Thinking of my earliest trips to restaurants, in the 1980s, I faintly remember waiters taking my grandfather’s credit card and using a manual flatbed imprinter to make an impression of its raised numbers. My nephew, born early in the coronavirus pandemic, may come of age with similar memories of physical menus as a childhood relic. Recalling them dimly when a dining scene in an old movie jogs his memory, he might ask, “Why did they stop using those?”
If that happens, I’ll recount the pestilence that raged as he entered the world; the shutdown of bars and restaurants; the push to reopen in the summer of 2020; the persistent if mistaken belief that high-touch surfaces, like restaurant menus, would be a meaningful vector of infection; the counsel of the CDC that July. “Avoid using or sharing items that are reusable, such as menus,” the federal agency advised. “Use disposable or digital menus.”
The QR-code menu—which you access by scanning a black-and-white square with your smartphone—has taken off ever since. It may dominate going forward. But I hope not, because I detest those digital menus. Never mind dying peacefully in my sleep; I want to go out while sitting in a restaurant on my 100th birthday, an aperitif in my left hand and a paper menu in my right. And as eager as I’ll be for heaven if I’m lucky enough to stand on its threshold, I want one last downward glance at a paramedic prying the menu from my fist. In that better future, where old-school menus endure, I’ll go to my urn happy that coming generations will still begin meals meeting one another’s eyes across a table instead of staring at a screen.
QR-code menus are not really an advance. Even when everything goes just right––when everyone’s phone battery is charged, when the Wi-Fi is strong enough to connect, when the link works––they force a distraction that lingers through dessert and digestifs. “You may just be checking to see what you want your next drink to be,” Jaya Saxena observed in Eater late last year, “but from there it’s easy to start checking texts and emails.” And wasn’t it already too easy?
Research conducted before the pandemic suggests that, even if everyone resists the temptation to check an incoming text message, merely having a phone out on the table makes a meal less fun for all involved. In the 2018 study “Smartphone Use Undermines Enjoyment of Face-to-Face Social Interactions,” the social-psychology researcher Ryan Dwyer and his colleagues randomly assigned some people to keep their phone out when dining with friends and others to put it away. “We found that groups assigned to use their phones enjoyed the experience less than groups that did not use their phones,” Dwyer told me by email, “primarily due to the fact that participants with phones were more distracted.” The research team directed members of the phone group to use their device just once at the beginning of the meal—a setup “very similar to the nudge provided by QR codes,” Dwyer notes—and these subjects were free to use their phone as much or as little as they wanted thereafter. The control group kept their phone in a box.
QR-code menus reduce privacy, too, because diners who use them aren’t just communicating with the restaurant in question. Many of the codes “are actually generated by a different company that collects, uses, and then often shares your personal information, ” the ACLU has warned. “In fact, companies that provide QR codes to restaurants like to brag about all the personal information you are sharing along with that food order: your location, your demographics such as gender and age group, and other information about you and your behavior.”
For restaurants, QR-code menus offer potential benefits beyond putting germ-averse patrons at greater ease. In the near future, rather than offer the same static selections to every customer, restaurants might deploy dynamic menus from which dishes disappear as the kitchen runs out. The prices of appetizers and entrees could also rise or fall to better match supply with demand. One day, I may have to explain to my nephew that before, say, 2030, people with peanut allergies would nevertheless see pad thai on their menu at the Cheesecake Factory; that Manhattan restaurants didn’t always use surge pricing to manage their weekday lunch rush; that certain chains didn’t previously charge iPhone and Android owners different prices.
But I hope that, rather than remembering the pandemic as a tipping point in the digitization of restaurants and bars, we instead look back on its aftermath as the moment when an ever more atomized society better understood the high costs of social isolation, felt new urgency to counteract it, and settled on analog mealtime norms as an especially vital place to focus.
What if three times every day society was oriented toward replenishing what is growing more absent from the rest of our waking hours: undistracted human interactions unmediated by technology?
I say all this as something of a convert myself.
As an introvert and a frequent solo traveler, I have eaten many happy meals alone with a smartphone in hand. Still, when pandemic restrictions deprived almost everyone of the ability to dine in public with one another, the loss helped me see the unique value of mealtime togetherness.
During my domestic and overseas travels in the past couple of years, my heart has swelled with joy just watching patrons of far-flung establishments gather as in pre-pandemic times. Actually interacting with strangers has seemed more appealing than ever before. And more often than not, technology has played a part in my worst experiences—whether because making it a bigger part of hospitality so frequently comes at the expense of connections among people or because it malfunctions so much more often than ink on paper, annoying customers and staff alike. At one small-town bistro in Provence, I had no phone service and couldn’t access a digital menu even after pacing around a square in search of a signal. Eventually a waiter took pity on me and gave me his phone––so much for a touchless solution––but as I was figuring out what to get, text messages kept popping up on his screen, flustering both of us enough that eventually I just told him to bring me whatever he recommended.
I am not a Luddite. I know restaurants and bars change. And although the transition from smoke-filled to smoke-free was years shorter than I would have anticipated, I do not expect phones to go the way of the cigarette or for humans to socialize at every meal. But I cheer the fact that more bars, many of them speakeasy-style, are compelling patrons to check the phone at the door, and I hope different sorts of establishments attempt their own experiments.
The next few years may determine to what degree the restaurant of the future embraces the digital era or deliberately operates as a respite from it, conserving the traditional focus on sociability, connection, and camaraderie. And despite QR codes’ growing ubiquity, their triumph is not foreordained. When you’re deciding where to spend your dining budget, consider rewarding restaurants that conserve the benefits of the analog world and punishing those that introduce technology in ways that detract from communal experience.
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