and don't touch them!") Now, we're forcing ourselves to actually need our phones to eat. And how about folks that don’t have a smart phone? What are they to do to find out what the day’s specials are?
Needless to say, the need to have a phone around—even just at the beginning of a meal—takes away from the romance that really does define the act of dining outside of the home. There is something to be said about gazing at a physical menu—an act akin to reading an actual book versus a Kindle (you guessed it: I do not own the latter)—that is part and parcel of the experience. Menus are, after all, a uniqueness of restaurants—something offered to diners that can’t properly ever be replicated inside the home.
I'm delighted to report that, at least according to a Time Out New York Twitter poll, a lot of New Yorkers share my perspective. When asked how they felt about menus on QR codes, 30.2% of respondents revealed they loved them while a pretty hefty 69.8% begged for a return to paper menus.
Of course, there are some pros to the tech advancement, including the lack of paper waste, a restaurant's ability to quickly change its roster of offerings without having to re-print a whole batch of menus and diminished physical contact.
"I wouldn't say I love [QR codes], but I don't see why people hate them so much," one Twitter user said. "I like that you always have the menu available and don't need to take up space keeping one at a table anymore."
Alas, although I do understand and appreciate the embracing of QR codes as a precaution and don’t blame eateries for having made the change while trying their best to lure in customers by proving their own safety and health measures, if we are no longer asking people to be vaccinated to enter an eatery… shouldn't we feel safe enough to use paper menus?
"We never used QR codes," reveals Randi Lee, owner of Leland Eating and Drinking House in Brooklyn. "You couldn't see the whole menu in one screen and had to scroll, which kind of ruined the experience." Lee also mentions that phones at the table sort of "killed the vibe."
"We don't want to continue to chop down trees but we love the idea of having something tangible to offer," says Lee. "I feel like diners were really missing the art of dining and we don't really want people to be on their phones."
Although diners and restaurant owners are clearly affected by the trend, there is another industry involved in the conversation: the graphic designers who create the paper menus.
Cerise Zelenetz, a former restaurant illustrator who now owns wine bar Cherry on Top, created all the menus that she uses at her eatery with a custom font. She also cut and stamped each one by hand—so her decision not to embrace QR codes doesn't come as a surprise.
"I do see the practicality and efficiency aspect but, to me, the physical menu plays a very important role in the overall experience," she says. "I want Cherry On Top to be a space where people connect with each other and aren't on their phones all night. By requiring phone use in the ordering process, it affects the whole flow of the evening. I definitely see the appeal of cutting down on paper use and updating menus digitally, but paper menus are important in the story I'm trying to tell."
And so I use this platform to make my formal plea: restaurants of New York, can you please bring back the paper menu? I’d be oh-so grateful.