There have been a numerous new trends in the restaurant industry over the past decade, and, unfortunately, all of them are bad. Restaurant owners have proven to be susceptible to all the recent technological fads and have contributed to the generalized dumbing down of society.
- Menus with photos.
This trend seems to be most prevalent in Asia and probably began here. Almost every Asian restaurant that I visit now has a picture menu. Even the most basic, simple, and elementary dish requires an accompanying photo. Take, for example, the classic Vietnamese dish, Pho. It is sold on every street corner of the city, in every Vietnamese restaurant and in every shopping mall. It is eaten in every Vietnamese home. Yet, restaurant owners apparently believe that customers need to see a picture of a soup bowl with noodles inside next to the word ‘Pho.’ A can of coke requires an accompanying photo. So does a bottled water.
These elaborate picture menus require considerably more expense and effort than a good old-fashioned written menu. The pages must be much thicker; indeed, many of these menus are printed on cardboard instead of paper. Or, they are laminated with hard plastic. Picture menus are often extremely large and one needs to carefully use the entire half of the table to open it. And because fewer items can be printed on each page, thanks to all the photos, the menus must be considerably longer as well. The longest menu I have seen in Southeast Asia was 70 pages.
Picture menus are for children. They have no place in any respectable restaurant. No owner with any sense of pride in his establishment and respect for his customers would have a picture menu. The photos are unnecessary and are a waste of space, time, money, and effort. In the ‘old days,’ owners had to spend time writing creative descriptions of their dishes for their menus. Nowadays, they take the easy way out and slap a photo next to the item. ‘Idiocracy’? We’re living in it.
2. Big Screen Televisions
Televisions in restaurants used to be associated exclusively with sports bars. The idea was to draw in customers who were traveling and wanted to catch their favorite sports team or watch a special game. Sports bars had their place the scheme of things and I never saw much harm in them. One day, though, some restaurant owners who were looking for a new gimmick to increase sales said to themselves, “Hey, maybe we can get a piece of that action. Why should sports bars be the only ones to have televisions? Let’s put a big screen tv up behind the bar and see what happens. We’ll keep everything else the same, but now we can say that we provide a television for the local sports games.”
And so it went. Pretty soon, every other restaurant, reacting to the competition and the trend, installed giant flat screens in their bars and dining rooms as well. The old clearly demarcated line between sports bars and fine dining was obliterated, almost overnight.
Once the televisions have been turned on, managers don’t like to turn them off. As an experiment, I encourage my readers to go to their favorite local restaurant and ask the manager, politely, to turn off the television and see what kind of reaction you get. He will most likely look at you as if you are insane.
A couple of years ago I visited my family in Washington D.C. My brother took me out to a trendy neighborhood with dozens of upscale restaurants. I asked him to take me one without televisions. He thought about it for a moment and replied, “You know, I can’t think of one. I’m pretty sure every single one of these places has a screen.
The invasion of televisions into restaurants has reached a height of absurdity unimaginable even a few years ago. Some resto-bars have a dozen televisions playing, along with music. Combine that with loud customers and street noise and you have a chaotic scene. Even though not a single customer can be seen who is actually viewing one of the screens, managers refuse to turn them off. They are now seen as ‘ambience.’
I have attempted to talk with managers and owners about this, but my protestations fall on deaf ears, always. I point out that having televisions does not bring in customers. I mention that nobody views them anyway. I argue that they are energy hogs. I tell them that they destroy the ambience of the dining experience. No matter. The trend has been set and now there is no turning back.
In researching this article, I did a google search on televisions in fine-dining restaurants and was heartened to see numerous articles written about the subject. There is a debate about it, but it needs to be much broader and reach a much bigger audience.
3. Free Wi-Fi
Although flat-screen televisions had already mostly destroyed the ambience of many restaurants, the installation of free Wi-Fi put the final nail in the coffin. Once again, we saw restaurant owners tripping over each other to be trendy and caving in to fickle and superficial customers who just wanted their damn Wi-Fi! Dude! Owners took the short-term view versus the long-term view. The short-term view means giving customers what they demand, now. The longer-term view, I argue, involves preserving something called the ‘restaurant experience,’ which involves far more than eating delicious food. It encompasses the entire experience of eating out, from the moment you enter the restaurant until the moment you leave. When a customer is able to eat exceptional food in an elegant, relaxed setting and engage in stimulating conversation during the meal, the experience can be almost transcendent.
The availability of free Wi-Fi guarantees that customers will never be able to enjoy that kind of experience. A quick glance around the dining area of any restaurant today will show more than half of the customers with their heads bent down at unnatural angles, staring into the bright screens of their smart phones, their faces eerily illuminated. Conversation is entirely absent. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends ignore each other entirely for the duration of the meal. A person can choose not to use a smart phone while in the restaurant, but there is no way to block out the surrounding customers who exist in their zombie cyber-world.
4. Servers using iPads and smartphones to take orders
I experienced this loathsome trend last week in the Bangkok airport. The nervous young girl who waited on me didn’t want to talk at all; she was nervously focused on her hand-held device, using her thumbs to carefully enter in my order, which was, apparently, sent at the speed of light to the kitchen a few feet away. What idiotic owner really believes that supplying his waitstaff with computers is going to improve service? The device creates a totally unnecessary barrier between the server and customer. The server’s eyes and attention are now entirely focused on the gadget and away from the customers, where it should be. The ability of the server to engage in conversation, banter, and even flirtation with the customers is severely hampered.
I recall a rather humorous experience I had a few years ago in Seattle when I first observed this trend. I was eating in an Indian restaurant for lunch. My table was just a few feet from the kitchen. Indeed, I could see the chefs through an opening in the wall behind the register. The owner decided to take my order and he entered it onto his hand-held device. It was clear to me that he was immensely proud of his high-tech way of taking orders. He assured me, with a broad smile, that my order would be received ultra-fast by the chefs in the kitchen and, hence, I could receive my food that much quicker. Alas, I was not impressed. I told him, flatly, that I thought his gadgetry was unnecessary, silly, and pretentious. Furthermore, I told him that I was not in a particular hurry and if I wanted ‘fast food’, I could go to McDonald’s. This portly owner seemed to regard efficiency as the highest goal in the restaurant business.
5. Servers unfolding the customer’s napkin and placing it in his lap
This may not be a new trend. Perhaps some fine dining restaurants have always done this. I’m not sure. But if it is a new trend, I hope it will disappear as quickly as possible. I remember clearly the first time a waiter grabbled my napkin and attempted to put in my lap. I was so shocked at the action that I didn’t know quite what to do or say. All I could manage at the moment was, “What in the hell are you doing? Do I look like a baby?”
What kind of sheer nonsense is this? Customers now need assistance unfolding their napkins? Only babies and incapacitated geriatric patients should need assistance like this. The servers don’t ask customers, either. No. They simply come to the table and with a big smile place the napkin in customer’s laps.
I was in a nice Italian restaurant a couple of weeks ago when the server attempted this silly maneuver. I kept repeating, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing? What.. are… you… doing…?’ She didn’t answer and continued to unfold the napkin and reach over to place it in my lap. I finally had to forcibly grab her arm and shove her away from me. Really, if owners and managers think this pretentious little dance is necessary, then why stop there? Why not have the server sit at the table and lift the fork and spoon for the customers? It’s the logical next step.